AGC continued its consolidation of the laminates market this week, reeling in Taconic for an undisclosed amount. The Japanese company also acquired Nelco last winter, giving it two of the remaining US-based PCB materials manufacturers.
That leaves Isola and Rogers as the last two major players of a once formidable domestic laminate industry to call the US home. And neither company produces the majority of its product in onshore. (Sound familiar?)
With Rogers’ capacity consumed by the 5G rollout, some OEMs and fabricators have been turning more to Taconic as a source for high-rel end-products that required a Made in USA stamp.
The largest vendors — KingBoard, Shengyi, Nanya, ITEQ, and so on — are all based in Southeast Asia. The volume and variety of materials that can be sourced in the US continues to erode, and its hard to see that reversing course. To wit, in its announcement, AGC allowed that “Over time, materials made in Taconic’s Petersburgh, NY, location will be moved to another facility.”
Isola makes FR-4 in Ridgeway, SC, and AGC Nelco makes the same in Tempe, AZ. They join Rogers, Taconic and Arlon as manufacturers of electronics materials in the US.
Will trade tensions peaking, and 5G creating supply issues around the globe, is that enough?
The User Experience (UX) discipline in the technology sector has evolved rapidly over the last two decades and we’ve all witnessed the changes. For example, the transition from button-based phones and keyboard-only interfaces to increasingly powerful yet easy-to-use, touch-based smartphones and tablets. A parallel change has been happening in factories, with industrial Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) evolving from physical push buttons, lights and switches in the 1980s, to the multi-touch screens of today. And we are not done evolving yet!
I have worked on various consumer applications in the past, including games and websites, and was directly responsible for building the UX on a couple of those projects. My experience in consumer UX gives me some insight into the many exciting opportunities that lie ahead for industrial UX. Here are a few I’ve been thinking of.
Defining UX in the factory context
In a setting where a vast array of hardware devices are connected to each other in complex ways, and users range from operators on the factory floor to project managers in remote offices, UX goes far beyond a single screen. Instead, it encompasses the full experience of using the system, from any interface or device that connects to it. Industrial UX is a mix of software (dedicated touchscreen panels or apps) and hardware (buttons, feeders) interfaces controlling the machines on the floor, monitors giving real-time status updates about the production line, and services generating reports based on data collected in the cloud over many weeks. Almost every component we build becomes a part of the user experience, so we must approach design holistically. Every software and hardware engineer, product manager, and data scientist must think like a UX designer.
Increased software capabilities mean increased complexity
The role and responsibility of software in manufacturing is growing rapidly. But with more software capabilities comes more UX complexity. As more tasks move from hardware to software – whether running on the device itself, in a local server, or in the cloud – the number of ways that users can interact with the system and their complexity increase. Yet the UX we build cannot simply hide this complexity from the users. A core concept of UX design is that people always form mental models of how a system operates, whether we want them to or not, and if their model sufficiently differs from reality, it will lead to frustration and mistakes. Therefore, the next-generation factory UX will need to be intuitive and straightforward, but never oversimplified. The goal is to design a UX that helps users build the right conceptual models from the start to maximize productivity and minimize training time and mistakes.
The high bar set by consumer devices
Almost every worker in a modern factory has used a smartphone or tablet – this year, global smartphone usage is expected to hit 2.5 billion (and it’s growing)! As a result, today’s factory workers have a high level of technical literacy and familiarity with certain interaction standards. This represents an incredible opportunity for industrial UX because it can reduce training time for any UX that follows these standards. At the same time, the ubiquity of thoughtfully designed consumer devices has raised the bar for the quality of user interactions, responsiveness, and UX clarity in the factory context. Workers now expect industrial interfaces to work as well as their personal smartphones.
Building UX for the factory of tomorrow is no small feat, but it represents a massive opportunity and an exciting time for UX professionals as they help inform the next wave of industrial innovation.
An edited version of this article also appeared in Design World on June 3, 2019.
He LIVED for
the weekends. Saturdays and Sundays were the only mornings I ever knew Mike to
leap out of bed. It was in his blood. Mike couldn’t wait to hit the casinos. Every
weekend and holiday sunrise, he was among the first to start tossing out his
homespun version of “fish bait.” Mediocre Mike loved to brag.
surely, each Sabbath unsuspecting, wannabe gamblers migrated into the club
where Mike hung out. It seldom failed. A few of the less fortunate souls would
land at Mike’s table. No worries. Mike and his cronies were poised for the pleasure.
With friendly smiles and sinister hearts, they shook down every novice card
player who came their way. What could be more entertaining?
In his mind,
Mikey worked hard Monday through Friday sharpening his craft. He stayed up late
into the evening hours swigging bourbon, practicing his moves, and watching
YouTube videos. When it came to hustling newbies, Mike was good. He was always
prepared. He took pride in his winnings. It gave meaning to his life and made
his son proud.
someone had to pay the price. In Mike’s case it was his corporate employer. As
they say, one man’s loss is another man’s gain.
