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

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.

 

 

Where the Jobs Are

This news item from the Associated Press cuts to the heart of the matter when it comes to reshoring of manufacturing and why skeptics (including this humble writer) abound over whether Foxconn, among others, truly intend to set up large manufacturing plants in the US:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump brought two dozen manufacturing CEOs to the White House on Thursday and declared their collective commitment to restoring factory jobs lost to foreign competition.

Yet some of the CEOs suggested that there were still plenty of openings for U.S. factory jobs but too few qualified people to fill them. They urged the White House to support vocational training for the high-tech skills that today’s manufacturers increasingly require — a topic Trump has seldom addressed.

“The jobs are there, but the skills are not,” one executive said during meetings with White House officials that preceded a session with the president.

The truth is there are hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs available in the US today. The US Census Bureau puts the figure at just shy of one million. In talking with circuit board fabricators and assemblers over the years, the biggest impediment to hiring is not lack of work but rather lack of qualified workers.

My belief is that the demographics of electronics design and manufacturing resemble a bimodal distribution (two humps), whereby workers over 50 years old represent the largest group by age and workers aged 20 to 30 the second largest. Those aged 30 to 50 are the smallest group (the valley in the graph, see below). My thesis is that workers in that segment were coming online right about the time the North American electronics industry cratered — late 2001 to early 2004, leaving them either out of jobs or unable to crack the then much-smaller workforce that was left after the tech recession.

(The graph below illustrates the basic concept, although in reality the right hump would be higher than the left as there likely are more workers over 50 than under 30 in electronics design and manufacturing today. But you get the idea.)

With the older wave starting to retire, coupled with an upturn in the industry’s fortunes starting around 2008, a new wave of workers has entered the industry. And while we often speak of the lack of millennials in manufacturing, a tour of Silicon Valley area shops takes the air out of that conversation. There, workers don’t ask where the young people are; they just look around — they are everywhere. And manufacturers are catering to them, setting up coffee (and more) bars inside their plants, creating workspaces that resemble outdoor atria that offset the traditionally sterile assembly lines.

Moreover, there is some concern that widespread move of manufacturing back to the US will only accelerate the implementation of robots, leaving thousands of operators on the sidelines. In anticipation, robot makers are ramping capacity, in some cases by as much as two times. This is not without precedent. Those of us who were around when PCB fabrication and assembly migrated to China en masse in the late 1990s/early 2000s recall how common semiautomatic machines were then. It was a nod to the Chinese government, which was adamant about protecting employment.

What’s your experience? Is your company weighing a return to the US? If so, will it come with an increase in automation?

(Please, no political comments.)

OEM Markets, Through the EMS’ Eyes

What can we expect from the OEM markets this year?

While long-term visibility remains cloudy, the outlooks from major ODM/EMS companies give some perspective on the near-term expectations.

Looking at publicly traded EMS and related supply chain (connector suppliers and component distributors), median supply-chain sales came in ahead of implied fourth-quarter guidance, according to data from Deutsche Bank. For the December quarter, sales increased 5.1% year-over-year at the median, almost double that of guidance (2.6% growth).

Likewise, implied first-quarter median sales guidance is 4.3% growth year-over-year which points to continued growth for the supply chain.

“In general, supply chain growth continues to be driven by company-specific new program ramps, although management teams are seeing a more positive demand environment,” DB said.

Two players that just announced quarterly earnings, Celestica and Flextronics, agree that storage and server sales will slump. Another, Sanmina, sees that end-market as stable.

The related communications and telecom sector is seen by Celestica as a big gainer (up 20%), but not so much by Flex (down five to 10%) or Plexus (down 4 to 7%) or Benchmark (down 15% or more). Sanmina called the market stable.

Automotive has, ahem, driven much of the sales growth for many EMS companies for the past eight years. Flex and Fabrinet both expect the surge to continue. So does Kimball, for which automotive makes up 42% of its revenue.

Consumer is expected to take some hits. Flex sees a 20 to 30% drop, Jabil foresees a smaller loss, and Celestica expects flatness.

Medical/healthcare is a mixed bag. Jabil forecasts a 2% drop, IEC also expects it to be lower, while Ducommon and Plexus say flat. Benchmark, Sparton and Jabil see growth, likely in the low to mid single digits.

As for military/aerospace, IEC and Sparton see them as growing, while the larger EMS companies (Celestica, Sanmina, and Ducommon) see them closer to flat. Plexus is most bullish on the segment, at 14 to 16% growth.

Only Flex is bullish on industrial, forecasting 10 to 15% growth. Ducommon sees it as flat to 1% higher, while Celestica, Sparton and IEC don’t expect much either. Plexus predicts a 4 to 7% drop. Benchmark expects sales to fall in the high single digits.

Many EMS companies don’t break out semiconductor, test or instrumentation. An exception is Benchmark, which sees strength there, with anticipated growth or 10% or more.

Finally, remember when computing drove seemingly everything? Benchmark expects that sector to fall 30% or more. It’s a sign of how far computing has dropped in significance among North American-based EMS’s in that many of them now group it as part of consumer.)