The Route

For more than 20 years, PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY has been proud to be the exclusive publisher of the annual NTI - 100 list of the world’s largest board fabricators.

One of the striking changes over the years has been the reshaping of the industry geographical landscape.

In this year’s rankings, which begin on page 32 of the August 2022 issue, see how many Europe- and US-based companies are in the top 25. I'll save you the suspense. One each: AT&S and TTM Technologies, respectively. Long gone are the days when Photocircuits, Sanmina, Hadco, Viasystems and the like dominated the top of the chart.

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Mike Buetow

Foxconn was in the news (again) last month, this time for alleging competitors are poaching its employees.

The complaints were levied specifically at rivals in Vietnam, where the world’s largest ODM/EMS is expanding its factories as major customers like Apple shift production away from China, in part to avoid being a pawn in the geopolitical tug-of-war between the US and China.

Foxconn, which currently employs about 60,000 workers in Vietnam, asserts its EMS competitors are establishing their own operations near Foxconn’s to make it easier to entice workers to jump ship.

Poaching complaints are hardly new, of course. Mexico is notorious for workers relocating en masse from company to company in pursuit of everything from higher pay to better food in the plant cafeteria.

Audrey McGuckin, who spent 10 years as chief talent officer for Jabil and now consults to Kimball Electronics, among others, points out the top stress point for CEOs is talent. And a McKinsey study found only 5% of CEOs feel their organizations’ talent management has been very effective at improving company performance.

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Mike Buetow

Have big box stores learned lessons that can be applied by electronics manufacturers?

One of the big takeaways from the Future Compute conference on the campus of MIT in May was a definitive “yes!”

There, we heard about how some of the large retail chains like Target use software, hardware and data in all kinds of customer experiences.

Almost every employee has handheld devices tracking the billions of sensors and cameras in use across some 1,900 stores and 50 regional distribution centers. At each store, it runs about 100 different software applications. They look at traffic trends: When is the peak? When is the lag? And how can they be modulated?

Now consider an electronics manufacturing operation. There could be hundreds of operators, thousands of PCBs, millions of components, billions of solder joints, each one needing traceability.

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Mike BuetowAnd we’re back!

After a (too long) break, PCEA meetups have restarted with a bang, with two local chapter meetings, plus the first national event in PCEA history.

Professional development was the focus of both chapter meetings. This can be looked at two ways: one in terms of technology advancements and the other tied to learning the basics of placement and routing.

The pandemic is driving change, not just to the way we work, but what we work on. Per John Watson of Altium, who spoke at both meetings, “Advancements in technology are partially a result of the pandemic.” The industry “forced us into redoing the way we do things.”

As reported by PCEA chief content officer Chelsey Drysdale, Watson says designs for IoT, drones and nanotechnology, among others, were “science fiction” just a decade ago. Today, they are commonplace, and others (additive manufacturing?) are right behind them.

Yet, while today’s designs are typified by higher frequencies, smaller boards, and bigger, heavier stackups, the industry is losing experience. A survey shared by Watson suggests more than half of designers plan to retire in the next 12 months.

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Mike Buetow

More than 15 years ago, the Restriction of the Use of Hazardous Substances in Electronics (RoHS) went into effect with great fanfare. While it had far-reaching effects, the most prominent material affected was lead.

Lead has for decades been the industry’s bad boy. (I’d say red-headed stepchild, but I am still mostly red-headed.) Several attempts were made in the US alone to eliminate its use, and the remediation and eradication efforts for lead in plumbing has had a pronounced effect on lowering rates of birth defects and learning disabilities. While an EU mandate, RoHS had a ripple effect throughout electronics-producing regions, and most eventually migrated to using lead-free materials in electronics solder as well.

As the early RoHS end-use exemptions expired, the number of electronics hardware applications using lead has become limited primarily to legacy high-reliability programs. One of the last holdouts has been the US Department of Defense, and even that pendulum is swinging. The last few US defense appropriations bills have included millions of dollars in funding to support the transition of various aerospace, defense and high-performance electronics to lead-free technologies.

But as we focus on the molecules, are we missing the larger compound? By that I mean the ability to recycle and reuse the materials in electronics products, regardless of their relative toxicity?

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Mike Buetow

It wasn’t long ago NASA administrators were lamenting ongoing cuts to the world’s leading space agency’s annual budget were putting the US at risk of falling behind its competitors.

No one remembers, but in the 1960s the line item for NASA made up more than 4% of the federal US budget. Once a few footprints were made in space, however, the shine was off the moon rock. A decade later, NASA’s budget had been slashed by two-thirds in real dollars, and only briefly topped 1% of the federal budget again over the next 50 years.

Today it hovers around 0.5%, which still translates to more than $20 billion a year in funding. Indeed, the Biden administration proposed allocating nearly $25 billion to NASA in 2022 to support moon exploration and more.

As craft go up, costs come down. It can cost up to $400 million to lift some United Launch Alliance ships off the ground. That’s one reason why NASA is so interested in its so-called Venture Class of launch vehicles, smaller vessels that carry smaller payloads but lower risks, especially to the bottom line if they end up cone down. These rockets are priced at a few million dollars apiece, chump change, especially for those, ahem, explorers named Branson or Bezos.

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