China Goes ‘Upmarket’ Print E-mail
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Written by Mike Buetow   
Saturday, 31 May 2008 19:00

IP theft remains an issue, but business rolls on in Shanghai.

This year’s Nepcon China played to strong crowds and plenty of noise, as usual. The show, many watchers agree, needed a strong showing this year to fend off a challenge from the producers of Productronica, who are mounting a challenge to Nepcon’s longstanding supremacy in the Shanghai electronics market.

While all the big name OEMs were in Shanghai for the early April trade show, what makes Nepcon China interesting is its large indigenous crowds and the ample supply of native vendors.

Of the Chinese-made equipment alone, Circuits Assembly counted 13 printers, 14 reflow ovens, 10 wave machines, 10 AOI, four x-ray machines, one XRF, three ICT, three routers, five SPI systems, two dispensers, and a smattering of others (e.g., routers, stencil cleaners, washers, soldering robots). There was no selective soldering equipment, but Rizhao Prosert Electronic Equipment Co. showed an axial inserter – the first Chinese-made placement machine this reporter has seen in the past three years. There’s an extraordinary range of microscopes, ESD carts, rework stations (including BGA). Keep in mind, that’s just the Chinese-made gear. The learning curve is clearly shortening.

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And everyone is making everything. Companies you’ve heard of (e.g., Folungwin) and companies you haven’t (Tolo Machinery Equipment) were demonstrating a range of machines from wave to reflow to AOI to printers. All-in-one is the rage.

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Some improvements were noticeable. Folungwin’s printer, for example, was made from very high quality components and sturdy frames, not the weak sheet metal that once was commonplace. All the AOIs now feature color cameras. And a couple of solder vendors – ShenMao and Almit – are clearly intent on becoming world players.

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Generally speaking, the native equipment is not yet ready for volume. For example, none of the SPI was inline, and two were tabletops. And the components for many of the soldering machines are still substandard.

Accusations of IP theft, as usual, were rampant. I saw direct copies of various DEK, EKRA and Vitronics machines, and a dead-on knockoff of Ovation’s Grid-Lok board support tool, among others. In a bit of irony, one Chinese exhibitor sported a “no photography” sign on its adhesive dispenser. Western buyers beware.

As usual, distribution dominates. Those companies that develop strong ties to the top distributors tend to do the best. From a business standpoint, China is fairly easy to get into; actually developing leads and making sales is an altogether different story. The top distributors at Nepcon China – including WKK, Kaison and AmericanTec – outshone all but the largest of the placement OEMs.

Perhaps surprisingly, interest in cleaning has ramped here during the past few years. The best guess is that Southeast Asia’s high volumes of Pb-free material use – and its accompanying higher soldering temperatures – result in baked-on residues that are hard to remove and, in turn, force local manufacturers to migrate to more aggressive solutions. Companies like Aqueous Technologies, Zestron and Kyzen were all very positive about their opportunities here during the next few years.

The Chinese are also going upmarket in test and inspection. With Western customers demanding lower failure rates, there’s a greater emphasis on advanced technologies such as x-ray.

A handful of EMS firms exhibited, including Circuit Service, Beijing Brio, Panda and FEI Asia.

The much-maligned Everbright Convention Center sported certain noticeable improvements, including redesigned electrical that removed many – but not all – of the “speed bumps” common on the show floor in years past. The site also has been painted. For years, exhibitors have been prodding Reed Exhibitions, which produces the Nepcon show, to move or upgrade the Everbright. The show producer is beginning to listen.

Security was also tightened, with fewer watch vendors and other solicitors peddling their wares on the show floor. Nevertheless, the occasional smoker could still be spotted in the aisles.

Changes are taking place outside the venue as well. I’ve been coming to China since early 2000, and every trip here reveals something new. On the outside, for example, where I was once something of an oddity – while walking the Bund, Chinese nationals would approach to touch my hair – Westerners are everywhere today. Indeed, English signage is so rampant, I joked with local friends that while they may end up with all our manufacturing, they’ll also end up with our language. (They don’t think that’s funny.)

While MMI, the producer of Productronica, has been making noise lately about its China show going head-to-head with Nepcon, it looks for now that the Reed-produced show will hold its ground. All the large exhibitors I spoke with plan to return to the Everbright next year, as Nepcon’s history of bringing in the attendees outweighs lingering concerns over the venue – and antipathy toward Reed itself. As noted by BTU product manager for electronics assembly Rob DiMatteo, a veteran of Nepcon China, attendance was strong. “Nepcon is a good show,” he said. “We’ve been busy.”

It’s an oddity: Exhibitors dislike the producer and hate the venue, yet by virtue of its location, Nepcon China remains likely the premier annual electronics manufacturing exhibition in the world. (Its concurrent technical conference is not yet world-class, however.)

One final observation: China leads the world in noise. Either everyone here is deaf, or in coming years hearing-aid makers are absolutely going to clean up.

For a recap of the new products at Nepcon China – and there were many – visit circuitsassembly.com/cms/content/category/8/120/125/.

Mike Buetow is editor in chief of Circuits Assembly; This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
 

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