Caveat Lector

Mike BuetowSince man first walked, he has been scouring the skies for understanding of how he came to be. Big events are bound to enhance our learning, but capturing those moments and making sense of them is never a simple task. In August came one of those big moments astronomers had been waiting a lifetime to witness: the collision of two neutron stars.

While the cosmic event answered questions astrophysicists had long been contemplating, it also opened a new world of questions. The answers to at least some of those questions are buried in mountains of digital data that could take years to sort through.

A similar situation is unfolding in factories worldwide. We no longer look at machines in isolation, nor do the machines themselves act independently. Systems designed to check the work of other machines on the line are proliferating. Those machines generate immeasurable amounts of data, some of which are used to independently resolve ongoing or potential processing “events,” big and small. But the capture of all these data threatens to bury already overworked engineers.  

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Mike BuetowFor years I’ve resisted the calls (and occasional) urge to expand our vehicles for delivering information to voice or video. There are a number of reasons why.

For one, I felt – and still feel – a large percentage of our subscribers actually like the activity of reading. (After all, you are reading this, right?) This has been borne out by the fact that we maintain a subscriber base of more than 60,000 designers and engineers. That’s a lot of eyeballs, and it doesn’t begin to take into account the thousands and thousands more who aren’t subscribers and read the magazine online.

I also recognize that for many in our industry, work is all-consuming. Seriously, when outside the office, how often do you check your email, or log in to see how your factory is running? Frequently, I imagine. The tools that allow us to physically escape the office have the ironic capability to keep us tethered to it. Health experts advise that when you have a chance to disconnect, you should take it and not look back. Easier said than done.

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Mike BuetowI sat with Irene Sterian at the SMTAI technical committee recognition dinner in September. (As an aside, if you’ve never had the pleasure of speaking with Irene, you really should find the time. She could make rubber chicken seem interesting.) Amid conversation on IoT, islands of St. Bernards, Quebec City, Elon Musk and cats, we got to talking about disruptive technology.

It was one of those conversations where you completely abandon the good manners your mother taught you, as you keep interrupting the other party out of excitement about the topic.

To be clear, I believe “disruption” is often an inflated term. Most of what we call disruptive is really just “painful to a certain segment of people or business.” Take ride-sharing, for instance. Type in “Uber” or “Lyft” and “disruptive,” and a Google search returns a combined 850,000 results. But what have those businesses truly changed? We still use what is essentially 100-year-old technology – cars – to get from Point A to Point B. Ride-sharing may have altered the value of the municipal taxi, but it certainly did not change the transportation industry.

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Mike BuetowThe end is nigh for lead in solder, as our columnist Tim O’Neill wrote in July in CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY.

Rules governing use of the materials – Directive 2015/863, aka RoHS 3 – are coming online and will be in full force by 2019.

Suppliers have until July 22, 2019, to meet the stricter provisions, which include no more than 0.1% lead in medical devices, which are joining consumer, industrial and other electronics products on the effectively banned list.

In “Life After SAC 305,” Tim poses the question, What comes next? Already, the future of commonplace unleaded alloys such as SAC is being questioned. As Tim writes, “It is even feasible SAC 305 will be dislodged by a new de facto alloy that better serves the needs of the market.”

Poor SAC. It entered this world under duress – a much-debated compromise that standards bodies and major OEMs agreed on only after reviewing nearly 80 other alloys.

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Mike BuetowOver the past couple months, I took my now 14-year-old on his first electronics manufacturing factory tours. He had visited a vocational school with his 8th grade class, but I think it really opened his eyes to what real-life manufacturing looks like. He’s not considering vocational school, but I think it’s important that he – and all kids his age – understand what really goes on in (well-run) factories.

As background, “14” knows what a circuit board is, but has no knowledge of how they are made or assembled. At IMI PCB and Lightspeed Manufacturing, both located in Haverhill, MA, he was able to see the basic operations up close, and listened to explanations of how boards are transformed from digital 0s and 1s and schematics to large green (or other colored) panels and arrays, and then screened with solder paste and assembled, and (sometimes) reworked. Both plants are low-volume, high-mix operations, which altered his impression somewhat, for as a kid with multiple handhelds of his own, he naturally expected to see machines pumping out cellphone boards every three seconds.  

Before he entered, I asked what he was expecting to see inside. “Mainly machines,” he said, “because since the Industrial Revolution and the invention of mass production, we are in an age where machines are huge parts of our lives. I think the machines are doing the work, and people are just here to help run them.” He was in for some surprises.

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Mike BuetowJim Raby has been one of my favorite subjects over the years. How could he not be? He lived such a rich and interesting life. How many of us, for instance, can say we started our careers working side-by-side developing rockets with Wernher von Braun?

A legend in electronics soldering, Jim’s backstory is well-known. He spent his entire career in electronics manufacturing. Starting with the Saturn/Apollo Program, he became synonymous with soldering and high-reliability printed circuit assemblies. He is credited for developing the NASA and Navy (the famous China Lake) soldering schools, and was instrumental in developing the IPC soldering certification curriculum, used by the vast majority of the industry today. He initiated the Electronics Manufacturing Productivity Facility (later known as the American Competitiveness Institute). All in all, he trained tens of thousands of engineers and operators.

He was issued patents for wave soldering and embedded components, and initiated the Zero Defect Program for wave soldering. He also was the driver of the Lights Out Factory concept that revolutionized the modern electronics manufacturing facility.

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