What Apple’s Latest Supplier Audit Says About Apple

Apple’s annual supplier audit was released today and sure enough critics on both sides are already picking through the core and going at it over whether the company is doing enough to ensure the safety and compensation of the hundreds of thousands of workers who plug away in anonymity daily making Apple the wealthiest company ever.

Apple’s latest stats show a 92% compliance rate with its 60-hour workweek, and says the average workweek was less than 49 hours. Of course, that’s as it should be: Most of Apple’s supply chain is in China, whose laws cap the work week at 40 hours and monthly overtime at 36 hours. Adding nine hours per week over four weeks per month comes to 36, which means Apple suppliers are likely often breaking the local laws.

Indeed, that’s consistent with a separate study of nearly 100 Pegatron workers undertaken by labor rights group China Labor Watch, a constant thorn in Apple’s side, which found that more than half of the its workforce performs more than 90 hours of overtime per month, with some peaking at 132 hours.

Apple essentially ignores this by trying to turn a lemon into lemonade. It now touts its ban — as of October — on its suppliers’ charging workers to obtain jobs. As Apple senior vice president of operations Jeff Williams writes in the report, “You’ll see that we consistently report suppliers’ violations of our standards. … Because of these audits, over $3.96 million was repaid to foreign contract workers for excessive recruitment fees charged by labor brokers. And nearly $900,000 was paid to workers for unpaid overtime.” Williams says that this is proof that the system is working.

I don’t agree, but not because there are violations. I suspect any multibillion dollar company with operations (or contractors) in as many places that Apple has will encounter similar, if underreported, problems.

No, the reason I don’t agree is because the same subcontractors keep getting caught for the same violations. That shows a decided lack of regard for their major customer’s brand and mandates.

I think Apple is taking the problems seriously, but its supply chain is not. And the chain has no real incentive to change. As such, until Apple starts firing suppliers, the problems of what amounts to indentured servitude at its contractors’ factories will continue unabated.

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Should Flextronics Be Broken Up?

The findings of a new study by Boston Consulting Group suggest that, over time, many tech companies are guilty of mission-creep, especially large ones.  And when that happens, those companies do not provide the shareholder value they could if they were leaner and more focused.

As part of its study, BCG analyzed total shareholder return, defined as the bottom-line return from capital gains and cash flow contribution. When it did so, it found little distinction between large-cap and small-cap companies:

“The clear takeaway is that regardless of company size, the more diverse the portfolio, the more difficult it is to generate high TSR—and the greater the set of management skills a company needs in order to handle that diversity. Companies must therefore be more deliberate and more explicit in rationalizing each element of their portfolio.”

BCG likens the strategy to the 3 R’s, in this case, Resize, Reform and Rejuvenate.  Marc Andreessen, the founder of Mosaic (later Netscape), put it this way: “If they’re more than 20 years old, then [companies will] probably benefit from being broken up, and many of them will probably be forced to break up if they don’t do it voluntarily.”

So for the EMS pseudo-conglomerates (Foxconn, Flextronics, Sanmina, etc.), what this means is there are arguments to be made — indeed, being made — that having bare boards, assemblies, design services, box build, ODM products, and a host of other products and services under a single umbrella is not an optimal  strategy.

There’s always been some debate over whether publicly traded EMS firms should be compared to other tech firms like Cisco and Microsoft or to traditional manufacturing companies (say, Caterpillar). It’s tough for a mid-size or larger contract manufacturer to attain repeated organic double-digit topline growth, and their margins are never going to be Wall Street pretty. Dumbing down the peer group makes sense.

But the bigger question being asked is whether their size is actually a hindrance. There must be a point at which that happens. Can the data analysis pinpoint that yet? And will market impatience make all of this moot?


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What is Cicret and Why is It Important?


Let’s check in on Patty …

Patty had to admit that she was getting annoyed. Two of the female engineering students were always going to her husband Rob’s office for help with their homework. At first glance this would seem like a normal thing to do, as Rob was a teaching assistant for the materials science class they were taking as part of his Ph.D. program at Ivy U. But they were there every day. And Patty could tell that they had more on their minds than materials science.

Rob was approaching his mid-thirties now, but had boyish good looks and was in athletic physical condition. He looked just like all of the twenty-something PhD students that were his peers. Patty remembered when she and Rob became engaged, her best friend Jan Curtis said, “Patty you are a lucky girl. In addition to being smart, successful, kind, fun, and interesting, Rob is handsome and cute!”

