Auto Electronics: Gearing Up or Headed for the Cliff?

What would the electronics industry do if automotive demand were to pull a Thelma and Louise and head off the proverbial cliff?

The auto recovery has been the axle of the Western supply chain since 2008. The drivetrain is starting to show some wear, however, with market followers forecasting nominal growth at best for 2016.

The good news is that electronics content in vehicles continues to increase, rising to 8.9% of the $1.42 trillion worldwide electronic systems market last year, up slightly from 8.6% in 2014. Moreover, forecasts call for the share to continue to rise over the next several years.

Less clear is the extent, if any, the seers account for the potential for widespread ride-sharing trends or — worse for some — outright banning of vehicles.

To wit: Some 27 million Americans alone will use some form of ride-sharing at least once this year, a figure that doesn’t include traditional car-pooling. Urban millennials are growing up without the preconception that vehicle ownership equates to status, an important cultural shift.

A drop in demand for hybrid/electric vehicles (HEV) could also decelerate electronics growth. Hybrid sales alone dropped 15% year-over-year in 2015 — reversing a big gain in 2014 — and bottoming oil prices have kept the market for electric sluggish. Hybrids carry almost twice the electronics content of conventional gas autos, making HEVs a key growth engine for electronics makers.

More disconcerting to the auto supply chain is the prospect of a carless environment. This is actually happening, and in places you wouldn’t necessarily associate with technological backlash. For example:

  • Bogota, Colombia, has been car-free on Sundays since 1976, a move that sidelines an estimated 1.5 million vehicles.
  • Likewise, Jakarta has sponsored Car Free Day every Sunday since 2007.
  • San Francisco shuts certain streets to vehicle traffic on various Sundays throughout the year.
  • Oslo plans to ban cars from the city center by 2019.

Car-free days are becoming so widespread, the phenomenon has its own Wikipedia entry. In fact, now there’s even a World Car Free Day (Sept. 22).

The electronics supply chain has gotten plenty of mileage from the automotive industry for nearly a decade. It might be time to find a backup plan, however, if the sector wants to keep trucking on.

How Far Should Sustainability ‘Standardization’ Go?

My longtime friend and industry colleague Pam Gordon blogged today about the role trade associations should play in driving the industry toward sustainability practices. In it, she writes

Associations will not necessarily push members to the next level of sustainability practices. But members can raise the baseline through their involvement and commitment — emphasizing that the industry’s continued profitability and continuity rests in good part on meeting customers’ increasing efficiency requirements, avoiding dependence on dwindling materials, and reducing costs through design-for-environment principles.

I agree with all that. But Gordon also mentions a colleague’s discussion of the possibility of trade groups offering certification in supply-chain sustainability, suggesting that those that do not are behind the curve. There, I’m very reluctant to concur.

I am a huge fan of standards, but I also recognize their limits. I view sustainability as an extension of innovation. And innovation is not something that can be standardized. Those companies that consistently adapt fastest to market demands are always the winners in the long run. I think the same will be true with design for recycling and reuse and other such initiatives. Companies will either pursue that course or not, but to add a layer of bureaucracy in the form of yet another pursuit of paper isn’t the way to go.

Pam writes that some associations help members raise their own sustainability goals above the level of current regulations by giving them workable frameworks, such as the codes of conduct from the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition. I have long felt the EICC’s code of conduct is a sham. Under Labor, for instance, the first rule is, “Participants are committed to uphold the human rights of workers, and to treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the international community.” Yet EICC members include Foxconn and Pegatron, which are routinely cited by watchdog groups for worker abuse. It may be a code, but its toothless.

Pam is tuned in to the industry and always makes her readers think. Her note that the industry lacks roadmaps for best practices in sustainability is dead on. A roadmap isn’t a certification, however, and that’s where I call on trade associations to draw the line.

Do Fakes Count?

The news today regarding the seizure by US Customs of nearly a quarter-million counterfeit electronics devices makes me wonder: Do the various industry market research data include all those faked goods?

Consider: Some reports claim as much as $100 billion a year worth of fake electronics products is trafficked. Given that the entire consumer electronics supply chain produces about $1.2 trillion worth of products per year, and most fakes are consumer goods, that’s a pretty good chunk to add to it.

Not all fakes work, of course. For years, “salesmen” would hawk counterfeit PCs outside the doors at Nepcon China. But they were missing most of the important parts — motherboard, CPU, memory, etc. Caveat emptor to those who fell for the scam.

But what’s changing is that in many instances, the knockoffs so closely resemble the look and functionality of the originals, it’s hard even for company officials to discern. And you don’t get there without using real parts, even if they are of lesser quality.

The wildest example I know of concerned NEC. A few years back, the Japanese computer and chip company learned of a massive multinational counterfeit ring which attempted to essentially recreate the entire company! More than 50 factories in China and Taiwan were producing faked NEC PCs and consumer handhelds.

Fifty factories is a scale that’s hard to hide. That’s a lot of production lines to buy, too. It makes you wonder if they were building them on knockoff SMT equipment.

