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

Foxconn Whiplash

You are to be forgiven if you have whiplash from the multiple changes in direction of Foxconn last week. The world’s largest ODM and EMS company announced it was essentially pulling out of Wisconsin, scaling down its much publicized multi-million square foot campus in favor of a couple of small R&D centers. Then, after pressure from the US government, it quickly reversed course once again, saying the plans were still on.

Wisconsin taxpayers might feel a little like Charlie Brown getting the football yanked out from under him again. Not only does it look ever-less likely Foxconn will create anything close to the 13,000 local jobs it promised, but towns like Mt. Pleasant are already on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, the net effect of bonds it issued to pay for the initial construction. And if Foxconn doesn’t deliver, the state must pick up whatever the municipalities cannot pay back.

In any case, when it comes to Foxconn, actions speak way louder than words. Let’s wait to see whether anything actually gets built before commencing with the back-patting.

STI: Small Size, but Big Service

We are thrilled to announce STI Electronics as our EMS Company of the Year for 2018.

CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY selects one company each year for this distinction. In making the determination, we look at profitability and sustained excellence among their peers over a period of years. We also look at the company culture and uniqueness of their business or service model, and assess whether we think it is sustainable over time and across generations of management.

In that regard, the evidence strongly supports STI. It is downright stunning to see the breadth of services the Madison, AL-based company offers, especially given its size (under $25 million). On a daily basis, STI performs traditional SMT, box build, failure analysis (it has a complete lab), cleanroom die bonding, and operator training. And at the end of this month, it will introduce an OEM product it is developing with a third party.

Read CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY’s profile on STI Electronics at circuitsassembly.com and in the February issue of PCD&F/ CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY.

January Issue Highlights

The January issue of of PRINTED CIRCUIT DESIGN & FAB and CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY is now available. Our cover story, from Skyworks, looks at
as-shipped vs. mounted height for BGA and LGA packages.

When a component is surface-mounted to the motherboard, the x- and y- dimensions do not change. Not so for the height. LGA height increases; BGA height decreases. A new study shows how an increase in as-shipped thickness can enable greater electrical performance and reduce quality risk.

This month’s other highlights include:

  • Understanding schematics
  • Using Maxwell’s equations to solve transmission line problems
  • Determining Df and Dk tradeoffs among various laminates
  • Bare board x-ray inspection
  • Busting the myth of PCB design at the college level
  • A profile of EMS firm Green Circuits
  • Ten steps for achieving good DfX
  • The latest happenings among the IPC Designers Council chapters
  • And Peter Bigelow asks if smaller manufacturers outmaneuvering the big ones.

Check it all out here.

Jabil on Tariffs

Jabil chief executive Mark Mondello said what we’ve all been thinking about the US-China trade tariffs.

On a conference call with analysts, Mondello called the issue “a big deal.” He underscored how Jabil could benefit if customers start to move manufacturing from China, as the EMS is well-positioned with factories all over Southeastern Asia, including Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan — not to mention Mexico and Eastern Europe. And he broke down the potential impacts:

  1. “If the tariff and trade issues get resolved, that’s great.”
  2. “If the trade and tariff issues create some choppy seas and a storm here and there, that’s really good for (Jabil), because … there’s nobody that has our scale that can move product around with the agility and the flexibility that we can and, in fact, we do that all the time.”
  3. “If the trade tariff issues become some nasty hurricane, it’s going to be bad for all.”

Indeed.

Steve Jobs’ Biggest Legacy?

The decision of Foxconn to enter the semiconductor manufacturing market gives additional heft to the premise that the US created a monster determined to swallow everything in its path.

As reported by Nikkei Asian Business today, Foxconn is working on a potential joint venture with its Sharp subsidiary to “invest” as much as $9 billion in the new plant, which would be the company’s first foray into IC development. (We put “invest” in quotes, because 1. the gulf between Foxconn’s reported investments and its actual investments tends to be oceanic in size and 2. in this case, the investment is reportedly coming from the Chinese government.)

Foxconn already is likely the world’s largest consumer of chips, so getting into the OEM business would cause reverberations among its major suppliers. Moreover, it returns us to the sad refrain: What is Foxconn’s end-game? The company dominates the electronics supply chain from boards to assemblies to box build, makes other components (connectors, displays, motherboards, etc.),
operates retail stores, invests in 5G … you name it.

