Peter Bigelow

Fabricators and designers must communicate about new technology to verify its viability.

More often than not over the past couple of decades, new technologies, processes and options we fabricators have been asked, begged or threatened to add to our repertoire of offerings were ones that could be best considered disruptive. What’s disruptive to a manufacturer may seem benign to the casual eye, as often the technology – or process – that is most disruptive is a simple one.

Indeed, sometimes that technology is nothing more than the rebirth of an older, tried-and-true, albeit significantly tweaked, process. REACH, and the prior RoHS, caused much disruption, and yet most of the plating chemistries and surface finishes in use today are essentially highly refined formulas of older plating technologies such as ENIG, silver and tin.

Old or new, disruptive technologies tend to be challenges for several reasons. First is understanding the technology and how to process it so it works as intended. Second is determining what equipment is needed to cost-effectively and robustly apply the new technology. Finally, finding enough customers to consistently order product that uses the technology, so everyone remembers what it is and how to process it!

Truly new paradigm-shifting technologies hit the scene as “must haves” so a product can function. While disruptive to manufacturers, in some ways the more off-the-wall a technology seems, the easier it is to decide whether to embrace it or wait to see if it sinks under the weight of its own hype. These disruptive technologies more typically challenge everyone to understand not only how to apply them, but how to measure success or failure so yields and costs can be determined.

In all cases, what makes disruptive technologies so unruly boils down to two issues: First is the learning curve and capital investment needed to provide the technology, and second is gaining consensus among customers that the technology is a better alternative to more traditional technologies, and they will purchase enough to warrant the human and capital investment. Probably most frustrating for fabricators is when a buyer provides no apparent reason other than “because” for specifying a new technology. The fabricator’s goal is to supply quality product they understand and can safely and consistently produce, not (inadvertently) become a customer’s R&D center, with the concurrent risks and costs.

Every new technology has at least two sides. At a recent industry gathering, a supplier mentioned a current disruptive technology we had difficulty working our way through was only one of a slew of new “enabling” technologies available to the industry. Enabling? Not to me. That is when the communication gap between design application and manufacturing competence became evident. As this conversation continued, I heard a different spin as to why a particular new technology was being specified. Understanding the benefits from the end-product perspective began to make sense and explained why this customer would have specified it, as well as why its use may become widespread in the future. The tutorial was strictly from a value-add design perspective, and it was compelling. When asked if the design community knew of the fabrication challenges the new technology caused that impacted yield and lead times, in addition to cost, the answer was honest: “Probably not.”  

What’s enabling to one party can be disruptive to another. Fabricators often do not understand the nuances of pushing design to meet challenging performance objectives but do fully understand robust, time-proven manufacturing techniques. Equally, when a designer chooses to move toward a new technology, they may be excited by the functionality it offers but most likely is unaware manufacturing the board could lead to lower yield, longer lead times and ultimately higher costs.

The real issue is understanding the risks involved with embracing – or ignoring – new technology. The risks include, “Will it work, or will it only work if executed flawlessly? Will the new technology pass the test of time? Most important, will widespread use of the technology lead to cost-effective processes or equipment to ensure consistency from one application to another and from one supplier to another?”

As a fabricator, it is more important now than ever to be in touch with customers’ designers to understand what they are attempting to accomplish. Equally for designers, it is essential they are in contact with all their PCB suppliers, especially the behind-the-scenes process gurus, so everyone understands the manufacturability of new technology in the real world of the shop floor.

This gets back to the need for suppliers knowing their customer and customers knowing their suppliers – and not just at the buyer/sales rep level but at the designer/manufacturing engineer level. Knowing the intended end-result a new technology enables, as well as how disruptive that technology may be when introduced to manufacturing, the product is the best way for customers and suppliers, working together, to accomplish a cost-effective design. Too often this communication is wrongly assumed to occur. As much as frequent two-way communication should be happening when all is moving along with traditional technologies, it is critical the communication takes place when a new approach is contemplated that may be enabling for one but not necessarily for others.

The difference as to whether a technology is enabling or disruptive is determined only by the degree in which customer and supplier decide to work together. As our industry finds ways to tweak older, reliable technologies or develop paradigm-changing ones, understanding the enabling benefits and the disruptive nature will make the journey mutually rewarding. 

PETER BIGELOW is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; His column appears monthly.

Peter Bigelow

Shipping, Covid-19 and inflation challenges rival supply chain issues when securing capital equipment.

When I made my 2022 capital investment plan, I never thought it would be my 2023 capital investment plan. However, with a couple minor exceptions, equipment will be put in service during 2023, not this year as originally planned.

I thought I was the exception, but in conversations with colleagues, I realize I am the current norm. A trio of events had the combined impact of making what should be simple investments in machinery and equipment anything but.

