Every new year brings the promise of change.

It’s the beginning of a new year. Hard to believe the last one is gone, especially as it was not bad, as years go. Some years are more special than others.

This year – 2011 – is the 40th anniversary of my company’s founding. I am sure no one in 1971 would have envisioned how much change would transpire. IMI was founded as an OEM – Integrated Memories Incorporated – and its products were state-of-the-art memory cards. We still have a few hanging around, including one proudly mounted on a conference room wall. Back in 1971, state-of-the-art meant a circuit board of low layer count with 8/8 lines/traces that connected scads of components that, together, covering real estate of just over one sq. ft., offered the sophisticated customer 16kb of memory. For technology, 1971 was a pretty good year!

As memory cards gave way to memory chips, our company quietly, without even knowing it, made a major strategic “decision” that resulted in becoming a circuit board fabricator. I say “decision” because by not making the decision to invest in a chip foundry as other memory card manufacturers did, we abdicated our position and, through the back door, entered a new (for us) industry. Luckily, 40 years later it all worked out.

At the beginning of every year, most companies roll out their latest plan. Whether called a budget, profit plan or strategic plan, the year brings some anticipation as to what is expected, who will do what to whom and with what resources, and how the combination of anticipation, effort and luck may impact the bottom line. Few really consider whether they are making a strategic decision by default. What is today called “disruptive technology” is considered, but never seriously. The loss of a customer is viewed as an isolated event, rather than the tip of a cascading trend. I have sharpened my pencil so to have a “realistic,” data-driven budget for the year ahead and considered my available resources, meager as they may be, in light of all the capital needs to make the prudent next move. In short, I am full of anticipation of what might be and prepared with as much hard data as I can muster to ensure “success.”

So why do I get that feeling I have overlooked something?

Of the various companies I have worked for, those that survive have, over time, made radical transformations. In each case, it was a new “technology” that directly or indirectly caused the transformation. In one case the invention of cellophane enabled a box manufacturer to become the leader in flexible packaging. In another the technological advances of World War II propelled a supplier to utilities to become the leader in electrical connectors. Each time, management had the acumen to identify the change – the disruptive technology – consider it and capitalize on the future it represented.

Disruptive technologies today are numerous, exciting as well as challenging. Disruptive business issues, such as globalization not just of manufacturing but design and markets, are equally exciting. To fully grasp the impact of all the opportunities and challenges we face that appear to be potentially disruptive requires a different approach. As important as it is to prepare a sound business plan and data-driven annual budget, we need to periodically step back and just imagine the possibilities – yeah, that’s right, dream!

Dream with a dash of pragmatism. Dream with the input of valued customers. Are their future technological needs reasonably within the window of possibility for existing technologies, or will a compromise be needed to meet the customer’s requirements with anticipated available technologies? If compromise is needed, alternative technologies will be sought. Are the technical advances of alternative technologies moving at the same, slower or faster pace than technical advances within current technologies? If advancing faster, they will be a game-changer. Are outside forces, be they environmental, political or financial (such as RoHS), causing a competitive advantage for new (or competitive disadvantage for existing) technologies? Again, all such changes cause opportunities and create obsolescence.

As I look both directions – forward as well as back – the importance of seriously considering all the options seems critical.

Back in 1971 no one imagined a chip could cost-effectively replace wire, components and circuit board. Flex circuits were accidents caused by manufacturing process problems, and everyone knew it was impossible to consistently – by design – produce 0.002" lines and spaces on FR-4 (say nothing of Teflon). Many companies expired, ignoring what at the time were disruptive challenges. Equally, many companies were launched and have excelled producing exactly these once-imagined technologies.

Looking forward, we continue to face disruptions. Printed electronics looks and sounds too simple not to be a game changer. Mixed construction, whether rigid flex or mixed dielectrics, is changing the complexity of process technology and will continue to eliminate some companies’ viability. And more low- to mid-volume applications that once resided on a populated PCB now can be embedded in a single chip.

As hard as it is to get used to a new year, it is harder to imagine the future and all the changes that will impact our industry. Some may appear bold, others subtle and all most likely a continuation of something. Whether technological or commercial in nature, they deserve and demand real consideration. I just hope that 40 years from now, because of good planning or dumb luck, my company can look back and say 2011 was a pretty good year!

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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