Widespread critical staffing needs call for a cross-industry effort to promote manufacturing.

With this time of year come many opportunities to attend industry gatherings, catch up with industry colleagues, and find out what’s happening in the macro circuit board supply chain. Over the past couple months, I have seen many old friends. And, I have had more than a few opportunities to reflect on our industry, the state of the supply chain, and what is “critical” versus just “important.”

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Peter Bigelow

Additive manufacturing might not be ready for prime time, but it’s making inroads.

Sometimes I find myself walking around the shop floor asking, “Why do we have all this very expensive equipment? There must be a simpler, cheaper way to make a printed circuit board!” And yet, despite phenomenal technological strides, our industry still uses the same basic manufacturing processes since the earliest days of circuit board production: drill – image – plate – press – repeat – then route.

Observing so many different processes, simple logic might make you think printing conductive ink would have replaced plating processes long ago. Yet while printed electronics has advanced considerably, it is not ready for prime time for all applications.

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Peter Bigelow

A sense of urgency most go toward protecting your tribal knowledge.

Every business keeps a mindful eye on critical assets. On any corporate balance sheet those assets are identified, valued and periodically updated. Indeed, business valuations are often tied directly to those assets, enabling companies to borrow money to acquire additional assets. Regrettably, no balance sheet includes or values the most important and valuable (and perhaps invaluable) asset a company has: tribal knowledge.

The term “tribal knowledge” is used to encompass all the knowledge, experience and wisdom a business’s combined workforce brings to the game each day. It describes what for centuries has been a key asset of all businesses, especially manufacturers. Despite its importance however, historically it has not been universally acknowledged of value nor viewed as a competitive advantage that contributes to organizational profitability.

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Peter Bigelow

A thwarted vacation provides lessons in the importance of timely communication, training and skilled staff.

Summertime was here, and after a couple years that seemed more like a couple decades hunkering down under the Covid cloud, it was finally time to take a vacation. Based on the Covid protocols at the time, we decided not to travel abroad but instead return to one of our favorite domestic vacation spots. Resort accommodations were booked, airline tickets purchased, and a rental car secured. Now we waited for the day to come for our first real pre-pandemic trip, wondering, with everything booked well in advance, what could possibly go wrong?

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Peter Bigelow

Fabricators and designers must communicate about new technology to verify its viability.

More often than not over the past couple of decades, new technologies, processes and options we fabricators have been asked, begged or threatened to add to our repertoire of offerings were ones that could be best considered disruptive. What’s disruptive to a manufacturer may seem benign to the casual eye, as often the technology – or process – that is most disruptive is a simple one.

Indeed, sometimes that technology is nothing more than the rebirth of an older, tried-and-true, albeit significantly tweaked, process. REACH, and the prior RoHS, caused much disruption, and yet most of the plating chemistries and surface finishes in use today are essentially highly refined formulas of older plating technologies such as ENIG, silver and tin.

Old or new, disruptive technologies tend to be challenges for several reasons. First is understanding the technology and how to process it so it works as intended. Second is determining what equipment is needed to cost-effectively and robustly apply the new technology. Finally, finding enough customers to consistently order product that uses the technology, so everyone remembers what it is and how to process it!

Truly new paradigm-shifting technologies hit the scene as “must haves” so a product can function. While disruptive to manufacturers, in some ways the more off-the-wall a technology seems, the easier it is to decide whether to embrace it or wait to see if it sinks under the weight of its own hype. These disruptive technologies more typically challenge everyone to understand not only how to apply them, but how to measure success or failure so yields and costs can be determined.

In all cases, what makes disruptive technologies so unruly boils down to two issues: First is the learning curve and capital investment needed to provide the technology, and second is gaining consensus among customers that the technology is a better alternative to more traditional technologies, and they will purchase enough to warrant the human and capital investment. Probably most frustrating for fabricators is when a buyer provides no apparent reason other than “because” for specifying a new technology. The fabricator’s goal is to supply quality product they understand and can safely and consistently produce, not (inadvertently) become a customer’s R&D center, with the concurrent risks and costs.

Every new technology has at least two sides. At a recent industry gathering, a supplier mentioned a current disruptive technology we had difficulty working our way through was only one of a slew of new “enabling” technologies available to the industry. Enabling? Not to me. That is when the communication gap between design application and manufacturing competence became evident. As this conversation continued, I heard a different spin as to why a particular new technology was being specified. Understanding the benefits from the end-product perspective began to make sense and explained why this customer would have specified it, as well as why its use may become widespread in the future. The tutorial was strictly from a value-add design perspective, and it was compelling. When asked if the design community knew of the fabrication challenges the new technology caused that impacted yield and lead times, in addition to cost, the answer was honest: “Probably not.”  

What’s enabling to one party can be disruptive to another. Fabricators often do not understand the nuances of pushing design to meet challenging performance objectives but do fully understand robust, time-proven manufacturing techniques. Equally, when a designer chooses to move toward a new technology, they may be excited by the functionality it offers but most likely is unaware manufacturing the board could lead to lower yield, longer lead times and ultimately higher costs.

