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.

When I think of the areas most critical to human sustainability, I think of communications, energy and transportation. (Sustenance is not one. The world is capable of growing enough food to meet the needs of its inhabitants. Why some people go hungry while others grow fat is more an issue of politics and how we choose to apply our resources, rather than an inherent resource deficit.) Efficiency and survival come down to being able to transfer information quickly and cheaply, keeping people and nourishment at appropriate temperatures, and being able to move goods and humans around safely and at the lowest-possible cost to the planet. No matter where in the world one is, they can benefit immensely from improvements in those three segments.

Even at our level, there is some movement to address these broader challenges. To wit, iNEMI released its 2017 Roadmap to the public at the end of June, and it’s a behemoth: a 28-chapter, 2,300-page look into the electronics manufacturing supply chain’s technology needs and challenges over the next decade. One chapter is dedicated to energy storage, a need we have been talking about at least since IPC identified high-density batteries in its original roadmap in 1993. There’s an implied recognition that an alternate, reliable and long-lasting power source is needed for the world’s vehicles and devices. An easily transportable power source that provides cheap and renewable energy would truly be a disruptor.

Let’s consider what we have called disruptors in electronics manufacturing. SMT was a big change, but we didn’t shed the fundamental process of using solder to attach components to a substrate. QFNs and BGAs forced us to think differently about design and inspection, among other things, but I would consider them more enablers than disruptors. Lead-free was a disruption, but truly disruptive? We still use solder, just a variety of different flavors instead of good old eutectic SnPb. A true disruptor would eliminate steps and processes and maybe even entire supply chains. We are inventing remarkable things, but most of them are priced out of reach of the vast majority of the world’s citizens. We aren’t there ... yet.

We might be edging nearer, however. At PCB West in September, there were two talks on 3D printing. Afterward, the exhibition floor booths were slammed. (In truth, they were all slammed.) But 3D printing does have the opportunity to truly redefine both process and supply chain. OEMs might forego outsourcing NPI. All EMS companies could easily enter the fabrication business. At a granular level, the day consumers widely use desktop machines to print their own electronic creations on paper may be on the horizon, if not actually in sight. We aren’t there yet, but there’s promise.

Incremental change is good. Incremental change is necessary. But we need companies that are truly dedicated to thinking far beyond, ones that refuse to be constrained by their current processes and convention of convictions.

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