The most talked about, problematic event has been the strained supply chain. I am not sure exactly how much of the problem getting machinery and equipment is directly attributable to the supply chain, but it has indeed had an impact. When obtaining lead-time quotations, availability of parts, chips, etc., are always the culprit cited for the long length of time to build the equipment, whether a complex custom-built item or simply a copier for the office.

That is only half the story, however. Shipping times to get equipment from location of origin to your facility are also taking significantly longer than before. It doesn’t matter if the machine is shipped from Asia, Europe or North America, or if the delivery is foreign or domestic; availability of planes, trains or container ships is as stretched as the supply chain of parts. Events taking place in Ukraine are exacerbating availability of raw materials, parts and shipping options.

Navigating the Covid world has also had its impact on the ability – and especially speed – to select what machinery and capital equipment to purchase. When compiling a capital budget, it is easy to say you need a drill, image, press or pick-and-place machine, but doing the due diligence to select the correct machine is something quite different. Historically one could attend trade shows, visit sites, see the equipment in action and run test jobs to see the results – all activities most efficiently handled by in-person visits to possibly multiple locations. In the Covid world of Zoom, WebEx, etc., doing the necessary due diligence required to select the best piece of equipment and then get approval to invest considerable sums in capital equipment has become much more challenging and a far lengthier process.

In particular, a process to select, prove out, and negotiate the purchase of a piece of equipment that in the past might have taken weeks now takes up to a year – and that is before pulling the trigger to commence the order. Companies that once let an equipment supplier and potential customer in to see a piece of equipment and run samples now may not allow visitors. Capital equipment manufacturers may have sold the demo equipment normally available for running tests. Equipment manufacturers’ sales and demo staffs may be working remotely – with no equipment available – and limited access to their factory to conduct sales demonstrations. Altogether, unless you are buying a duplicate of what you already have, the selection and due-diligence process rivals the supply chain issues, consuming valuable time in the equipment selection and procurement process.

The final challenge is inflation, which is relatively new but may become significant. With demand so high for all sorts of industrial and consumer items, and with the supply chain in such a strained state, the cost of components, raw materials and, therefore, the finished product is escalating at rates not seen for decades. When budgeting a capital expenditure, and completing the (long) process of selection and due diligence, finding out the cost is five to 10% or more higher may necessitate rethinking the equipment or timing of the investment. For any purchased capital investment via a loan, lease or line of credit, rising interest rates inflate the total cost of investment.

As much as inflation has impacted prices of new equipment, it pales in comparison to the impact inflation has had on the used equipment market. With lead times for new equipment stretched so far, a premium is now paid for readily available used equipment in good condition. In fact, it has been reported some used equipment is selling for more than it costs new. The lack of availability of new equipment, coupled with long lead times for new machines, is compounding the effect of inflation. As supply chain difficulties continue, inflation may become the biggest challenge in planning specific capital investments and preparing a capital budget.

So, regrettably, I am looking good for putting 2023 capital investments in service, but not so for 2022. I guess it’s time to plan for 2024 … or maybe even 2025. 

Peter Bigelow

Will it be able to handle unforeseen events better than its predecessor?

Many are excited and working diligently toward enabling Factory (Industry or Tech) 4.0 to dramatically change their manufacturing and business environment, but maybe we should focus instead on Supply Chain 4.0, as that may change the manufacturing and business environment more – and not in a good way!

Businesses are currently operating within Supply Chain 3.0. Supply Chain 3.0 has taken decades to refine into a highly efficient, cost-effective, global supply chain. We know how we got here. Companies sought lower-cost skilled labor and a cost-friendly operating environment in which to build manufacturing facilities. As manufacturing shifted to these lower-cost areas, governments invested in infrastructure and education to attract ancillary businesses to invest there as well. Shipping and logistics improved thanks to the advent of containerships, larger aircraft, better roads and rail, and countries opening their borders to trade. The result was a global supply chain in which components and parts are made almost everywhere and transported “just in time” to assembly sites, before finished products are shipped to customers.

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Peter Bigelow

The pandemic taught us the importance of AI is not on the shop floor but in the ability of people to communicate.

For roughly half a decade, pundits have been waxing poetic about revolutionary changes about to take place in manufacturing – and in society at large – made available by advances in sensor technology that can be driven and manipulated by sophisticated software. Artificial intelligence (AI) and Factory (or Tech) 4.0 often best represent these revolutionary advances. Both have been touted to promise improving productivity, efficiency and speed, resulting in reduced costs and the need for fewer human employees where implemented.

I have never been a fan of any technology that replaces “human employees” but prefer technology that helps people achieve more. Based on the past couple years, that appears to be exactly what these revolutionary advances have actually achieved: using AI to enhance what people can achieve, rather than replacing them. How this has occurred, however, is different from originally imagined.