Mike got lucky
and his bankrupt band of gypsies was bought out by a high-quality Fortune 100
company. Mike couldn’t believe his good fortune when his new ship came in. The
sharp household logo added to his prestigious cover at the casino. Mike was on
So what does
any of this have to do with leadership failure? Plenty!
In the first
year with his new employer, Mike maintained a low profile. He hid out and let a
hundred or so direct and indirect reports do whatever they liked. After all,
who was Mike to blow the whistle on anyone else? He figured as long as his
fingerprints weren’t on any egregious errors, his gig could go on forever.
And for a
while, it did.
his corporate gaming skills as he flipped the switch on his region to autopilot.
looming bar bill, someone ultimately has to pay the price. Yep. Mike’s employer
took it on the chin. Just one floor below him, one of Mike’s managers, Rambling
Roger, started running a different racket. Roger began practicing a few new moves
on his administrative assistant. Who knew? Everyone. Except Mike, of course.
never stopped on the second floor. It was essential to his third-floor
Yet, Roger’s seedy
habits came to light anyway. His once loyal admin turned the tables on him and
sued the corporation for sexual harassment, mental duress, and psychological
cruelty. Mike wasn’t worried. This manager wasn’t one of Mike’s political
buddies. Mike simply ushered in HR and pretended to be appalled by the findings.
Meanwhile, he brushed up on his shuffling skills. And Mike shook off the losses
as a necessary cost of doing business. At the company’s expense, of course!
Mike’s regional salespeople were found to be cheating on their commission
plans. His operational leaders turned blind eyes to cost overruns. His staff
took plenty of time running personal errands and convening for smoke breaks.
The billion-dollar brand faltered.
need to be a member of Mensa to calculate the cost to his company of Mediocre
Mike’s leadership failure. It was high into the six-figure range. Likely
What can you
do if you have an employee or leader who has poisoned the well?
Do nothing and hope s/he doesn’t
mess up too badly? Don’t chuckle. It happens daily.
Fire the person and replace him/her
with someone from outside the company? That’s often an illusion destined
Replace the person internally?
Perhaps, but it will be most effective if you do the following:
the culture of the company, division, or team by replacing the leader
internally and bringing in an outside leadership consultant to re-instill the
values of the company.
was a card shark.
He LIVED for
the weekends. Saturdays and Sundays were the only mornings I ever knew Mike to
leap out of bed like a man on a mission. It was in his blood. Mike couldn’t
wait to hit the casinos.
Don’t gamble on
your losses with a leadership failure like Mediocre Mike. The bar tab will
leave you with a hangover that may cost you your company’s reputation.
a passion for helping engineering executives achieve stellar results. Martino
authored the book Expect
Leadership in Engineering. In addition, the team at Keith
Martino has designed and launched Leadership Institutes at multiple engineering
firms across the US.
Martino is quoted in Young Upstarts, Entrepreneur Magazine, NewsMax
Finance, Hotwires, Circuits Assembly, and Printed Circuit
Design & Fab. For more information visit: www.KeithMartino.com
Forcing out American companies from China’s electronics supply chain could have a major impact on Chinese manufacturers. It would also likely hasten strategies by American technology firms to diversify their supply chains away from China.
Yet if Beijing were willing to take that hit, many companies would struggle to immediately replicate production elsewhere. China’s density of component makers and assembly factories is unmatched around the world.
“It’s a really high-risk way to go about it,” said Andrew Polk, a founder of Trivium, a consulting firm in Beijing. “They are effectively forcing companies to choose, and companies will probably choose the U.S.”
Much has been made over whether Western companies will bail on China if it were to put the screws to them on trade. But if China were to retaliate against the US by shutting down access to certain markets or supply chains, is it unrealistic to think any Chinese companies might relocate as well?
As KeyTronic batted away the proposals, Cemtrex grew even more bold, asserting in a followup statement that its intended prey could do with better management. “A combination of the two companies will unlock significant shareholder value for both companies, by enabling cost savings, higher earnings per share and a more attractive price to earnings ratio than either company is currently maintaining.”
Eventually KeyTronic grew a bit aggravated with the unwanted attention, calling the suitor “unqualified” as a buyer. “Our initial research shows [Cemtrex] reports approximately $45 million of EMS revenue. In our opinion, this does not qualify [Cemtrex] to make any statements as to how it might operate an EMS business like KeyTronic which is over 10 times [its] current size in terms of revenue.”
The overtures ceased shortly thereafter. By the following January, Cemtrex was consolidating its EMS plants and selling off operations.
Still, even with that episode well in the rearview mirror, I have to think that wherever he is today, KeyTronic CEO Craig Gates must be smiling.
