The Route

As anyone who has visited Acapulco knows, it is picturesque, with the serene mountain scape overlooking the half-moon bay.

Pictures, as we also know, can be deceiving.

For the better part of the decade, the once-classic vacation spot has been overrun with drug gangs, and the former wave of tourists has diminished to a trickle. And that was before Hurricane Otis hit last month.

As 2023 draws near its end, we are reminded of how much uncertainty lies ahead. Whether man-made, like the regional conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific Rim; or natural disasters, such as those experienced in Mexico, Turkey and the US, we seem awash in challenges and obstacles.

And then there are the completely self-inflicted wounds.

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What role will artificial intelligence truly play in electronics design, and what will the impact be on hardware engineers?

Zuken took a step toward answering that question with its announcement at PCB West of a new AI-based tool for printed circuit place-and-route. Yet the first public mention of AIPR for CR-8000 – the actual rollout will come in the first quarter next year – poses not only a dramatic vision for a highly automated future of design but a host of new questions as well.

The new tool itself is an extension of Design Force, Zuken's layout, routing and verification tool within the CR-8000 platform. Its AI, explained Kyle Miller, Ph.D., who architected the engine, involves all three basic types of machine learning: supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement. AIPR stands for Autonomous Intelligent Place and Route, and like previously announced AI-based CAD tools, it starts with routing. The "Basic Brain" performs so-called smart routing by means of exposure to Zuken's database of PCB designs built in CR-8000. Over time, it mimics human routing, with channels organized in logical ways. Smart placement is next, at an undisclosed time.

According to Bob Potock, vice president of sales and marketing, Zuken will add IPC-2581 capability as part of the next-generation Dynamic Brain, allowing designs from other ECAD systems to be incorporated and learned.

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In a blast from the past, Marc Carter, one of the leading proponents of integrating electronics design and manufacturing technical skills into the educational system, shared a review of the Nepcon West trade show written by the LA Times … in 1986. The flashback is priceless.

Most readers won’t remember Nepcon, but it was the giant of that and any era when it came to electronics manufacturing. It would draw 30,000 to 40,000 engineers and other industry professionals to Anaheim, CA, each February to peruse the 1,000 or so exhibitors from all over the world. It was truly staggering.

The review Carter shared dwelled on surface mount equipment, which was just getting going in the US at the time. (Phil Marcoux, one of PCEA’s advisors, is credited with installing the first such line in the US while running an EMS called AWI in the early 1980s. One of the first SMT boards I’ve seen – or even know of – was used in the early Saturn rockets now on display at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL, and is featured on this month’s cover photo.) Most assembly process equipment then, however, was either through-hole or, if SMT, it was semiautomatic, a far cry from the robot- and software-intensive Industry 4.0-run factories in some regions today.

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Random thoughts as the summer kicks in:

• Is anyone surprised the Foxconn investment in Lordstown Motors has run out of gas? It was an odd marriage in many ways – the world's largest ODM buying up the assets of a failing Midwestern automaker – but Foxconn took a similar approach with Sharp and, from a technical perspective, it gained crucial knowledge in electric vehicles, which it likely will need to keep its hooks in Apple, its biggest and most important customer, which almost assuredly is developing its own vehicle as a platform for its future software products.

Lordstown is now suing Foxconn over the breakup. Critics, on the other hand, are noting the long line of Foxconn promises that failed to materialize as planned and suggesting this was all too predictable.

• Speaking of Apple, the cellphone, and more precisely, the smartphone, may be the greatest consumer invention in the past 100 years. It's certainly among the most ubiquitous. About 68% of the world's citizens have smartphones, which given a global population of about 8.05 billion, suggests some 2.58 billion or so people are still walking around without an electronic device glued to their hands. (Bully for them.) While that means a huge market remains to be captured, the market share has been steady-state for the past five years.

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When it comes to the monthly editorial content in PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY, we typically don't do "themes."

So it's a matter of randomness and luck that we have not one, not two, but three pieces this month related to electronics thermal management and cooling. Fitting, too, being the month of June is, for the Western Hemisphere at least, on average the warmest of the year to date.

But June is also the month of the most significant trade show in the bare board fabrication industry: The JPCA Show in Tokyo. Regrettably, few Westerners will attend. It's too bad.

We are seeing significant interest at all levels – technical, management, and even political – at beefing up domestic printed circuit board capabilities. In particular, the West is attempting to make up for decades of failed progress with new investments in IC substrate production.

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Speaking, as we were last month, about the current environment for electronics production, we noted the well-publicized layoffs at several blue-chip companies. Tech brands such as HP, Dell and Microsoft all announced pending workforce reductions through direct cuts and attrition ranging from 4,000 up to 12,000.

But insofar as the electronics design to manufacturing supply chain is concerned, jobs are plentiful and hiring proceeds apace. That's according to several tech recruiters and job search experts we spoke with last month.

In fact, companies in our space are ramping recruiting for positions at all levels, from techs to upper management. And some new trends are appearing, especially as firms look to gain a tighter hold on hard-won customers.

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