So it is not surprising that these two engineering females would find Rob attractive. To add insult to injury, these two young ladies just happened to be Justine Randall and Jessica Wu. They were the two students who innocently said to Patty, “Professor Coleman, you are an inspiration for us. We hope, in twenty years, that we can be just like you.”

This quote triggered the beginning of Patty’s relationship with hair dye.

It didn’t help that Rob could not wear his wedding ring, because it was a danger in the experiments he was doing for his research. It had been off for so long that even the tan line had faded.

To Rob’s credit, he was doing nothing to encourage any interest, but Patty wanted to set these two young girls straight. She had purposely not told Rob that she could not pick their twin sons up from daycare. She would do so when Justine and Jessica were in Rob’s office. She would know they were there, as they had to pass by her office on the way to Rob’s.

Just then, they walked by. Patty gave them a few minutes and then she went straight to Rob’s office. She tapped on the open door and stuck her head in.

“Honey, I forgot to tell you that I can’t pick the boys up from day care, I have a meeting with the Dean,” Patty said to Rob.

“No problem. It’s way past my turn to get them anyway,” Rob responded.

Justine and Jessica looked like they just found out spring break was cancelled.

“Justine, Jessica, I believe you have met my lovely wife, Professor Coleman?” Rob said.

After a few pleasantries, Patty left, feeling relieved. However, she decided Rob definitely needed a photo of her and the boys prominently displayed on his desk.

After entering her office, she set her new adjustable desk to the standing position. She then noticed that she had just received an email from Mike Madigan. It read as follows:


The board is considering buying a start-up that has developed a new device called The Cicret. See this video.

They claim they can develop a prototype for $1 million. My gut tells me that they are dreaming. But, if I am wrong, it is too good of an opportunity to pass up.

I’m hoping you can meet with Jan Curtis and Phil Anderson and come to a consensus on what the opportunity is.

Let’s have Anderson write the report to reduce any extra workload on your part.

Your faithful student,


BTW, thanks for helping my son at West Point. Fortunately he has inherited all of my wife’s good points and none of my bad ones!

Patty continued to marvel in the change in Mike Madigan. Much of his aloofness and grouchiness had worn off. Patty then went and looked at the video and was blown away. Her first thought was, “I want one.” Then she went to the company’s website and saw that they had yet to make a prototype. She thought that the company’s request for donations was comically cute, but did not foster confidence.

As she was mulling this over in her mind, Pete came to the door.

“Hey Professor! Jan and Phil are coming to visit!” Pete exclaimed.

As usual, Pete was a step ahead of Patty.

Two days later, Jan, Phil, Rob, Pete, and Patty were in a small conference room at Ivy U. Patty forgot how much she missed them all and got a little misty eyed thinking about it.

“Well Professor Coleman, what do you think about the Cicret Bracelet?” Phil teased.

“I want one!” Patty joked loudly.

“But, I’m not sure I will ever have one,” she continued.


Figure 1. The Cicret Bracelet. Will it look this bright in sunlight?

“It seems a challenge to get all of the electronics into such a small form factor,” Pete chimed in.

There was a murmur of agreement.

“Can you even find an IC with dimensions as small as the width of the bracelet?” Jan asked.

“I did a little checking and the new Apple A8 processor is quite small, a little less than 1 cm on a side. But that is about the width of the bracelet and some margin will be needed,” Rob added.

“Let’s see if we can estimate the dimensions of the bracelet and compare them to an iPhone 6,” Patty suggested.


Figure 2. The Cicret Bracelet teardown.

The team went to different websites to get the answers. As usual, it took a little longer than expected. Within an hour, they had a summary.

The dimensions of the Cicret Bracelet were 20 cm long, by 1 cm wide and 0.5 cm thick for a volume of 10 cc. The iPhone 6’s dimensions are 13.8 cm by 6.7 cm wide by 0.69 cm thick equaling a volume of 63.8 cc, over 6 times the volume of the Cicret.

“I think we might be unfair in comparing the Cicret to an iPhone 6. The video doesn’t suggest it can do all that the iPhone does,” Jan commented.

“Perhaps, but a factor of 6 in volume difference is a lot,” Rob responded.

“The battery seems like a show stopper, the iPhone battery is 9.5×3.8×0.33 cm = 12 cc, more than the entire volume of the Cicret,” Patty said.

