Mike BuetowAs we come to the end of our run of articles excerpted from the 2017 iNEMI Roadmap, it gives us time to reflect on the nature of roadmaps in general and their value to the industry.

I’ve always been a fan of them. My history with the document dates to the earliest interconnect roadmap, developed by IPC in 1994. As a cub reporter, I covered the series of meetings that led to the first PWB roadmap. The energy was palpable. We really felt like we were saving the industry.

Subject experts acted as chairs for the respective working groups, each tasked with developing a chapter. Each chapter reflected the biases of those who developed it. That first tome ran a scant 172 pages and reviewed nine technology areas, primarily bare boards, assembly, packaging, and components. The development process hasn’t changed dramatically since then, even as the sheer volume of what is described has exploded.

IPC’s oversight eventually gave way to iNEMI, and the latter really stepped up its game. It revamped the organization of the document, tying it to end-products, not technologies. To that end, the consortium introduced product “emulators” like handhelds, automotive, and IoT around which to arrange its forecasts.

In all likelihood, that’s the better way, since processes come and go. The design methodologies, materials and equipment (and standards, for that matter) used in the build of those end-products are not means unto themselves and should not inhibit innovation.

But is the roadmap of perhaps self-constrained utility these days? As we developed the series of excerpts this year, we noticed a disparity between the respective chapters. Some are very high-level, 60,000 ft.-type summaries. Others dive into the minutiae of forecasted line widths and spacing, minimum hole size, board thickness, and other such details.

Despite that, my sense is there are some bigger issues. One is the speed with which products are conceived and developed. Certainly for the many consumer goods, phones, wearables and the like, the roadmap can’t necessarily keep up with the changes to the end-product, and as such becomes less reliably predictive over time.

Then there’s the nature of the customer-supplier relationship. I believe the larger companies in the industry supply chain do make use of industry roadmaps, which they merge with their own data to come up with something specific to themselves.

For the small- to medium-sized enterprises, it’s likely a different story. In fact, much of the equipment, material or technology adoption process is a result of either a lack of in-house capacity or the need to bring on a certain technology in order to satisfy a new or existing customer. It is reactive by nature. The roadmap, of course, is intended to be proactive, to help sort out the technologies that companies can acquire or implement ahead of the need, not after the fact.

iNEMI is thinking these same things, it seems. I spoke with CEO Marc Benowitz in October, and it appears their board of directors is reviewing the nature of its constituents and how they use the roadmap. (Benowitz also noted, with some humor, the side-by-side evolution of the roadmap from its peak as a 2,000-page tome to a CD-ROM to, well, digital vapor as distribution has segued to a PDF format.)

That willingness to consider the perspective of the user and not be beholden to tradition will serve the iNEMI board well. I still believe the information has value. I know iNemi has attempted to overlay a template to the chapter authors to help guide them and create a better flow and sense of uniformity to the roadmap. Perhaps it’s not even that important all chapters are on par in terms of detail, since some markets are smaller than others in terms of the number of key companies, and perhaps those industry players don’t need or rely on the roadmap as much as some other segments.

The time has come to position the roadmap not as a snapshot of industry capabilities at a given point in time but to get back to the original intention, which was to guide the supply chain to ensure limited resources weren’t spent chasing technologies that might not meet customers’ needs. A better understanding of just how the industry uses that document will go a long way toward ensuring the next generation of roadmaps meets the needs of the electronics supply chain for another 30 years.

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