Personally, I blame Steve Jobs. The iPhone was a revelation, for which Jobs deserves every ounce of credit he has received. But in looking for assemblers, he could and should have looked further than Foxconn. There simply is no major company in the electronics industry today that is more aggressive and yet has a worse record of worker treatment than Foxconn. I’ve worked in the industry since 1991. Foxconn remains the only company that I’ve ever received direct complaints from its employees about their treatment. (And that came from US workers. I can only imagine what their Chinese counterparts might say.)

And yes, I realize it was Michael Dell, not Jobs, who gave Foxconn and Terry Gou its entry into the US computer industry. But it was Apple that gave Foxconn its biggest stage, boosting the Taiwanese company from a third-party motherboard maker to a partner in the most revolutionary electronics device the world had seen to that point.

When criticized for his reliance on Foxconn, Jobs would fire back that the US didn’t have the engineers to build what Foxconn could build. But I don’t think it was an issue of talent, or availability. I think it was an issue of greed. Jobs couldn’t acquire the volume of talent needed at the price he wanted. Foxconn could.

And so that’s Steve Jobs legacy. Foxconn is a $150 billion company and growing. Its revenues are larger than any of its customers. And, being traded on the Taiwan Exchange, it has access to financial markets without the transparency of public companies in the US or Europe. A monster is present among us, and will eventually devour us all.

Going Mobile

As those who view our websites on their phones know, we have rolled out new mobile versions of circuitsassembly.com and pcdandf.com.

The new versions are optimized for smartphones and tablets, and are designed to present news, press releases and, of course, our technical content in a much more user-friendly way. As always, we’d love your feedback.

Meng’s Rollup

The arrest and possible extradition of a high-rankling Huawei official should be of concern to anyone doing business abroad. It is bound to have a domino effect as other nations line up to wreak havoc on strategic competitors to their respective domestically based corporations.

Or will it? This has been standard operating procedure for China for years. Whereas Moscow specializes in kidnappings for ransom, that’s Finance 101 compared with the Bear’s doctoral dissertation. China’s motive is longer in range — and the detainment longer in duration. What prevents many countries from acting in such rash fashion is the inevitable broadside to their reputation. China doesn’t mind the public relations hit, provided its broader objectives are met. And that objective is complete control over its economy and security. To the Chinese government, gulags are a feature, not a bug.

Canada rolled up Meng Wanzhou at the request of the US government, which cited an unsealed indictment against the Huawei CFO. It is widely believed Huawei is a front for the Chinese government, in part because its founder (Meng’s father) is a former Chinese intelligence office. Huawei denies the charges, but the US knows of what it accuses: In 1999, no less an entity than the Taliban had approved a plan for Afghan Wireless Communications — essentially a front for the American government — to build out the phone and Internet system in Afghanistan. If not for infighting in the US government, America could have had the entire country tapped.

When contemplating these latest events, consider these issues:

  1. The US has not yet indicated why it wants Meng. (The early buzz is the company is shipping illicit gear to Iran, in violation of international sanctions.) What happens the next time an adversary decides to nab an American? Who has the moral high ground? Do we trust the government — any government — enough to take it at its word? Or is Meng a pawn in a bigger, as-yet to be disclosed play?
  2. What will be the cost to US businesses that do (or want to do) business in China?
  3. How far is the US willing to go in terms of disclosing what it knows about Huawei’s operations? Sometimes it’s more useful to allow the behavior to continue in order to monitor it surreptitiously. Also, alerting others could give them a leg up on determining where their vulnerabilities lie, and lead them to close those gaps.
  4. There’s a trade war ongoing between the US and China (really), causing several major electronics ODMs to consider relocating factories from both nations, not to mention higher costs to consumers. Some, like Foxconn chairman Terry Gou, think the effects will last for years. Will Meng’s arrest lead to further economic isolation and barriers among the world’s two largest economies?

Has the Economic Tide Turned?

2018 experienced a year of pump priming unlike any other during an economic growth period in our lifetimes. The US tax bill made significant revisions to the tax code, slashing taxes for (higher-income) individuals and corporations. The corporate rate alone was cut 14 percentage points, to 21%.

