About Mike

Mike Buetow is editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He is also vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversees all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 20 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow

How Far Can We Go to Replace Lead?

The end is nigh for lead in solder, as our columnist Tim O’Neill writes this month in CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY.

Rules governing use of the materials — Directive 2015/863, aka RoHS 3 — are coming online and will be in full force by 2019.

Suppliers have until July 22, 2019 to meet the stricter provisions, which includes no more than 0.1% lead in medical devices, which are joining consumer, industrial and other electronics products on the effectively banned list.

The question Tim poses is, What comes next? Already, the future of commonplace unleaded alloys such as SAC is being questioned. As Tim writes, “It is even feasible SAC 305 will be dislodged by a new de facto alloy that better serves the needs of the market.”

A Norwegian scientist believes he may have the answer. As noted in Phys.org this week, Dr. Henrik Soensteby of the University of Oslo is working on an alternative alloy that contains nothing but common — and essentially benign — elements. In conjuring up his alloy, Soensteby is mixing sodium, potassium and oxygen with niobium, a very strong metal typically used in steel. While niobium dust is reported to cause eye and skin irritation, it reportedly is nontoxic, at least in the volumes used.

It’s not so clear yet how much niobium would be needed. Brazil is the biggest supplier of niobium, producing more than 85% of it each year. Other sources include Zaire, Russia, Nigeria and Canada. World production is relatively light: around 25,000 tonnes per year. Some scientists believe there are ample supplies still in the ground. There’d better be: Some 5 million tonnes a year of lead ores are mined each year, although obviously not all that goes into electronics.

Soensteby is optimistic he can use atomic layer deposition (ALD), a vapor phase method that uses gas at controlled temperatures to stimulate a reaction with the substrate; the output is thin films. It is an emerging technology in semiconductor manufacturing. There are many, many questions, of course. First and foremost, does the alloy actually, you know, work? Also, ALD typically involves higher temperatures that are used in electronics assembly: Would it work with today’s packaging? Will other technologies such as 3D printing or Joe Fjelstad’s solderless Occam process supplant the need for solder in any form?

Still, materials science is the most exciting area of electronics today. We may make fun of folks who walk around with smartphones seemingly permanently tethered to their ears, but we also have them to thank.

 

Register now for PCB West the Silicon Valley’s largest PCB industry trade show: pcbwest.com! Now with full-day electronics assembly tutorials!

 

So Long, Sola

I have to say, I didn’t think Jure Sola would or could last this long. The cofounder of Sanmina, Sola was one of the poster boys for wanton M&A excess, snatching up more than a dozen companies or OEM plants during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The spree culminated in the purchase of SCI Systems in mid 2001, a $6 billion deal that saddled the company with so much debt, when the ensuring tech collapse occurred, it was forced to take 20 straight quarters of “one-time” charges.

Most execs couldn’t have survived such a bloodletting. Sola wasn’t most execs, however. He continued to place his bets on fabricating in the US — in a memorable line, he told an IPC Printed Circuit Expo audience that “plating was in his blood” — and Sanmina remains the second (or third) largest board supplier in North America. Moreover, he correctly swung to the military and aerospace markets, eschewing the PCs that SCI was so dominant in.

Today the company is half the size in revenue of its peak, but consistently profitable.

Come October Sola will ride off into the sunset with his legacy intact, perhaps not the most beloved man to run a major PCB company, but a success nonetheless. In this era, that’s no small thing.

 

Green Herring

For those newbies, Bob Herring was the perfect example of good timing, building up and selling not one but two board shops. The first, Industrial Circuits, was sold in 1989 for $60 million. The latter one, Herco Technology (which we profiled multiple times in PC Fab), went for $122 million in 2000, just a year before the tech crash. (The buyer of Herco, Teradyne, closed it less than two years later. The former Industrial Circuits lasted less than one year longer before Toppan shut the doors.)

In case you were wondering where Bob went, well, he started his own network cable news channel. It now is televised in some 30 million homes.

Guess there is life after PCBs!

 

 

Ahead of Our Time?

Will Foxconn build in Wisconsin?

Its track record in India, Malaysia, and various other places says no, and according to this Washington Post reporter, “No one had gone back to see whether this had been carried through, and it hadn’t.”

Well, not no one

 

Jim Raby, RIP

I’m saddened to get the news this morning that Jim Raby has passed away. As longtime readers will know, Jim was one of my favorite persons, not just in the industry but in life. What a tremendous fighter he was for doing things right! I will always miss him. 

My sincere condolences to his wife Ellen, son David and everyone at STI on this sad day. We have lost a fine engineer, gentleman and human being.

Trolling NY

Apparently someone has decided to toy with New York state by assuming the role of “Foxconn US” and trolling a poor soul named Chris Souzzi, who works for Genesee County Economic Development Center.

I’m no fan of Foxconn, and I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell they put a plant in the Empire State, but stunts like these aren’t funny (even if that’s what’s intended) and simply go too far.

 

 

Madam President

I cannot express how pleased I am today at the news that my former colleague and (still) good friend Kathy Nargi-Toth has been named president of Eltek USA.

Kathy is one of the warmest and kindest persons I have had the pleasure of coming across, and her industry knowledge is second to none.

I wish her all the luck in the world in her new job — not that she will need it!

 

Are iPhone ‘Leaks’ a Ploy?

With each year comes a new model of the Apple iPhone. And like clockwork, a few months before the product release, purported images and details of the new phones (and other Apple products) start showing up on various social media.

Would it be right to be suspicious that these “leaks” are simply ploys to generate interest?

Gerber: The Format that Just Won’t Die

I’m a big believer in standards but I’m not so sure why IPC is pushing a Gerber Coupon Generator when it has spent so many years developing IPC-2581, a much more comprehensive electronic data format.

Now in its B revision, IPC-2581 has been implemented in trial and production, and represents the most comprehensive set of industry requirements for printed circuit board fabrication, assembly, and test in a data-centric, open, license-free, industry driven standard format. Moreover, the consortium supporting its adoption boasts more than 90 members, including all the major PCB software vendors, plus a host of major OEMs, equipment suppliers, manufacturers, and service suppliers.

It’s time the emphasis be placed on moving the industry out of the buggy era. (Pun intended.)

Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of the IPC-2581 task group since its inception, and spent several years at IPC working on the predecessors to IPC-2581.

Hacking the Hacks

Wikileaks this week released a trove of materials purportedly from the CIA which demonstrate a range of methods used for spying on unwitting individuals. Among the revelations were how-to’s on accessing (read: hacking) most popular operating systems including Android and Apple. The CIA, it is alleged, has figured out how to bypass the encryption on a host of common apps including Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram, and even get around many antivirus programs designed to spy on the spies.

As it turns out, that TV set you have hanging on your family room wall might well be watching you. Worse, it was intimated that a vehicle’s electronics system could be hacked, rendering the car uncontrollable — with potentially devastating consequences.

It doesn’t take much to make the leap from hacking consumer and automotive electronics to overtaking machine language software systems. And that should be of paramount importance to those working on industry standards for Industry 4.0, including IPC’s Shop Floor Communication Standard Subcommittee and Mentor Graphics (OML).

As important as machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is, security should be the priority.