While the team hashed all of these issues out, Pete obtained a teardown analysis of an iPhone 6.


Figure 3. The iPhone 6 teardown.

“Look at the teardown of the iPhone 6, it has more than 20 ICs. The Cicret has only about 5,” Phil sighed.

“To make the Cicret in its proposed form factor, one would almost surely have to work with IC and component vendors and have them develop special ICs and components to fit into the bracelet. This would certainly add to the cost,” Jan added.

“Let’s see if we can summarize what we have learned,” Patty suggested.

Since Phil was to write the report, he went to the white board and queried the team. The following summary resulted.

  1. The Cicret, at this time, appears to be a design concept. The videos were clever digital creations, not the viewing of a working prototype.
  2. It is quite a stretch to think that a working prototype can be developed in anything close to the form factor shown in the video. The reasons for this are:
    • The integrated circuits required are likely to be smaller than the width of the bracelet, as some margin will be needed. So, smaller-than-typical ICs will be needed. If this is the case, special ICs must be developed at considerable cost.
    • The volume of the Cicret is 10 cc vs over 60 cc for a smartphone. Although the Cicret may not need all of the function of a smartphone, this volume difference appears to be too much.
    • The volume for a battery, using current technology, will be the biggest challenge. Current battery sizes are greater in volume than the Cicret.
    • The parts list that the Cicret offers appears to us to be too low. There are likely quite a few components needed that may not be listed.
  3. We question that the projector lights will be bright enough to be viewed in sunlight as the video suggests.
  4. One million dollars (US) seems to be a very optimistic cost to develop a working prototype in anything like the form factor shown in the video. Component and (especially) battery sizes will be issues. We think this cost could be off by a factor of 10 or more.
  5. These conclusions may be too negative. It would be helpful if one member of our team could visit Cicret to discuss these concerns.

“Nice summary everyone,” Patty said.

“Who will go to Cicret? It’s in France, right?” Jan asked.

“How about Phil? Maybe he can at last find a girlfriend,” Rob teased.

And with that the meeting ended.

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Using the Newest Gen Arm Microcontrollers

I’ve written a few times about the new Freescale KL03 ARM Cortex M0+ microcontroller. This particular part comes only in very small packages, with the smallest being a 1.6 x 2mm WLCSP (wafer level, chip scale package) 0.4mm pitch, 20 bump BGA. That’s a mouthful — albeit a very tiny mouthful. Maybe just a toothful.

On the left, here, I’ve got a pair of them on a US postage stamp.

For us, it’s not a particularly difficult part to assembly; just a garden variety 0.4mm pitch BGA, as far as we’re concerned. We place loads of them. But, it can be a very different story for a designer. Conventional wisdom says that a PCB designer has two choices with a part like this: a very expensive PCB, or don’t use the part.

Escape routing becomes very difficult (read: expensive) at 0.4 mm pitch. This part only has six connections that need to be escaped, but that can still be a problem. You can’t fit vias between the pads to escape out the back side. You can’t put vias in the pads unless you have them filled and plated over at the board house. That’s expensive in small quantities.

This blog post series is going to examine some possible ways to use these parts with more of a standard fab, such as Sunstone Quickturn. I’ve got three different process blank PCBs, each with four different land patterns.

I’ve been asked about home reflow too, so as a bonus, I’ve done my best to duplicate hobbyist conditions for one of the board sets.

Duane Benson
“Screaming Reflowster” not sold here


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Early Placement Tales

Some comical reminisces on an early (50 years old!) attempt to machine-assemble a printed circuit board. The program was written on punched paper tape and feed into a robotically controlled “placement machine.” Hijinks ensure.

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Polarized Non-Polarized Components: Inductors

We have a number of manufacturing engineers running around here at Screaming Circuits. They’re very good at what they do, as are our operators and technicians. They are not, however, electrical engineers. Our parent company has a big group of electrical engineers, but they’re at a different location.

What that means is, though we endeavor to be experts at building things, we often don’t know what the circuits and components do in your specific application. People tend to send us their difficult projects so we’ve probably seen just about everything possible go through our plant. But, every now and then we see something unfamiliar. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.

Sometimes it’s an exotic new package (like the 0.3mm pitch wafer scale BGAs now
showing up). Other times, it’s something a bit older, but just not clear. Rather than put a job at risk, if we aren’t sure, we’ll always hunt down the designer and ask.

Okay. That was a long-winded intro.

