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Peter Bigelow

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.

Printed electronics, after decades of hype, has a place in the technology roadmap but not as originally anticipated. Early prognosticators believed printed electronics would displace printed circuit boards. Thinner, more exotic substrates appeared to offer promise of finer lines and features “printed” on them than could be fabricated on traditional substrates used in traditional PCB processes. In many ways printed electronics continues to show promise, but it will not cost-effectively displace inner or outerlayers as the predominate form of circuit board construction anytime soon.

Nano materials also have been hyped for some time as a game-changer, yet also had difficulty finding traction as a replacement for traditional chemistries and additive surface finishes. Some of these materials show much potential as viable options to some chemistries for some applications. They are not ready for prime time, however, and as a group still appear as illusive to board fabricators as a lake in the desert is to a thirsty traveler. Traditional chemistries still offer the most cost-effective and reliable option in our industry.

3-D printing, on the other hand, has been a game-changer, and not just for our industry. In the mechanical world 3-D printing has changed the way products are developed, from prototype to production, from simple to complex. While offering an interesting and potentially viable platform on which an electronics circuit could be applied, how 3-D printing might impact board fabrication and assembly is far from clear. 3-D printing offers intriguing geometries and angles that need to be monitored, as they may result in some breakthroughs in how circuits are applied and components are mounted, but to date has not been as disruptive in electronics as it has in the mechanical world.

Autonomous automobiles, and pursuit of same, are being hyped as the technological wave of the future. While the market may or may never come to fruition, the investment into technology to attain the goal is significant. The beneficiary industries for this technology appear to be in the world of sensors and software, which require PCBs. While the technologies being developed may not have any impact on the technologies that go into fabricating or assembling boards, there potentially will be a beneficial bump in product volume, even if built by traditional methods using existing materials.

All the above technological innovations, as well as dozens of others developed over the span of my career, have impacted our industry. But none has revolutionized or forever changed it.

The last technological development that truly transformed our industry was the development of the IC. It displaced wire harnesses as they had existed, forcing that industry to forever change, and created what is now the PCB industry – encompassing fab and assembly.

When the IC, or microchip, was developed, it was underestimated. Yes, it offered a breakthrough in the number of circuits that fit into a small area of real estate. But no one imagined the impact so many circuits in such a small space would have on such a wide spectrum of products. No one could imagine that, as incredible as the first generation of microchips were, they would provide a platform that would continue to enable greater processing capacity in ever smaller spaces, what we now call Moore’s law. Most important, no one imagined the impact on manufacturing, and certainly no one could fathom the impact on society.

When looking into the future, too often we overestimate the impact, disruptive or not, of some development hyped by the pundits, while underestimating or even ignoring a less visible but more impactful innovation. It is those quiet innovations I seek, and fear most!

Nevertheless, finding what is important and impactful is not easy. Amid the hype, promise and pronouncements, it can be close to impossible. Yet somewhere out there lies an idea or process or product that could be a real game-changer for us all and lead to a “big bang” that will transform industries and everyone in them. That’s why we need to keep looking, train our eyes and ears on what is new, and what is being quietly worked on, as well as what is being hyped. Take the hype with the proverbial grain of salt. Focus on understanding the little things that could come to fruition and become big.

I doubt that anything in 2020 will displace the PCB, but I also hope nothing will be developed that eventually displaces us all.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc. (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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