Peter Bigelow

Let’s not be quick to dismiss the latest “fashions.”

Paradigms are always changing. Look at fashion: narrow lapels are in, then out, then in again. Ditto for skirt and hair length, as well as color pallets. Some fashions come and go, never to be seen again, while others survive the test of time. Everyone understands paradigm shifts in the world of fashion, but changing paradigms in the work world – especially in our technology-driven industry – are far more difficult to catch.

Actually, difficult may not be the right word. Most times they are seen, but their significance is ignored so, when they hit, it is like a shock out of nowhere.

For years I have half-jokingly professed to be less impressed with the latest and greatest technology breakthrough by a major player, and far more fearful of some guy in a garage out in the middle of nowhere developing a disruptive new technology that would make the circuit board obsolete. As I mature, while I keep looking out for that disruptive garage-developed technology, I also realize that some of the latest and greatest from major players – the hot items of a decade back – seem to be gaining steam and may, in fact, be the real paradigm changers – or at least the catalyst for changing our paradigm.

Just a few worth mentioning include direct imaging, printed electronics and 3D manufacturing.

Direct imaging may not seem like that big a deal, especially as it has been around for over a decade and, while used widely within our industry, is still not the most-used imaging registration process. When introduced, it was ballyhooed as a cost-saver and a process that would improve quality as traditional labor-intense processes relied on too much individual skill for the tight registration demands needed to support emerging technologies such as HDI. However, the equipment was expensive, so much so that most companies instead got to work dialing in their manual processes to handle the tighter technologies customers demanded.

Over the years, however, two very quiet phenomena appear to indicate the paradigm shift that direct imaging promised is now taking place. Those two phenomena include the increased use of less-stable laminates, such as PTFE, flex and printed materials, combined with the lack of competent, skilled workers to build product regardless of the method. Add to this the declining price of direct imaging equipment and this process paradigm shift appears to look a bit like that wave about to crash down on the unsuspecting swimmer.

Printed electronics has intrigued me in particular because for a number of years I worked in the paperboard packaging industry where “flex” packaging was, in effect, the same thing as printed electronics. By same, the packaging was processed (laminated, printed, sealed and cut) all in a web (reel-to-reel) process. Registration for all these processes and especially printing was critical but, with the technology available in the mid ’80s, very doable.

Fast forward to the first decade of this millennium when PE began to be touted as the next wave. Many, if not most, discounted this concept simply because “everyone knows” we produce panels that go through many exotic processes; therefore, “it’s obvious” that this new technology is not viable because our industry does not produce circuit “boards” reel to reel! Even some of the early believers had a hard time trying to understand how to harness printed electronics to make low-volume/high-mix products, for prototyping for example, via what appeared to be a “volume” process.

With new process technologies, such as direct imaging technology, and improved raw materials as well as equipment – combined with growing demand for thinner and lighter end-product – PE may be a paradigm changer in two ways: first, the product itself (reel-to-reel production of thin substrate PCBs), and second, by forcing the embrace of alternative processes to produce tight registration, high-tech product.

3D manufacturing is equally intriguing. Some say it is best-suited for mechanical design work, such as to prototype-molded, powder-formed or machined parts. I am not so sure that is exclusively the case. Imagine forming mechanical parts with electronic circuits on the top, bottom or inner surface of the piece, instead of it containing a dedicated circuit board with all the mechanical connections. This approach is already being incorporated in the antenna world.

Combine the imaging capability found in direct image technology with the printing of circuits found in printed electronics technology and the laminate and polymer expertise within the molding world and you may just have all the ingredients of a real game-changer!

Then again, maybe I’m just dreaming, much like it might have been back in the 1950s when someone thought of attaching wire to a board, giving birth to the modern printed circuit board. Or when someone else got the crazy idea of laminating two or more boards together, creating a multilayer circuit board. And what about drilling holes so small a mechanical drill press could not make them, or …?

Our industry has a long history of being at the epicenter of technology change. New and emerging technologies bring change: sometimes subtle, sometimes radical. Our industry, like few others, has been a major force in changing paradigms. Looking around I see enough disruptive and exciting processes and technologies to know that our industry’s legacy will live for a long time. Now knowing which new – or established – process, technology or concept is going to be the next crashing wave of change, well, that’s the challenge we all face as we look toward the next paradigm.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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