We recently ran across just such an unknown; a “polarized” inductor, without an accompanying “polarity” mark on the PC board. Not only that, but the markings on the inductor were a bit ambiguous. One half is black and the other half is green. The datasheet is in black and white, so there’s more room for interpretation than we’re comfortable with.

SC2At first glance, you might wonder why polarity / direction matters in an inductor. I did. It’s just wire. Right?

Almost: it’s not just wire, it’s coiled wire. In most cases, the direction doesn’t matter, but in cases with multiple inductors, or with super high speeds, it can matter due to the fact that the coil winding direction has an influence on the flux and the actual induction.

I won’t go into all of the theory, but think of walking. In most cases, it doesn’t matter whether you start with your left foot or your right. However, if you’re marching in a coordinated group, you want everyone to start with the same foot.

Look at the two sets of air-core inductors above. When set like this, directionality starts to make a bit of sense. Imagine the electrons being pushed around in theses things and try to picture the resulting lines of flux.

The moral of the story: eliminate ambiguity. If the part is polarized, either mark the board, or make it the direction clear to your manufacturer in build documentation. Do this even if the polarity doesn’t matter to you, ’cause we don’t know that.

After photographing these, I ended up recalling this bit of knowledge. It’s just so rarely needed that it had vanished in to the fog. I put a few more photos after my signature.

Duane Benson
Which way did he go?
Which way did he go?





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The Best-Read PCD&F Articles in 2014

As we did with CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY on Monday, here’s the list of the best-read new articles at PCDandF.com this year.

Leading the pack was IMI president Peter Bigelow, whose piece “When ‘Scaling Up’ Leads to ‘Belly Up’ ” received the most hits of his 10-year career as our columnist.

Next up was “A Two-Team Race?” Dr. Hayao Nakahara’s annual list of the largest PCB fabricators.

Coming in third was “Design for Reliability with Computer Modeling.” Dr. Randy Schueller and Cheryl Tulkoff, both with DfR Solutions, explained a new CAD tool that imports design files and quantitatively predicts product life.

They narrowly beat out “Magnification vs. Resolution in Visual Examination Specifications,” by Louis Hart of Compunetics and consultant Robert Simmons.

Coming in fifth was “Design Practices for Panelization and Depanelization,” by Phil Lerma, fabrication manager at NexLogic Technologies.

In sixth was Patrick Carrier’s “Maximizing Capacitor Effectiveness,” the first of multiple contributions from Mentor Graphics.

Next was “Power Electronics Packages with Embedded Components – Recent Trends and Developments,” by Lars Boettcher, Stefan Karaszkiewicz, Dionysios Manessis and Andreas Ostmann, who summed the work of a cross-industry team’s development and testing of a PCB-based embedded chip technology for an under-the-hood automotive application.

They were followed by “Qualification vs. First Article Inspection,” authored by Charles Hill and Karen Ebner of Raytheon.

The ninth most-read piece was “Effectively Managing PCB Design Constraints,” by John McMillan of Mentor Graphics.

And closing out the Top 10 was yet another Mentor offering, “Passing Electrical Signoff,” by Rod Dudzinski and Minoru Ishikawa.

The top written staff articles were “The One-Stop SoCal Shop,” senior editor Chelsey Drysdale’s look inside Murrietta Circuits, and “Good Values in Vegas,” our staff writeup of the 2014 IPC Apex Expo trade show.

We want to thank all our contributors from last year, and especially our loyal readers. Happy new year!

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Is Sharing for Suckers?

In my January editorial I asked, “Absent a government-industry technical agency, is the US shooting itself in the foot?” My comments were made in response to a former Bell Labs researcher who wrote that the US should consider reestablishing a government-supported technology research center.

A couple days ago in the Boston Globe, MIT science historian Loren Graham, an expert on Russian technology, points to how scientists there have led the way in everything from electric lights to fracking to the laser, none of which they were able to commercialize and thus take advantage of domestically.

Graham points to many reasons for this, specifically the Russians lack of a robust legal, political and economic system that would provide the necessary infrastructure and protections. But interestingly, he is convinced that individual mores are also to blame, saying, “In the Russian scientific community, the belief that business is dirty. And that you should not demean yourself by stepping out of the world of ideas.”


Some in the US are concerned that the pressure of competition might actually stymie ideas. It seems our counterparts in Russia may share those concerns.