Reasons for Enthusiasm Real

Even the most pessimistic industry-watchers should be curious at least over the shifting attitudes toward bringing production back to the US.

The New York Times today published an extensive piece looking at the top-down change — from President Obama on down — in the nation’s outlook toward manufacturing. Researchers at MIT and elsewhere are promoting the benefits of keeping makers and thinkers together. “The manufacturing process itself is going through an innovation revolution,” said Stephen Hoover, chief executive of Xerox PARC, noting the emphasis on smaller numbers of highly skilled techs who run sophisticated and heavily automated lines.

Earlier this week, Mike McNamara told listeners at an investment conference that higher (and unabating) labor costs in Southeast Asia is making the decision process over where to put its plants “more interesting.” The Flextronics chief executive said he could see production coming back to the US. “[O]ver time, as [labor]  costs continue to go up, you’ll probably see more things get pushed back in the USA,” McNamara said.

Even Foxconn is showing some appeal (for a change) for its push toward automating its factories. Maybe Jim Raby’s vision for true lights-out manufacturing will finally be realized?

A decade ago, at Wall Street’s urging, companies followed the herd to China. Not enough thought was given to the ramifications of chasing lower labor costs, and my guess is that we will be feeling the pain of these short-sighted decisions for some time to come.

But given the prospects for higher levels of automation and a more balanced approach to regionalization, it’s been years since the industry was so exciting.

Outsiders Taking Over

Is the bloom off the rose in Vietnam?

The Vietnam News Service is reporting that with many businesses shifting from production to imports, Vietnam’s electronics industry is “standing on the verge of extinction.” More than 90% of the nation’s electronics exports are performed by foreign-based countries, the Viet Nam Electronics Business Association maintains. Meanwhile, major OEMs are closing domestic plants and switching to an import model to serve Vietnamese customers.

For those who see Vietnam as an alternative to China, this is not the wakeup call they expected.

Early Thoughts on the Mitchell Administration

The hiring of John Mitchell as IPC’s new president comes as a breath of fresh air to those of us who had long tired of the antics of the previous regime.

Mitchell, the fourth person to run the 55-year-old organization, is the first with electronics industry experience, having spent a combined 16 years at Bose and Alpine Electronics.

As Bill Bader and Jim McElroy at iNEMI have proved, when it comes to running a not-for-profit volunteer organization in this industry, experience counts. The supply chain and regional differences are far too complex and the technology too intense for a greenhorn, especially one who isn’t willing to do their homework.

We envision — and hope — for a return to the days when member input is sought and valued. More than that, however, we are eager to see the occupant of that important position have a vision and tenacity that goes beyond avenging imagined personal wrongs.

Mitchell has his work cut out for himself. The industry is fractured, physically and emotionally. He will have to learn to lead without alienating, something his predecessor never accomplished. He will have to mend fences with the North American board fabricators, on whose shoulders IPC was built but were later ignored or cast out as the organization moved into the more lucrative assembly market. He will need to understand that the suppliers are generally looking to protect declining margins, and yet much of the technological know-how has migrated to that side of the industry, so he will need to convince them it is in their best interest to continue to support IPC’s technical programs, not just the exhibitions. He will need to navigate the treacherous China-US relations, in which the occasionally nasty spells of provincialism and finger-pointing from both sides mask an underlying dual-relationship that neither party can live without. He will have to right an internal culture that has grown distant from its membership. And he will have to do so while determining whether the four (!) vice presidents who applied for the job — two of whom have now been rejected multiple times — are up to the task of working with the man whom the IPC board considered a superior leader.

Based on Mitchell’s resume and conversations with IPC board members, he is the right person for the job. He is first and foremost an engineer. He has a deep business background that belies his age (he graduated college in 1991). He has worked at a high level for a major supplier of consumer electronics, giving him insight into branding and the supply chain intricacies that his predecessors either never had to deal with or were unable to master. We look forward to the next chapter in the continuing story of IPC.

Europe Gets Serious about Standards

Consumers should not be obliged to change several chargers for their electronics devices. And a mass diffusion of electric cars will not happen without common standards for their recharge. Mobile phone or software companies are publicly showcasing their battle for the leadership of their respective standards.

In an era of increasing global competition, European competitiveness depends on the EU’s ability to foster innovation in products, services and processes and fully exploit the potential of the Internal market.  Standards are a decisive tool in international competition, a cornerstone of industrial policy and — sometimes — innovation.

We say “sometimes” because of the Great Operating System (OS) wars of the 1990s in Silicon Valley, where Unix, Apple’s Mac OS, and IBM’s OS2 battled it out. And those of us using the products would grumble constantly about a standardized platform (remember when your Windows Word doc wouldn’t open on a Mac?).

We were right to grumble. But you can’t say that innovation suffered for those lack of standards — in fact, arguably innovation flourished there.

