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Peter BigelowNew industries outside electronics may have different products, but share a familiar approach.

Last February, at the same time and place as IPC Apex Expo, maybe you noticed the signs for something called “Traffic & Conversion 2018.” Perhaps it was my age, or perhaps just naivety, but I just assumed the event dealt with roadway equipment used to manage vehicular traffic. Boy was I wrong.

Had I focused on the attendees, I would have immediately noticed that virtually all of them were young and tethered to their iPads. Over their morning coffee at Starbucks, there was no conversation or early morning banter. Instead, everyone was in a trance, staring at their screens. At night, the same youthful attendees held court at the bar, laughing and networking. During a conversation with one, I finally learned what the group was all about. “Traffic & Conversion” was really an annual pilgrimage by data geeks to learn the latest trends, technology and methods employed in the world of “data mining.”  

I was interested in what I was learning, and understand the concept of data mining, but these folks were talking way over my non-techie level of comprehension. I could tell, however, they were really into the subject and having a great time!

Two things hit me. First, their industry would not exist today were it not for the printed circuit board industry. All the data they were mining were created, transmitted and stored on computers, systems and servers that otherwise would not exist had our industry not first developed the technologies, then refined them into reliable, cost-effective components. The second was that none of them had any clue about the electronics technology that powered their industry, or that their cutting-edge capability was enabled by all the innovation and hard work of the industry meeting right next door. They simply assumed some technology from somewhere was (and had always been) providing the platform from which their computers would work and data could be collected and stored.

It’s become routine. Technology, convenience and even environment are taken for granted as having always been the way they appear at the present time.
Past efforts, challenges, triumphs and defeats are the price a previous generation paid when imagining, creating, producing, and then refining technology, processes and product. All can be easily assumed rather than valued.  

The same can be said for past generations when turning to look at the next one. Efforts may look different, but they are sparked by innovative curiosity, just as in the past, and while we may not always be able to comprehend – or even imagine – the new concept, product or service under development, we can identify with the effort, enthusiasm and excitement working on what’s “new” can instill. It is quite the same as this past generation, if not all past generations, felt in their time and in their industry.

We all know someone who feels sad or even bitter about how the industry has evolved. They fondly remember the excitement of creating something new, achieving a technological goal, and most of all, miss the heady good times and camaraderie of days gone by. It is easy to get lulled into the past and to harp on what happened, rather than marvel at what could be. That’s when maybe taking a good look around is called for.

Innovation centers are in most major cities, especially those with colleges and universities. These are usually open-concept facilities that have a lot of R&D space that houses aspiring entrepreneurs, often right out of university graduate programs. And they have big ideas. Most limit the young entrepreneurs’ stay to a relatively short period, say one year. Many offer special financial awards to those who successfully make it to the functional prototype stage. Others try to meld experienced entrepreneurs with students who can bring technical skills, and harness their unbridled creativity for a new idea. All have a dream: making it big with the next wow!

For the seasoned, visiting such environments is exciting. You can feel the pressure to get it done; you can sense the excitement of every success; you can see the look of determination when there is a failure; you can easily get caught up in the energy and feel young again, especially when everyone is cheering each other along and having a lot of fun! It’s easy to remember what it was like when, at their age, we experienced the same sensations creating the new.

The young entrepreneurs of today are doing exactly what our industry did – and still does: innovate. Wrapped up in what seems like the same-old problems, we too easily lose sight of that similarity. And we too easily think in the paradigm we understand, rather than imagine in a different way.

Most important, there may be an opportunity for the past to support the future. Possibly these bright-eyed creators could use some pragmatic know-how from veterans of an industry that has continually innovated. Equally, it is too easy for us to think there is little or no correlation between what is being developed today with what we produce, be it at our respective companies or as an industry. Yet, “innovation” means thinking about things differently and not being afraid to try new things, which most of us have a wealth of experience doing. The next generation could certainly take advantage of that experience. And those in the thick of their careers could most likely benefit from a heavy dose of enthusiasm and imagination.

Besides being an interesting bridge between technology generations, the “Traffic & Conversion” event made another impression as well: It can be too easy to get stuck where you are, rather than embracing the excitement of where you could be.

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

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