Moreover, taxes on profits held by US companies abroad were cut by 20 percentage points or more. That facilitated the repatriation of those cash reserves — estimated by Bank of America at $3.5 trillion, or more than 1/5th the size of the annual US GDP.

As those gains worked their way through the system, the effects included corporate buying sprees that topped anything we’d seen in at least a decade. Business capital investment budgets swelled, and suppliers’ bottom lines ballooned.

The bloom is off the rose, I’m afraid. While not a free fall, the economic reality today is that buyers are cooling off and budgets are returning to more conservative positions. Several EMS firms are guiding for slowing business conditions, and now fabricators are reporting the same. End-markets like automotive are leveling, which will have a ripple effect across the entire supply-chain.

No one likes a cynic, especially so close to the holiday season. But my advice is to go easy on the parties while aggressively going after market share. A large customer base is the best hedge against a slowing economy.

 

 

Guest Blog: The Future of Collaboration

Sawyer completes jobs quickly and accurately, works safely alongside co-workers and is an integral part of the workforce. However, Sawyer is not your average employee — he is a robot. Here, Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director at obsolete industrial parts supplier EU Automation, explains how advances in technology are changing the way that humans interact with robots.

Rethink Robotics’ robot Sawyer, is just one example of automated technology being introduced to factories. Increased automation in factories is optimizing productivity in manufacturing. While some people fear that the human workforce will ultimately be replaced by robots, manufacturers disagree as they are aware that both machine efficiency and human intuition are vital for optimum productivity.

So, how can manufacturers ensure that robots and humans can work efficiently and safely in the same workspace? Industrial robots are in the factory to complete either repetitive tasks or those that are too dangerous for human workers. Traditionally robots are heavy, simple and isolated to prevent humans getting too close.

There are now technologies that allow humans to work side by side in the factory with collaborative robots, otherwise known as cobots. But, what makes them collaborative?

Benefits

Collaborative robots are specifically designed to work in direct cooperation with a human, in a defined workspace. There are also collaborative workplaces that are safeguarded spaces where the robot and human can perform tasks simultaneously. There are multiple reasons why robots like Sawyer are becoming more popular in factories.

Cobots are affordable, highly adaptable and easy to install. Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are eager to adopt the technology and the manufacturing sector expects to see huge growth of cobots over the next few years.

Cobots also support the human workers themselves. Robots can complete the heavy lifting and repetitive jobs that can cause human strain. This gives human workers more time to complete more creative and intricate work.

Safety

The key consideration for manufacturers that want to benefit from human and machine interaction is how to keep workers safe. Cobots have features that prevent them from injuring any humans when in operation, because humans will be working in close proximity with the machine.

All cobots have rounded and soft surfaces to reduce the risk of injury if a human gets too close to the machine. They are also fitted with sensors that detect anything entering their proximity and have force-limited joints that will instantly stop if a human gets too close.

These safety features are vital in preventing injury, but there are other factors that manufacturers must consider when investing in collaborative robots.

There are regulations, such as ISO 10218-2:2011, that control how facilities integrate robotics into the assembly line to ensure all workers are kept safe. As part of this regulation, all manufacturers that use cobots will be required to implement safety protocols on site. However, the application will ultimately determine the safety requirements, rather than the robot itself. For example, if the robot has sharp knives attached to it then manufacturers should avoid human-machine interaction.

The Future

In the future, advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence could increase the capabilities of cobots. If cobots become more intelligent, they will be able to complete more difficult tasks and remember previous work to help them in the future. Machine learning may also mean that cobots will be able to diagnose themselves and fix any technical issues to complete work more efficiently.

Cobots have the potential to radically change the manufacturing sector. However, there are still some skills that a robot has not been able to perfect. A robot may be able to complete a repetitive task with complete accuracy, but it is not as agile as a human. Cobots lack dexterity and therefore cannot complete more intricate tasks that humans can.

Unlike older, industrial robots, cobots have design features needed to keep workers safe. Facilities managers must combine the machine strength and precision of robots like Sawyer, with human ability to see, think and adapt for the perfect factory. So, if you find out you’ll be working next to a robot like Sawyer, you can sleep well knowing that he will be a safe, supportive and efficient colleague.