About Mike

Mike Buetow is editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He is also vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversees all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 20 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow

Patents, Home and Abroad

The annual review of the world’s patent filings always tells an interesting story.

Some 2.9 million applications were filed in 2015, up 7.8% year-over-year. China led with 1.01 million filings, followed by the US (526,000) and Japan (454,000), reports the World Intellectual Property Organization.

But … (when it comes to China there’s always a big but) … only 4% of China’s applications were outside their own borders, while 45% of US applications were filed abroad.

Computer technology (7.9% of the total) saw the highest percentage of published patent applications worldwide, followed by electrical machinery (7.3%) and digital communication (4.9%), WIPO reports.

WIPO doesn’t indicate why Chinese inventors are by and large choosing only to protect their claims in-country. Here are some possible reasons:

1. The US requires that inventors obtain a “foreign filing license” before filing foreign patent applications on inventions that occur in the US.  “This allows the government to assess, for example, whether the technology could threaten US national security,” says Dennis Crouch, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and co-director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship.

2. China, on the other hand, requires inventors to first file domestically, where it will then determine whether the invention needs to remain secret for security or other purposes. Only then is the inventor allowed to submit an application abroad.

In summary, domestic firewalls in the world’s two largest markets could well be hampering outsiders.

Apple to US a Supply Chain Hurdle

It was, to paraphrase Homer, the headline that launched a thousand blogs: “Apple Could Make iPhones in US in Future: Sources.”

Cue all the breathless op-eds.

It won’t happen.

Not because Apple doesn’t care about the US. And not because Tim Cook, struggling as mightily as any billionaire could to fill the shoes of Steve Jobs, has something against American workers.

But it’s simply not that simple.

In 2013, to great acclaim, Google opened a handset plant in Dallas, where it hoped to employ nearly 4,000 workers, proving once and for all America could compete in high-volume cellphone manufacturing.

Not two years later, the search giant shuttered the site.

Almost all the components used in the various Apple iPhones are made in Japan, Korea, Taiwan or China. For the geographically challenged, that’s an ocean way from the US. Manufacturing is a supply-chain business; no company makes everything themselves. And most of Apple’s suppliers are foreign-owned. Apple is not exactly known for its generosity. Those suppliers won’t be willing to spend the billions it would take to relocate just to keep what in some cases is not much better than break-even business.

Even the unnamed source for the initial Nikkei Asian Review report acknowledges that Foxconn would be hit by a sharp rise — perhaps 50% — in production costs. “Making iPhones in the US means the cost will more than double,” the source said.

The notion, especially, that Taiwanese stalwarts Foxconn and Pegatron would suddenly build giant factories in the US is far-fetched as well. Remember that $40 million investment Foxconn said it would make a couple years ago? Pennsylvania is still waiting.

Indeed, they are likely salivating at the possibility of new US trade barriers, even for a key customer like Apple. Why? Because Apple’s gross profit margin is breaching 40%, while those of their ODM suppliers are around 10% or less. With the design, manufacturing and supply chain knowledge so firmly in the hands of the ODMs, should events conspire to make Apple slide, they are well-positioned to pick up the slack.

 

M&A Activity is About Connected Cars

Regardless of how fast autonomous vehicles become mainstream, the connected-car is on the verge of reality.

The Siemens-Mentor deal announced yesterday is a prime example of one conglomerate’s desire to capitalize on the prospective market for connected technologies, which is projected to reach $100 billion or more in the coming decade. Another, less-publicized M&A also underscored this emerging trend.

Samsung announced it will buy Harman International, a deal that should accelerate the Korean OEM’s drive into the connected technologies market.

Harman is a major supplier of automotive electronics: its audio, infotainment, and connected safety and security systems are already in 30 million vehicles worldwide. In exchange for its $8 billion investment in Harman, Samsung will now have close ties to all the largest automakers around the globe.

From the USA Today:

The primary motivator for Samsung’s purchase of Harman is to tap into its automotive business,” said Jack Wetherill, senior market analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “This is absolutely about the connected car. Harman are major players in this business and Samsung are not. They know they need to get into it to leverage their IoT (Internet of Things), their smart home and smartphone businesses to effectively spread, develop and maximize their revenues and potential.”