Standards in manufacturing. But when you try to sell me a $30,000 electronic automobile and tell me I can’t use half the recharging stations on my route from here to Los Angeles because of lack of standards on the equipment, we may have a deal breaker.  Truly, in a B2C market, standards become more compelling.  (The race for market share for the Computer OS’s was largely fought in terms of corporate contracts.)

Or more accurately, in the B2C market, standards become more compelling more quickly.  One IT fix can solve a dual-platform problem for an entire company or 1000 employees, but 1000 individual consumers have no fix, and therefore, end up struggling to see the value.

In Europe, now, in a time of:

  • increasing global competition
  • an ageing European population/workforce
  • fiscal restraint.

European competitiveness may depend on their ability to foster innovation in products, services and processes and then to drive those innovations forward. A systematic approach to research, innovation and standardization adopted at European and national level would likely help best ideas to reach the market and achieve wider market audience quickly.

We call it globalization. And here are the steps the European Commission says it will take toward this end:

  1. The Commission will establish an annual Work Programme, which will identify priorities for European standardization
  2. The Commission will demand that European standards for innovative products and services will be quickly elaborated and adopted, for example in the field of eco-design, smart grids, energy efficiency of buildings, nanotechnologies, security and eMobility
  3. The Commission will make funding of the independent European standardization bodies (ESOs) conditional on certain performance criteria. In particular European standards should be adopted more quickly
  4. When European standards with a scientific component are to be incorporated into EU policy, impartial, sound and balanced scientific evidence will increasingly be taken into account
  5. ESOs, Member States and other standardization bodies are expected to improve awareness and education about standardization
Standards (metric or imperial?) in the EU

The European Commission proposes a series of legislative and non-legislative measures to develop more and faster standards. Standards are sets of voluntary technical and quality criteria for products, services and production processes. Nobody is obliged to use or apply them but they help businesses work together and to save money for consumers.

The European Council of 4 February, in its conclusions on the “Innovation Union”, invited the Commission “to make proposals to accelerate, simplify and modernize standardization procedures, notably to allow standards developed by industry to be turned into European standards”.

European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, responsible for industry and entrepreneurship said: “[S]tandards allow us all to have the best quality and sustainable products for a lower price. Standardization is also a key issue for the well functioning of our internal market.”

Here are important steps that the Commission took recently to strengthen the system of standard-setting in Europe and to implement related commitments:

  1. Europe will push for more international standards in those economic sectors where Europe is a global leader
  2. High-tech products are often sold in combination with maintenance services. Although there are many European standards for products, there are hardly any for services. Therefore, more market-driven European standards for services could be developed giving companies commercial advantages
  3. To propose a light and fast way to recognize the increasingly important ICT standards developed by global ICT standards development organizations, such as those underpinning the internet, to be used in public procurement, EU policies and legislation. This will stimulate innovation, cut administrative overheads and build a truly digital society by encouraging interoperability between devices, applications, data repositories, services and network
  4. The Commission will enhance its cooperation with the leading standardization organizations in Europe (i.e. CEN, CENELEC and ETSI) so that their standards will be available more rapidly. Businesses using these standards can make their products more compatible with other products so that consumers will have a broader choice at a lower price
  5. European standards will be drafted with the help of organizations representing those most affected, or most concerned – consumers, small businesses, environmental and social organizations
  6. The new standard for a universal mobile-phone charger to fit all models is a perfect example of the tremendous value of European standards for our daily lives
  7. Some of the proposed actions can be implemented immediately while the others require the approval of the European Parliament and the Council.

Good thing to keep an eye on.

Virtual Show, Real Value

We are eagerly looking forward to next week’s Virtual PCB trade show. It’s the fourth year we’ve produced the Web-based event, and we’ve learned a few things along the way.

1. Although the attendees are online, they usually act as if they are in the flesh. There’s plenty of the “how are you doing,” “great to see you,” and gentle ribbing that takes place when we run into each other at PCB West, SMTAI, Apex or one of the other “bricks and mortar” shows. It’s social. (Perhaps that’s why they call it “social” media.)
2. People are polite to the point of near invisibility. Just like a physical show, some attendees do lots of talking, while others never utter a peep. That’s OK. Lurk away. Everyone learns in their own way.
3. Speaking of learning, it’s almost impossible to attend Virtual PCB and not take away something. Nearly 3,000 people registered last year! These are your peers across the entire electronics manufacturing spectrum, from design to assembly to test. The same experts you might see at a physical show — folks like signal integrity expert Dr. Eric Bogatin or reliability guru Werner Engelmaier, will be there, holding court and sharing their wisdom. More than that, it’s a chance to meet folks from all over the world. These are potential future colleagues and employers. Insofar as networking is concerned, it’s tough to beat.

We hope you take a moment to register (it’s free!) at www.virtual-pcb.com and log-on to Virtual PCB, March 8-9. It’s a fresh way to stay up on our industry — without ever leaving your desk.

Get Those Abstracts in for PCB West

We’re accepting abstracts for PCB West 2010. This year’s show takes place at the Santa Clara (CA) Convention Center in late September.

Click here for more info.