The real issue is understanding the risks involved with embracing – or ignoring – new technology. The risks include, “Will it work, or will it only work if executed flawlessly? Will the new technology pass the test of time? Most important, will widespread use of the technology lead to cost-effective processes or equipment to ensure consistency from one application to another and from one supplier to another?”

As a fabricator, it is more important now than ever to be in touch with customers’ designers to understand what they are attempting to accomplish. Equally for designers, it is essential they are in contact with all their PCB suppliers, especially the behind-the-scenes process gurus, so everyone understands the manufacturability of new technology in the real world of the shop floor.

This gets back to the need for suppliers knowing their customer and customers knowing their suppliers – and not just at the buyer/sales rep level but at the designer/manufacturing engineer level. Knowing the intended end-result a new technology enables, as well as how disruptive that technology may be when introduced to manufacturing, the product is the best way for customers and suppliers, working together, to accomplish a cost-effective design. Too often this communication is wrongly assumed to occur. As much as frequent two-way communication should be happening when all is moving along with traditional technologies, it is critical the communication takes place when a new approach is contemplated that may be enabling for one but not necessarily for others.

The difference as to whether a technology is enabling or disruptive is determined only by the degree in which customer and supplier decide to work together. As our industry finds ways to tweak older, reliable technologies or develop paradigm-changing ones, understanding the enabling benefits and the disruptive nature will make the journey mutually rewarding. 

PETER BIGELOW is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; His column appears monthly.

Peter Bigelow

Shipping, Covid-19 and inflation challenges rival supply chain issues when securing capital equipment.

When I made my 2022 capital investment plan, I never thought it would be my 2023 capital investment plan. However, with a couple minor exceptions, equipment will be put in service during 2023, not this year as originally planned.

I thought I was the exception, but in conversations with colleagues, I realize I am the current norm. A trio of events had the combined impact of making what should be simple investments in machinery and equipment anything but.

The most talked about, problematic event has been the strained supply chain. I am not sure exactly how much of the problem getting machinery and equipment is directly attributable to the supply chain, but it has indeed had an impact. When obtaining lead-time quotations, availability of parts, chips, etc., are always the culprit cited for the long length of time to build the equipment, whether a complex custom-built item or simply a copier for the office.

That is only half the story, however. Shipping times to get equipment from location of origin to your facility are also taking significantly longer than before. It doesn’t matter if the machine is shipped from Asia, Europe or North America, or if the delivery is foreign or domestic; availability of planes, trains or container ships is as stretched as the supply chain of parts. Events taking place in Ukraine are exacerbating availability of raw materials, parts and shipping options.

Navigating the Covid world has also had its impact on the ability – and especially speed – to select what machinery and capital equipment to purchase. When compiling a capital budget, it is easy to say you need a drill, image, press or pick-and-place machine, but doing the due diligence to select the correct machine is something quite different. Historically one could attend trade shows, visit sites, see the equipment in action and run test jobs to see the results – all activities most efficiently handled by in-person visits to possibly multiple locations. In the Covid world of Zoom, WebEx, etc., doing the necessary due diligence required to select the best piece of equipment and then get approval to invest considerable sums in capital equipment has become much more challenging and a far lengthier process.

In particular, a process to select, prove out, and negotiate the purchase of a piece of equipment that in the past might have taken weeks now takes up to a year – and that is before pulling the trigger to commence the order. Companies that once let an equipment supplier and potential customer in to see a piece of equipment and run samples now may not allow visitors. Capital equipment manufacturers may have sold the demo equipment normally available for running tests. Equipment manufacturers’ sales and demo staffs may be working remotely – with no equipment available – and limited access to their factory to conduct sales demonstrations. Altogether, unless you are buying a duplicate of what you already have, the selection and due-diligence process rivals the supply chain issues, consuming valuable time in the equipment selection and procurement process.

The final challenge is inflation, which is relatively new but may become significant. With demand so high for all sorts of industrial and consumer items, and with the supply chain in such a strained state, the cost of components, raw materials and, therefore, the finished product is escalating at rates not seen for decades. When budgeting a capital expenditure, and completing the (long) process of selection and due diligence, finding out the cost is five to 10% or more higher may necessitate rethinking the equipment or timing of the investment. For any purchased capital investment via a loan, lease or line of credit, rising interest rates inflate the total cost of investment.

As much as inflation has impacted prices of new equipment, it pales in comparison to the impact inflation has had on the used equipment market. With lead times for new equipment stretched so far, a premium is now paid for readily available used equipment in good condition. In fact, it has been reported some used equipment is selling for more than it costs new. The lack of availability of new equipment, coupled with long lead times for new machines, is compounding the effect of inflation. As supply chain difficulties continue, inflation may become the biggest challenge in planning specific capital investments and preparing a capital budget.

So, regrettably, I am looking good for putting 2023 capital investments in service, but not so for 2022. I guess it’s time to plan for 2024 … or maybe even 2025. 

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