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Peter Bigelow

As governments realize the importance of investing in domestic manufacturing, opportunities are coming for EMS firms and PCB fabricators.

It takes time to gain perspective, especially perspective on the industry you are immersed in. In my case, it’s been 30 years since I entered the printed circuit board market. During the first six or seven years, it was heady, upbeat times in North America. Growth was a bounty supporting hundreds of domestic fabricators. Materials, supplies and capital equipment were made “locally” in North America. Then, around the new millennium, everything changed.

Suddenly, work headed to Asia, and fabricators contracted at an unprecedented scale to fewer than 200 within a few short years. The collateral damage was a collapse of materials, supplies and capital equipment companies that supported the industry. Even worse was the exodus of skilled talent who sought careers in more promising industries and never looked back. The relatively few companies that survived did so by hunkering down, focusing on a niche, and investing in only the equipment they needed to support their business base, in some cases taking draconian steps that worked short term but eventually led to their demise. Over the first decade-plus of the new millennium, it was depressing to be a North American circuit board fabricator.

However, times change, and with that change, opportunities emerge – finally!

After decades of ignoring reality – and for a variety of reasons and events, many of which have nothing to do with printed circuit boards, or even electronics – government and industry leaders are “shocked” to learn so much of North America’s manufacturers are no longer globally competitive and how much more capability and capacity is required for economic and military security. Now that they understand the need to invest in manufacturing, more specifically in electronics manufacturing – everything from chips to bare circuit boards and substrates – opportunities for the North American PCB industry finally may be knocking.

Do we open the door and take full advantage, or ignore it and squander our chance?

To take advantage of the current momentum to expand and enhance North American capabilities and manufacturing capacity may require a radical rethinking, or at least retraining, in how we as an industry operate. The entire risk/reward equation in particular needs to be revisited. After nearly 20 years of operating in a hunkered-down mode to mitigate risk and maximize reward, many in our industry may need to be retrained to break old habits and embrace a paradigm shift the opportunities of the future offer.

The first step toward taking advantage of new opportunities may be a brutally honest self-evaluation of what your company does, for whom, and with what resources. Most important is understanding what government or “C-suite” investment in electronics technology may look like and how that will impact your customers. As an example, if chip plants are built in North America, what other electronics manufacturing may now become more cost-effective if done closer to those plants vs. overseas. And, what printed circuit board technology will that increased demand for capacity impact?

With investment in more advanced technology, will new materials and the processing knowhow and equipment be outside current capabilities or comfort zones? Discussions with material suppliers should include a dialogue on what to be aware of; begin experimenting to be better prepared.

If the gap in North American electronics capability points to a specific type of printed circuit board technology that will be in especially high demand, that may be the place to consider increasing capital investment to either add capacity, enhance capability or broaden product offerings to include the growth opportunity. This review should include an estimated capital equipment budget and supporting cash flow, as well as a reality check with current customers to understand if their products and purchasing demands may also be impacted and shifting.

When demand increases, what type of employees will your company need to hire? This leads to workforce development opportunities that currently exist, and in the next few years will expand with an increase in qualified people seeking jobs in electronics. More important, with the emphasis on investing in new capabilities, what talent gap might you have that would prevent being able to produce a new technology? Getting involved now may be the best way to ensure having qualified talent when needed.

To take advantage of any opportunity that a reinterest in North American electronics manufacturing may present, it is essential to stay informed and get your team ready. Nothing will happen overnight, but it will happen more quickly than anyone who has become comfortable in the current industry paradigm imagines. We all need to be aware significant new opportunities are finally on the horizon.

After so long operating in a contracting industry segment, we in North America cannot afford to let the coming opportunities be squandered. Opportunity for growth is knocking for us all. 

PETER BIGELOW is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; His column appears monthly.

Peter Bigelow

To best help customers, suppliers must invest in dedicated software experts.

“Value add” is a term bandied about, especially when a business is in the process of selling its products or services to another one. Likewise, in manufacturing the term “capital investment” describes the process of a business selling its products to another. All too often, much less “value” is derived by the “investment.”

Over the years – decades, in fact – most of the equipment and services I’ve purchased have been of dubious value and less an investment than a needed cost. A significant portion of any capital budget is spent either replacing legacy equipment or on substantial repairs to keep old equipment functioning. While there are times a new technology is truly a game-breaking investment and provides real value for the future, the majority of capital spent is for the same-old, same-old.

Historically, capital equipment used in the fabrication of printed circuit boards has relied heavily on electromechanical/PLC controls to operate. Mechanics in most companies’ maintenance departments can troubleshoot and service or fix this technology reasonably well. Many a scrubber, etcher or drill that may be decades old can be found still chugging along in most established fabrication facilities. Technology and events, however, are impacting the same-old and offering an opportunity for some that, to date, have not been embraced.

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