The technologies that succeed will likely be variations on our current ones.
A new year is always exciting. Thoughts of embarking on new initiatives provide opportunity and inspire everyone to dream big and make them happen. When the new year happens to coincide with a new decade – in this case, the ’20s, or as some of my business colleagues are calling it, “the roaring ’20s” – one can’t help but dream extra big and forecast events that should or could impact our industry in the decade ahead.
Rather than focus on the geopolitical and global economics that clearly impact everyone, too often in an irrational or political way, I will focus on the area I am probably least qualified to opine on: technology.
In the rearview mirror of the past decade(s) have been notable technological disappointments. By “disappointments” I am not saying failures, but technologies, materials and processes that have, so far, not lived up to the hype garnered when first released. Organics, especially OSPs, showed great promise. After many years of refinement, however, the short shelf-life of these surface finishes still makes them too problematic for general use. Yes, they work great in a high-volume, rapid fab-to-assembly-to-OEM application, but for high-mix or ruggedized environments they aren’t ready for prime time.
Changes in materials and components mean yesterday’s issues are also today’s.
Industry is much like the classic Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day: We work on a technical challenge, solve it, and wake up the next day and solve it again.
A recent industry gathering offered such an example. The subject was profiling ovens used in the assembly of circuit boards. Over my decades-long career I have seen dozens of presentations on that very subject. Each time the challenge was the same: new solder materials, laminate or components require tighter and more-defined performance from the oven; thus, the oven must be profiled with ever-greater accuracy and precision.
This recurring phenomenon is not unique to the PCB industry. The original automotive engineers worked on how to make a car accelerate and brake faster, just as their successors do today. The materials, control technologies and performance demands may change, but the recurring engineering challenge is there, whether it’s for an auto braking system or wave solder process.
As veteran engineers know, sometimes less is more, and a lot faster.
Our industry is noted for spectacular new technology that eclipses everything around it at breathtaking speed. As exciting and noteworthy as those technologies may seem, however, success more often moves in ways and at speeds akin to the proverbial turtle. Patience pays.
The virtue of patience struck me while attending a regional industry event. The afternoon included technical presentations and a tour of an advanced manufacturing facility. The tour was conducted by energetic, sharp, intelligent young engineers who were excited and proud to show off the fruits of their labors. The facility did not have the latest equipment, but these innovative young bucks set up the equipment to take full advantage of the latest in holistic ergonomic advances, lean material logistics, and had a connected digital ecosystem that would make any Industry 4.0 proponent proud.
From additive manufacturing to autonomous vehicles, figuring out the next big thing is no small chore.
With the last quarter underway and all eyes beginning to contemplate what and how to do better in the year to come, one of my focuses is trying to identify which technology will be the next big thing – one that will either transform or disrupt doing business as I know it.
Over the past couple years politics seems to have been the biggest disrupter for all types of businesses. As challenging as it may be to identify the next tariff or tweet that may or may not send markets – and customers appetite to buy products – into a tailspin, the real challenge is trying to identify the next technological breakthrough that will either propel my business and the greater electronics industry forward or retard them into oblivion. Over the past dozen years many technological initiatives have been touted as game-changers; however, to date none has truly had the big bang effect on our industry.
The simplest motivational measures can go a long way with tomorrow’s workers.
The past couple years have been good ones. Despite increased and costly quality protocols, foreign competition, escalating raw material costs and fewer material suppliers – and even the advent of punitive tariffs – business has been good. With fewer negative issues to contend with, the one that continues to be most talked about is the difficulty to locate, recruit, develop, and retain quality employees. Indeed, this may be the challenge of our times. As older employees approach retirement, ones who are just beginning their careers seem less interested in manufacturing as a career path than at any time we can remember.
This talent gap threatens to upturn our industry – nay, most industries – more dramatically than any new disruptive technology. Much has been said about the difficulties attracting millennials to our industry. Many initiatives have been started to educate, entice and attract younger people to companies that build technology, products and the “things” we need and use in our day-to-day lives. Some have been more successful than others, but none has been a silver bullet that works all the time in every circumstance, across all industries. While creating work environments that more resemble a summer camp than a place to produce high-quality, complex products may be the way to emulate the software-centric businesses so many millennials yearn to be part of, maybe there is a simpler approach.
As the challenges of training evolve, so does the definition of lean.
An organization cannot become lean without tons of training.
Think about that oxymoron for a moment. It takes time to train, time that a lean organization cannot sacrifice. Training in this industry, which utilizes many varying yet intertwined processes, has traditionally taken the form of on-the-job training (OJT) versus a formal, classroom-style format. In any organization, especially a lean one, OJT is much easier to administrate and far less disruptive to employees and production than other types of training. In a service industry, even in support positions off the shop floor, it is much easier to take someone offline and plunk them down for formal training. In a lean manufacturing environment, however, excess resources in any given job function or department are rare. Hence, most training is integrated into the daily workflow as OJT.