Peter Bigelow

Disruptions are still the norm, but the “who” and “how” are evolving.

Maybe we are all barking up the wrong tree. It dawned on me that throughout my career the mantra of Moore’s Law has been driving virtually all segments of anything related to technology. The concept of continual shrinking of size while also increasing functionality – the common man’s interpretation of Moore’s Law –
has fueled some pretty amazing innovation, some of which is evolutionary and more often disruptive.

The mere concept of a cellphone, to speak nothing of smartphones, was impossible when technology was all through-hole with 8 mil lines and traces. It took innovation in plating, revolutionary chip technology, and groundbreaking assembly capability to handle fine-pitch assembly – all products of Moore’s Law – to enable a disruptive (to Ma Bell) cellphone to become what is now a can’t-live-without necessity (read: smartphone).

But in reading about the latest electronics technologies, I am beginning to wonder if something different is happening. Maybe Moore’s Law is taking a hiatus while a new phenomenon takes shape, one that may result in the same disruptive products but without requiring those products to rely on exponentially enhanced capability coming out of continually shrinking components. Some of us are seeing a few of these new phenomena in our day-to-day work life, and we all are reading about them in the national press and technical journals.

Printed electronics is just one example of how more does not require smaller. Printed electronics indeed requires tighter lines and traces, but more importantly, it requires circuitry to be applied in a very different way on substrates that are thinner but not necessarily smaller. Most applications to date for printed electronics seem to be “pieces” that are small but not smaller than a traditional rigid or flex circuit board. Often, in fact, printed electronics is touted as potentially taking the place of some innerlayers in more traditional circuit board applications utilizing conventional technologies. Printed electronics does not come without challenges that are consistent with the spirit of Moore’s Law; however, the end-functionality is not derived by decreasing size alone.

Similar, but very technically different, is the evolving concept of having “wearable” electronics. While Google Glass and the iWatch are two commercially available products that do cram gobs more capability into a smaller, albeit uniquely shaped package, most wearable electronics are just merging the concepts of printed electronics, ultra-flexible circuitry and unique shapes incorporating circuitry and components to provide functionality that can be worn by the user rather than carried. The military, for obvious reasons, is hot to see how this technology emerges, as are geeks throughout the world. The most likely result, however, will not be all that smaller than currently available alternatives, just more convenient and ultimately lighter, as they will be incorporated into other items worn by the user.

Another interesting phenomenon is 3-D printing. In this case the original objective was more mechanical: how to make rapid prototypes without the time-consuming steps of creating tooling. Soon it became apparent the technology could actually produce production-quality components and parts in a cost-effective way, therefore earning a position as a mainstay technology. Now many technologists are experimenting with “applying” circuitry to 3-D printed parts via conductive ink “printing” capabilities to see if a three-dimensional printed part, such as a housing, could also contain functional electronics, thus reducing the number of circuit boards required and better taking advantage of available real estate to reduce weight. 3-D printed parts are not smaller than conventionally produced parts, but are produced via a process that eliminates the timely step of building tooling, therefore cutting time for development and, ultimately, entry to market.

In each of these new, emerging, and potentially very disruptive technologies Moore’s Law does not directly apply. In most cases the density of circuitry, components or size of product is not expected to be any smaller, and in some cases may actually take up more real estate than alternative technologies to accomplish the same application. Nevertheless, each is trying to make the intended application more convenient either to reduce weight, incorporate into other existing and necessary items, or to reduce overall cost regardless of shape or size.

It’s this last point that makes me wonder if we are all barking up the wrong tree! For decades designers, fabricators and assemblers have focused on how to make smaller electronics: how to shrink components while dramatically increasing functionality; how to reduce lines, traces, vias and thickness while increasing layer count; how to design more into far less space. We have invested in the talent and equipment to accomplish these tasks as reliably and cost-effectively as possible.
We have accomplished nothing less than amazing results, all in the pursuit of keeping up with Moore’s Law and all it represents. But what if it’s no longer simply about size? What if the great differentiator becomes – shape?

How might one “fabricate” wearable electronics? Who might be able to “assemble” necessary components into (or is that onto?) wearable electronics? How might one design an application that will be constantly moving in unprotected environments?

Heady questions for a global industry with multi-multi billions of capability in place, designed, installed and ready to make continually smaller, albeit basically flat, panels!

All these shape-centric disruptive technologies will require companies that can cost-effectively produce robust and reliable product for both high-volume and high-mix applications. In some cases, fit and finish will count far more than ever before in our technology-driven – in-the-box – industry. The companies that can jump in quickly may well not be the household names that produce electronics today. Those companies that do blaze the trail, however, will be our competition in the days ahead.

As flexible as our industry has been, it must be even more so to grasp and master the manufacturing challenges to successfully produce the next-generation of shapes and sizes of electronics moving toward.

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

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