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Peter BigelowAnd the path forward is all around us.

At industry events and when visiting with like-aged colleagues, I often hear reminders of “the good old days.” Such comments typically arise while discussing the difficulty finding, recruiting and retaining bright young talent. On one level I agree, especially when long-gone fun times and great friends come to mind. On a more focused, pragmatic level, however, I am thinking, “Things are exactly like they were in those days, and maybe it’s time that changed.”

Many of those old friends were, in their day, just as immature, impatient, all-knowing and audacious as the generation coming of age now. What’s changed is our perspective.

Consider the unthinkable technologies that have become so commonplace during the Baby Boom generation. Who could have imagined wire made of glass (fiber optics) or pictures, messages and voice transmitted without wire (RF/wireless microwave), or engines that monitor their own activity and make adjustments at the rate of millions of adjustments per second (sensors), or the explosion of automated operations that take place at work, in homes, in cars – even on persons – thanks to the ever-evolving miniature computer (personal computer)? All of these, and far more, were invented and then refined by bright-eyed, think-outside-the-box “crazy dreamers.” Today we call them business leaders.

The next generation of engineering leaders has so many more opportunities, as well as a plethora of better tools at their disposal to enable them to invent amazing things. However, some things are very much the same as when we older folks were starting out: unabashed questioning and an insatiable quest  for invention.

I am continually reminded of these traits. My company does a lot of R&D work with much larger commercial and military companies. These companies send in their new engineers, some with Ph.D.s who look so young they could be in high school. They talk about what they are doing and how to get there. I am always amazed at how they ask, “Why do you do that?” and “why don’t you do this?” They have a completely different view of the future. They believe, for instance, printed circuit fabrication should be only an additive process; forget steps such as etching. They question why we don’t simply start with a 3-D printer and build up.
Why use a bond film or prepreg, they ask? Why can’t you simply plate just what you want? Why can’t you incorporate passives? Why? Why? Why?

Listening to the barrage of questions, followed instantly by a second round of creative, almost off-the-wall suggestions can be simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating. The coming generation views things without the blinders of existing paradigms. They are dreaming a more efficient “what if?” world. Unrestricted by what is, they look at how to eliminate as many of the process steps as possible, to make product that is faster, more robust, and with tighter tolerance, to enable the next unthinkable technology, which future generations in turn will take for granted.

The printed circuit board world needs to hear from these folks – engaged, next-generation engineers – who have a vision of what they want and the youthful tenacity to find a way to make it happen. And not just in developing new end-product technologies.

We, as an industry, need to reinvent ourselves. Over the decades, companies in our industry have invested tons in what we have: equipment, processes and facilities. Too often we tell a bright, new engineer to “just make what we have work.” Perhaps it’s time to let loose some of these hires to reshape what we do and how we do it. Isn’t it interesting how you can count on one finger the number of greenfield, purpose-built PCB fabrication facilities in North America over the past 20 years? And yet, in Asia, and especially China, building state-of-the-art facilities – all with material flow and technology-flexible design in mind – is the norm? The next-generation engineer should not be hired to “make it work” but to “design the facility of the future.” More important, the next generation of engineers should be encouraged to develop and refine processes that eliminate the scores of inefficient processing barriers to producing miniature “mass customization.”

So where are the next-generation of engineering leaders? Just look at universities and colleges that offer degrees in electronics engineering, materials
engineering, chemical engineering, or any of a host of related curricula, because that’s where the rubber is meeting the road and the future is being shaped! Be careful, though, as the most talented, creative, forward-thinking future engineers may not look like your incumbent staff. Those who sport the most piercings and ink, or maintain unorthodox and unconventional schedules, are often precisely the ones who are the most imaginative.

Taking stock of the past – and doing so with pride – is not a bad thing. Our industry has accomplished much, and over the decades has broken many paradigms and developed amazing technologies based on some pretty rudimentary manufacturing processes. The people who made the most striking contributions were viewed in their day as crazy dreamers. Another word for crazy dreamers is visionaries. Our industry never has too many such people. And right now I think we could use a whole lot more.

The next generation of engineers will need to do a whole lot of reimagining. Processes that are faster, more scalable, cheaper and greener. Technologies that can do infinitely more from exponentially less. Produced in purpose-built, ergonomically friendly, clean facilities. The challenges are everywhere. Now, we just need the next generation of visionaries. Just like in the good old days.

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

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