What this all says is that despite the emergence of ride-share services like Uber and Lyft and Didi Chuxing, coupled with millennial angst about car ownership, no one sees the auto market shrinking any time soon.

The implication of that, then, is that there will be an equally — or perhaps even larger — opportunity for those that invest in smart infrastructure. After all, despite all the bells, whistles and Internet access, the role of the car is still to get the passenger from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible.

Mentor’s Final Sale

In the end, Paul Singer did what Carl Icahn couldn’t: Got Mentor sold.

Singer, the hedge fund manager known for taking large positions in companies and pushing for tough changes, breakups or sales, started accumulating shares of the EDA CAD company earlier this year. In September, it was revealed that his company Elliott Management, had bought up 8.1% of Mentor’s stock. Elliott immediately started lobbying for changes.

For Mentor, it could have seemed like a recurring bad dream. The company had been through this before, starting six years ago, when Carl Icahn, himself a famed corporate raider, began acquiring shares and issuing accusations of waste throughout the organization.

Icahn’s relationship with Mentor was public and acrimonious. Soon others joined the fray. Everything went under the microscope, from spending on marketing to the personal wealth of the directors. CEO Wally Rhines came under attack for pocketing $65 million from Mentor while the company generated only $113 million in free cash between 2001 and 2011. Icahn even offered to buy the company outright for $1.9 billion, a figure Mentor’s board dismissed as too low.

The board, however, couldn’t outright avoid Icahn and the others, who at their peak owned more than 20% of the company. Instead, they executed a “poison pill” amendment to its bylaws, making a hostile takeover more expensive and risky.

Icahn managed to land three directors on Mentor’s board but never affected the breakup or sale he had hoped for. Mentor bought back half his shares in February for $146 million, and he sold the last of his holdings in May.

Icahn certainly made a pile of money off Mentor. It took Singer, however, to fundamentally change the trajectory of the company.

Upon Elliott’s announcement, Mentor charted a different course. Instead of waging another attempt to fend off the barbarian at the gate, this time it signed on with Bank of America as an advisor to a possible sale. The deal with Siemens came quickly thereafter.

Singer’s stance was Mentor was undervalued by 20%. The price Siemens is paying — $4.5 billion — suggests even he was low.

Siemens was never a stretch as a suitor. As far back as 2011, we suggested the German conglomerate was one of a few companies that made sense to possibly acquire Mentor.

For some involved, the deal completes a circle. Mentor will become part of Siemens PLM, whose president Tony Hemmelgarn is a former Integraph executive. In fact, he was director of sales and marketing when the company spun off its Electronics Division into a wholly owned subsidiary known as VeriBest. Mentor then acquired VeriBest for $19 million in 1999.

It does spell the end to Mentor after 35 years as a standalone company. Founded by a trio of Tektronix engineers — Tom Bruggere, Gerry Langeler and Dave Moffenbeier — in 1981, Mentor added the PCB division through a merger with CADI in 1983. (Just after, Mentor hired the legendary John Cooper, who with partner David Chyan eventually developed the first shape-based router.)

In all likelihood this also means an end to Wally Rhines’ 23-year tenure as head of Mentor. He will be remembered as a steady leader during a period of great upheaval and M&A in EDA. On his watch, Mentor’s revenues grew from $340 million to nearly $1.2 billion. That’s a pretty darn good run.

Less clear is how the rest of the industry will react. Siemens gives Mentor exceptionally deep pockets, a buffer against meddling shareholders, and an extensive market for technology both as a customer and to partner with. The focus on “concept to system” just got a big boost.

By comparison, on the PCB side, the door has been slammed shut on one of the exit strategies for Cadence and Altium. Dassault has been rumored to be kicking the tires on Altium; this could trigger a move. Will PTC, which shares a Boston area neighborhood with Cadence, be compelled to act as well in order not to get shut out of ECAD? As one longtime industry observer noted to me recently, “It’s about the form factor.” OEMs want to design product in its entirety, not in silos of electrical, electronics, mechanical and wire harness. Given that, it’s a safe bet the M&A in ECAD won’t stop with this deal.

