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The Route

Mike BuetowAnd we’re back!

After a (too long) break, PCEA meetups have restarted with a bang, with two local chapter meetings, plus the first national event in PCEA history.

Professional development was the focus of both chapter meetings. This can be looked at two ways: one in terms of technology advancements and the other tied to learning the basics of placement and routing.

The pandemic is driving change, not just to the way we work, but what we work on. Per John Watson of Altium, who spoke at both meetings, “Advancements in technology are partially a result of the pandemic.” The industry “forced us into redoing the way we do things.”

As reported by PCEA chief content officer Chelsey Drysdale, Watson says designs for IoT, drones and nanotechnology, among others, were “science fiction” just a decade ago. Today, they are commonplace, and others (additive manufacturing?) are right behind them.

Yet, while today’s designs are typified by higher frequencies, smaller boards, and bigger, heavier stackups, the industry is losing experience. A survey shared by Watson suggests more than half of designers plan to retire in the next 12 months.

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Mike Buetow

More than 15 years ago, the Restriction of the Use of Hazardous Substances in Electronics (RoHS) went into effect with great fanfare. While it had far-reaching effects, the most prominent material affected was lead.

Lead has for decades been the industry’s bad boy. (I’d say red-headed stepchild, but I am still mostly red-headed.) Several attempts were made in the US alone to eliminate its use, and the remediation and eradication efforts for lead in plumbing has had a pronounced effect on lowering rates of birth defects and learning disabilities. While an EU mandate, RoHS had a ripple effect throughout electronics-producing regions, and most eventually migrated to using lead-free materials in electronics solder as well.

As the early RoHS end-use exemptions expired, the number of electronics hardware applications using lead has become limited primarily to legacy high-reliability programs. One of the last holdouts has been the US Department of Defense, and even that pendulum is swinging. The last few US defense appropriations bills have included millions of dollars in funding to support the transition of various aerospace, defense and high-performance electronics to lead-free technologies.

But as we focus on the molecules, are we missing the larger compound? By that I mean the ability to recycle and reuse the materials in electronics products, regardless of their relative toxicity?

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Mike Buetow

It wasn’t long ago NASA administrators were lamenting ongoing cuts to the world’s leading space agency’s annual budget were putting the US at risk of falling behind its competitors.

No one remembers, but in the 1960s the line item for NASA made up more than 4% of the federal US budget. Once a few footprints were made in space, however, the shine was off the moon rock. A decade later, NASA’s budget had been slashed by two-thirds in real dollars, and only briefly topped 1% of the federal budget again over the next 50 years.

Today it hovers around 0.5%, which still translates to more than $20 billion a year in funding. Indeed, the Biden administration proposed allocating nearly $25 billion to NASA in 2022 to support moon exploration and more.

As craft go up, costs come down. It can cost up to $400 million to lift some United Launch Alliance ships off the ground. That’s one reason why NASA is so interested in its so-called Venture Class of launch vehicles, smaller vessels that carry smaller payloads but lower risks, especially to the bottom line if they end up cone down. These rockets are priced at a few million dollars apiece, chump change, especially for those, ahem, explorers named Branson or Bezos.

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Mike Buetow

It took longer than expected, but only by a couple weeks. PCEA is now the owner of a number of publications, websites, educational events and trade shows for printed circuit engineers.

In January, we completed the acquisition of several longtime and popular brands from UP Media Group, including PCD&F, CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY, the PCB2Day webinar series, the Printed Circuit University online education platform, the PCB Chat podcast series, and of course, the leading technical conferences and trade shows for design engineers: PCB West and PCB East. It’s the latter one I’ll look at today.

Last month’s discussion focused on training opportunities. We looked at developments at the college level and new certification programs like the Printed Circuit Engineering Professional course offered by PCE-EDU, the brainchild of a team of veteran design engineers led by Mike Creeden and Rick Hartley.

This month, we dive into the upcoming PCB East technical conference. For the uninitiated, PCB East is the Eastern US version of the popular PCB West trade show. It debuted in the 2000s, then went on hiatus after the industry downturn in 2007-08. At the urging of several companies and individual design engineers, it was set to return last year, until the pandemic got in the way.

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Mike Buetow

You know the labor situation is bad when even the Air Force is getting involved to find solutions.

Indeed, as was recently announced, the Air Force Research Laboratory is working with NextFlex to come up with ways to attract students to careers in technology and science.

NextFlex isn’t a random choice. It was formed under the auspices of the US Department of Defense’s Manufacturing Technology Program. As one of eight DoD Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, the consortium is a partnership among the DoD, industry and academia. Its specific focus is development of flexible hybrid electronics (FHE), and to develop an education and workforce development program.

To the latter, the goal is nothing less than the creation of a skilled pipeline of STEM talent ranging from R&D to manufacturing. To that end, NextFlex is working on training and recruitment programs that work hand-in-hand with existing curricula. Called FlexFactor, this model is considered far more effective than designing a program from scratch and convincing institutions to adopt it.

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Mike Buetow

A bevy of tech talks are available to industry engineers, regardless of their location.

As readers of this space may know, the Printed Circuit Engineering Association is acquiring the assets of UP Media Group. Once that happens, I’ll become president of PCEA. Going forward, this column will focus on the ways PCEA is addressing issues of concern to our membership and the industry at large.

For the past year-plus, this column has been written by Kelly Dak, our erstwhile communications director, and Stephen Chavez, our chairman. In the next couple months, the PCEA is transitioning from an all-volunteer organization to one with a fulltime staff, which will allow the board of directors to focus on higher-level strategy. Steph’s role, then will no longer be tied to monthly communications but rather leading the board in charting the goals and direction of the association. And filling the gaps is where I come in.

Think of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association as a “ground up” organization. We aim to advance the careers of professional engineers. We do this primarily through a peer-to-peer network where we offer training, technical knowledge, and career advice across the printed circuit engineering spectrum: design, fabrication, assembly, and test.

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