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The Most-Read CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY Articles of 2014

People often ask what our most popular topics are. There are many ways to slice and dice that, but what we’ve done the past few years is announced the Top 10 most-read articles of each year.

Number one in 2014 was “Advances in Fine-Pitch Printing Process Technology,” by Isaiah Smith of Speedline. It narrowly beat out “Circuits Disassembly: Materials Characterization and Failure Analysis,” by a quartet of Raytheon authors led by  John Wolfgong.

Coming in third was “Solder Joint Integrity Test for Finding Latent Defects in PCBs,” by Hiroshi Yamazaki of Hioki E.E. Corp.

The next four continued the technical bent:

4. “Shielding Effectiveness of Polyimide Tape during Rework,” by Adam Gaynor and Bob Wettermann of BEST.

5. “Advances in Concentration Monitoring and Closed-Loop Control,”by Umut Tosun and Axel Vargas of Zestron and Dr. Bryan Kim of Pressure Products.

6. “Automated Dispensing of 2 Component Materials in Electronics Assembly,” by Per Orla-Jensen of Nordson Asymtek.

7. “Printing Miniaturized Devices for the Automotive and Industrial Manufacturing Sectors,” by Clive Ashmore and Mark Whitmore of DEK (now ASM).

Rounding out the Top 10, coincidentally enough, the final three most-read articles were staff-written.

8. “Libra Industries Finds Its Balance,” Mike Buetow’s profile of the Ohio EMS company.

9. “ASM Takes Root in SMT,” in which Chelsey Drysdale detailed her visit to ASM’s European headquarters in Munich.

10. “A Muddled Recovery,” by Mike Buetow, our annual list of the Top 50 EMS Companies.

Interestingly enough, Nos. 5, 7 and 10 were cover stories in the print edition, while Nos. 3 and 6 were web-only. Given that more than 30,000 people see the print edition each month, it would be neat to know how the numbers would have changed if we were truly measuring apples to apples.

I will note that the data might also be skewed this year because of changes to our website. We launched the new CircuitsAssembly.com site late last spring, and in doing so reset the hit counters, not to mention introduced more splashy graphics that highlight the latest articles, so there’s a bias toward features that were published later in the year.

Tomorrow we will list the Top 10 most-read articles at PCDandF.com.

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2014: The Year of the Deal

Today brings to an end one of the most fascinating years of acquisitions since the crazy Internet era of late 1990s and 2000.

Unlike that episode, however, 2014 was a much more orderly state of affairs, and while some of the deals were not foreseen, the pricing (and volume) were within the realm of reason.

To recap:

  • TTM Technologies announced it would buy Viasystems, bringing to a close one of the most talked-about chapters in PCB industry history. The deal has cleared all but the last few regulatory hurdles, and is expected to close in mid 2015.
  • Rogers will buy Arlon, merging two leading suppliers of high-frequency laminate materials, and perhaps further complicating the supply chain for some of the smaller fabricators that lack the purchasing power of the major players, not to mention consolidating the RF/microwave product supply base for the US Defense Department. Given its shoulder shrug of TTM’s Chinese ownership, will the DoD even bat an eye over this, or will it be concerned enough to throw a wrench in the deal?
  • On the assembly side, ASM purchased DEK, which had been readied for sale since late 2011. The acquisition gives ASM top-of-the-line print-to-placement equipment offerings and positions it to compete with the major Japanese players such as Panasonic, Yamaha, Juki and Fuji.
  • Nordson acquired Dima Group, stretching its traditional dispensing and, later, AOI and test focus into SMT placement. Will Nordson keep the pick-and-place lines, or package that unit up and sell it?
  • Likewise, Amtech Systems has a pending agreement to buy BTU, stretching its semiconductor and solar production focus to include SMT reflow.
  • And just yesterday Kulicke and Soffa made a deal to buy Assembleon for $98 million in cash. While Assembleon had been expected to be acquired since Philips first put it on the block several years ago, K&S’s entry into the printed circuit board equipment space was unforeseen. Does it plan to continue to roll up other companies (Speedline?) and build a worthy competitor to ASM?

Most of the major deals that took place in 2014 happened on the supplier side. Does that presage a similar consolidation on the manufacturing end in 2015? Will some of the units long-rumored to be in play (Multek, Hitachi) finally be consummated? Will EMS, which took a breather in 2014 after major deals involving Natel (Epic), Benchmark (Suntron, CTS) the year before, catch a new spark?

We can’t wait to find out. Happy New Year!


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