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.
Supply chain fatigue taking hold? It’s all in a day’s work.
I can’t think of a more exciting time than now, especially for the PCB industry. Risk has always been a friend and catalyst to our industry. There has rarely been more types of risk, and never as varied, for all industries and companies, large and small, to navigate. As varied as it may be, all those challenges seem to boil down to three basic categories: technology transfer; geopolitical posturing; and logistics fatigue. The single common denominator to all? People.
My bet is that dealing with new technology, and the transfer of that technology to displace or enhance tried-and-true methodologies, is the easiest for our industry to wrap itself around. The risk and reward of new technology is well understood. It has been the hallmark of how and why we are in business and prosper. However, for those in the auto industry, which has over 100 years of understanding of mechanical and internal combustion equipment, the dawning of hybrid and electronic technologies to propel a vehicle, let alone control and monitor performance – with or without a driver – brings nothing but risk. For our industry, supplying this transfer from mechanical to electronics creates a different type of risk. Now “consumer” products must be as rugged as the toughest military or aerospace application, or even more so, because the sheer number of lives at risk are greater and the operating environment less controlled.
Are we about to return to an era of rapid inflation escalations?
When you have been around the block as many times as me, events eerily remind you of similar events from a different time. Or, as legendary baseball player Yogi Berra supposedly said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again!”
I began my career in the mid-1970s. Those were very different times. Technology was primitive compared to what we take for granted today. “Social media” was confined to writing a letter (on paper!) or picking up a phone (tethered to the wall!). Another distinction was something called inflation. For the span from the early ’70s through the mid-’80s, the annual inflation rate ranged between 12% and 20%.
Working for a large, global, electronic connector company at that time, one of the jobs I held was that of division “pricing administrator.” When promoted to the position, I remember feeling heady about so much responsibility. I soon realized I was going to be a very busy guy.
Old fabrication equipment never dies. It keeps getting reengineered for the future.
How far can you push the envelope? I have asked myself that question for years as I watch the advancement of technology and the fabricated PCBs that anchor that technology. And just when it appears a new and insurmountable challenge has come along, our industry devises a creative solution that catapults us even further ahead.
So, I continue to wonder. I have seen processes and equipment developed when 12/12 spacing was cutting-edge honed and dialed in to reliably produce 2/2 spacing. Drilling equipment that once could drill no smaller than 12 mil holes now regularly forms holes half that diameter. “High aspect” was once defined as 5:1. Now 10:1 is low aspect. All this on old equipment. Install the latest generation of equipment and capabilities exponentially improve.