Caveat Lector

Mike BuetowThe exploding maker market has brought thousands of new designers to the field.

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Mike BuetowCan the electronics industry influence global trade pacts with China? And should it? The word from many major trade groups appears to be “yes” and “maybe not.”

IPC, SEMI, the Semiconductor Industry Association and National Association of Manufacturers have each commented of late on the proposed tax hikes to be levied by the US on Chinese imports in response to concerns over China’s technology transfer policies and the massive trade imbalance between the world’s two largest economies.

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Mike BuetowSince being named technical conference director for PCB West seven years ago, I have generally shied away from offering keynote addresses.

There are many reasons for my hesitancy, but primarily it’s because they seemed so out of place for a conference like PCB West. Since UP Media president Pete Waddell founded the show in 1992, its focus has always been on training. That sets it apart from the traditional research-driven test-and-report style events that populate this industry. Both have their place, but PCB West always has been about helping those in the trenches.

Keynotes, on the other hand, tend to fall in one of two categories. There are the rah-rah types, of course. These are the professional motivators: ex astronauts, generals, athletes. They tend to roll out the same old bromides, a takeoff on the theme of overcoming adversity. Audiences listen. They cheer. Their souls are saved. Then they go out and do the same things they’ve always done.

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Mike BuetowPresident Donald Trump issued an executive  order in March that introduced an often-threatened but rarely used measure to the world economic picture: tariffs.

Trump’s edict, which as of this writing was due to go into effect on Mar. 23, places onerous taxes on imports of steel and aluminum – 25% and 10%, respectively. The moves, the president said, were to reset trade imbalances and protect domestic metal producers, which have been decimated over the past two decades.

Or have they? The adjusted domestic steel production year-to-date through Mar. 10 was 17.2 million net tons, at a capability utilization rate of 74%. That is down 0.2% from the 17,221,000 net tons during the same period last year, when the capability utilization rate was 74.6%.
By comparison, total and finished steel imports over the same period were a combined 7.6 million NT net tons. The estimated finished steel import market share is 25% year-to-date.

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Mike BuetowThe question – actually, it was more of a plea – was to the point: How are fabricators handling first article inspection requirements?

Confusion, the writer pointed out, appeared to be growing throughout the supply chain, as it attempts to sort out just how often FAI needs to be performed.

It’s a fair question. Inspection is time-consuming (and thus expensive) and considered in many quarters to be non-value-added. And that’s not just for manufacturers but also customers, which face both additional evaluations and a data avalanche. That avalanche is the result of the surge in acceptable quality limit (AQL) samples of FAI measurements as supplied to the customer, which then must enter, sort and distribute (as needed) all that data. It is one thing to impose requirements on suppliers, but in the case of AS9100D, those requirements might be backflowing.

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Mike BuetowIt took until the second business day of the new year for the chips to start falling in the US printed circuit laminate industry. On the same day, Isola changed hands, and Park Electrochemical announced it was reviewing options for its PCB unit – a move generally seen as a precursor to a sale.

As the East Coast braced for a winter blizzard of epic proportions, Park Electrochemical sent a cold shiver down the spines of more than a few industry observers with its announcement of a “strategic evaluation” of its core printed circuit materials business, one that could spell the end of one of the last domestic manufacturers of FR-4 in North America.

Park has been paring its PCB operations over the past few years amid declining revenues and tighter margins. Even as the firm’s aerospace revenues have grown, overall Park sales have fallen year-over-year in 10 of the past 11 quarters, more than half the time by double digits. And said PCB revenues have been falling despite a rebound in the overall bare board market.

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