 

There’s Gold in Copper

Copper prices have jumped 25% in the past month, much of the gains coming in the past week. Can it last?

Analysts are mixed. While most agree that pricing is well above the level its fundamentals suggest it should trade at, some feel better news from China and an expected boon for infrastructure spending in the US will increase demand over time.

Others think the speculation is overblown.

 

As We Were Saying

And in today’s headlines from India:

  • Foxconn Likely to Shy Away from $5 bn Investment in Maharashtra“: “Although the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer — which makes Apple’s iPhone and iPad — had entered into a pact with the state government in August last year, the company is yet to start its production unit in the ‘absence’ of customers.”

As we were saying

Filipino Fiasco

The situation in the Philippines is starting to feel a lot like that of Turkey from July of this year: A paranoid leader turned strongman seeks to exert his supreme dominance over a democratic nation.

Will the country stand back while Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte effectively declares martial law? Or will the army — no fan of China — assert itself and ironically return law and order to the nation by overthrowing a budding dictator?

There are more than 30 EMS companies in the Philippines, the largest of which include IMI, ranked 28th worldwide in EMS revenue at $800 million last year, EMS Components Assembly ($110 million), and Ionics ($63 million), which has seven plants there.

Other major players with smaller operations include Siix, Celestica, Cal-Comp and Wistron.

Although US-centric for decades, the Philippines under Duterte are pivoting toward China. US companies have invested nearly $5 billion in the country; even if they no longer feel welcome, extracting that won’t be easy.

Either way, politically the Philippines are a complete mess. Duterte has taken a stable nation and completely disrupted it, without any clear end-game. If his goal was to expand his nation’s markets and hedge its bets — understandable, given their neighborhood — he could have done so in a much simpler fashion. As it stands, he has alienated many of the Philippines primary trading partners, and for what? Business partnerships don’t have to be a zero-sum game. He could have ramped his dealings with Beijing without destroying his relationship with Washington.

Duterte likes to rail against the West for being what he considers corrupt and hypocritical would-be overlords. His own military very well appreciate the security the West historically has provided, however. His words might play well with the public, but he could very well pay the price with his life.

 

Mentor in Play

With Mentor stock being bought up by hedge funds (again) and the CAD company having gone so far as to enlist an outside banker to provide M&A advice, expect a lot more of this in coming months.

One thing to keep in mind: If Dassault or Siemens were to buy Mentor, what would that do for Altium and its owners’ exit strategy?

Racing to Failure?

Reuters is reporting that Samsung has temporarily suspended production of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone after replacements for the first batch of devices also proved to be almost as good at spontaneously combusting as they are at surfing the Web.

One brand manager went so far as to compare the self-igniting smartphones to the Ford Pinto, whose rear-end fuel tanks had the unfortunate tendency to explode upon contact.

Samsung’s situation isn’t unique: Apple experienced similar problems with previous iterations of the iPhone. But given the speed with which new phone models are brought to market, one begins to wonder whether these defects are part of a larger failure of the process itself.

Is is possible we’ve reached an inflection point whereby, in the rush to get product to market, the validation phase is — pardon the pun — being short-circuited? Are suppliers properly vetted, product thoroughly tested, risks appropriately balanced?

Or has consumer electronics reached a point where it’s a race not to market but to failure?

Oct. 11 addendum: The Korea Herald and others are now reporting Samsung has decided to pull the plug completely on the Note 7. The estimated cost: Billions.

 

 

Foxconn India: Still a Pipe Dream

It’s been a year (more actually) since India announced — to great fanfare — a memorandum of understanding with Foxconn to invest $5 billion over the next five years in the nation. For India, it seemed like a marriage made in heaven: the world’s largest electronics manufacturer would be an ideal partner for its goal to develop a local end-to-end supply chain that could not only serve its burgeoning domestic population but also provide a steady stream of exports to the rest of the world.

Yet as the Times of India points out today, the bride is still waiting at the altar.

As we said at the time, Indian officials shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the relationship to be consummated. Foxconn is really good at promising huge investments, only to fall short in the end.

Actually, we’ve been saying this for years. Foxconn is Chinese to the core. It may on occasion have dalliances with other countries, but it always returns to its mate. Suitors, take note.