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Mike BuetowOver the past couple months, I took my now 14-year-old on his first electronics manufacturing factory tours. He had visited a vocational school with his 8th grade class, but I think it really opened his eyes to what real-life manufacturing looks like. He’s not considering vocational school, but I think it’s important that he – and all kids his age – understand what really goes on in (well-run) factories.

As background, “14” knows what a circuit board is, but has no knowledge of how they are made or assembled. At IMI PCB and Lightspeed Manufacturing, both located in Haverhill, MA, he was able to see the basic operations up close, and listened to explanations of how boards are transformed from digital 0s and 1s and schematics to large green (or other colored) panels and arrays, and then screened with solder paste and assembled, and (sometimes) reworked. Both plants are low-volume, high-mix operations, which altered his impression somewhat, for as a kid with multiple handhelds of his own, he naturally expected to see machines pumping out cellphone boards every three seconds.  

Before he entered, I asked what he was expecting to see inside. “Mainly machines,” he said, “because since the Industrial Revolution and the invention of mass production, we are in an age where machines are huge parts of our lives. I think the machines are doing the work, and people are just here to help run them.” He was in for some surprises.

Inside, the first thing he noted was the odor. Of the EMS plant, he said, “It smelled bad.” Of the fab shop, he added, “It smelled worse.” (Here's where experience matters: Both are actually clean, low-odor facilities.)

The size of the shops and number of employees caught 14 off guard. He envisioned huge factories filled with workers because, as he noted, “They’re going to need a lot of people because everybody has something to do with the circuit board, right? I mean, I have two phones myself.”

Another surprise was the complexity of fabrication compared with assembly. While 14 was expecting “a lot of machines,” he thought the processes of the former would be rapid. What he saw, of course, was production based more on engineering skill than the inherent capability of machinery. “I didn’t think you’d have to go through so much to make it,” he told me. “I thought with the boards being so small, it would take maybe 10 to 20 minutes” to make one, he said.

The amount of guesswork involved in designing and building an RF stripline, like the ones IMI specializes in, was eye-opening as well. “How do you get that knowledge?” he asked our host, IMI president Peter Bigelow. “How do you learn to ride a bike?” Peter joked. “Doing it day after day, over and over again.” And we discussed the differences in inventory management between a fabricator and an EMS, and how maintaining controls over materials and capital expenditures is as important as being able to build working devices.

Readers might be surprised to learn 14 found the PCB shop more impressive. “If I was to work in one of them, I would work there because it just seems like there’s more to it, and it was overall a cooler process.”

As a bright student with a particular aptitude for math, I asked 14 if touring the sites piqued his interest in manufacturing. Not really, was the answer. “I never really had an interest in it. I’m just not good with these things. It takes a lot of background knowledge.”

Noting the manual nature of many of the process steps, he elaborated, “I’m not really interested in working with my hands that much. I’ll probably be someone who collects data, or works out the plans, like a general manager.”

Then he stuck in the knife: “If everything were 3D-printed, it would be a lot easier.” Egad.

14 also had questions for Dad, starting with: Why was I making him do this? I thought his perspective would be interesting to readers, I told him, but it’s also good to see how a plant runs so he can gain an understanding of what a big chunk of the population does each day, not just in the US but around the world.

That seemed to satisfy him for the moment, and he thanked me for the tours. But the fumes from the plating room apparently had no affect on his appetite, as I should have seen his next question coming: “Where are we going for lunch?”

Ed.: PCB West, the Silicon Valley’s largest trade show for electronics design and manufacturing, takes place next month! Register now at pcbwest.com.

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