So while Huawei is a $100 billion company, larger than IBM, Sony, Hitachi, Panasonic and all but a few other tech firms, the declaration could have tentacles that reach far beyond the Chinese OEM. Even if all the defense industry primes, for instance, buy all their boards onshore (doubtful), many others do not, including the financial markets, and key industries such as nuclear, power, and so on.
Almost every North America-based board today shop brokers boards from Asia, mostly China. Their suppliers are, in turn, generally located in China as well. That includes the vast majority of the laminate industry. Sure enough, we are hearing reports of major laminate makers suspending shipments of key materials, including ones for the US defense primes, because of the executive order.
What’s the alternative? North American board fabricators lack the capability and capacity to take on high-volume production. The EMS industry has the capability, but not the capacity. And that doesn’t begin to address the region-to-region cost differences.
Then there’s Washington. The legislators are simply ignorant when it comes to understanding supply chain issues. The executive order targets companies that could put the US economy at risk. Any logical read of that would see that the telecom industry is only one part of the equation. Wall Street is equally at risk.
Just because Cisco or Juniper or HP or IBM or Dell or Arista don’t have Chinese names doesn’t mean they aren’t as reliant on the China supply chain as Huawei. Same goes for their EMS networks. Intel has six chip fabrication plants and three assembly/test sites. Two are in China. Qualcomm is a minority owner of SMIC, which has nine plants open or planned in China. It also has a JV assembly/test house with Amkor in Shanghai.
Take a look at HP’s supply chain. The OEM is sourcing product from China facilities of Foxconn, Jabil, Flex, Celestica, Inventec, New Kinpo, Wistron, Pegatron, Qisda, and TPV, among others. The workers on the HP lines number in the tens of thousands. That can’t be replaced easily, if at all.
Not just the large shops stand to be squeezed. Besides relying on China for raw materials, many smaller North American fabricators also outsource certain services and otherwise procure other relatively finished goods from there, such as engineering or laser drilling or mass lam boards.
Insofar as consumers are concerned, it’s probably a good thing this isn’t happening during the Christmas ramp. But that date is drawing near. Even without the tariffs, given the looming capacity constraints, prices are bound to spike.
And even if the questions surrounding Huawei are sorted out — a big “if” — the fun won’t stop there. At this writing, the US government is considering action against other Chinese OEMs, including ZTE and Hikvision.
Which EMS has received the most private equity funding over the past few years?
Chances are, it’s Tempo Automation. The San Francisco-based contract assembler just added another $45 million (that’s right) in new capital. That’s on top of the $20 million it garnered a year ago, which it used to build a new factory. Overall, we estimate Tempo has raised around $75 million over its six-year life.
Investors are falling in love with Tempo’s emphasis on software-based manufacturing. It has caught the attention of blue chip OEMs like Lockheed Martin, which is also a customer and investor. The latest round of funding, called a Series C, was led by existing investor, Point72 Ventures and includes an array of new and existing outside investors investors. Series C is typically the final funding round prior to an IPO or acquisition.
In an era where PCB assemblers aren’t rushing to go public, this is an interesting development. Privately held Tempo does not disclose its revenue, but it’s likely to be less than $100 million. That level of investment suggests a high level of confidence by outsiders that Tempo is on the right track.
Terry Gou, Foxconn founder and chairman, is
contemplating a run for the presidency of Taiwan. Should he go for it?
Given his wealth – an estimated $7.8 billion – and stature
in Taiwan, some comparisons to US President Donald Trump will be inevitable. There
are distinct differences in upbringing and temperament, however. Gou is a
self-made man, having launched Hon Hai as a components supplier in the early 1970s.
He built the company brick by brick, expanding into new markets as opportunities
arose, and taking advantage of mainland China’s proximity and low cost-model.
When the West started looking for cheaper manufacturing alternatives, he was
He has generally been media-shy throughout his career. It was only after Foxconn came under scrutiny as workers started jumping off its roofs that NGOs began putting pressure on Apple, Foxconn’s largest customer, and Western media took note. Long articles in The New York Times,Wall Street Journal and Forbes followed.
But is Gou the guy? Whether his domineering approach will be welcome even in Asian cultures today is unclear. In the wake of the Enron collapse, in 2007 the WSJ quoted him as saying, “Even for those of us who lived through Enron, it’s hard not to come away disgusted. I always tell employees: ‘The group’s benefit is more important than your personal benefit.’ ” At the time, a typical mid-level assembly-line worker in Taiwan earned about $230 a month, including overtime pay, while Gou was a multibillionaire.
Neither is the inherent conflict-of-interest with China,
where Foxconn has the majority of its manufacturing capacity and business
interests and employs hundreds of thousands of residents. Taiwan’s self-styled independence
stature could be in question were Gou come to office. How would he priorities decisions
that could mean risking his financial standing?
Citing divine inspiration, Gou told media that he
seeks “peace, stability, economy and future.” Those are worthy goals. Given his
track record as an employer and his financial dependence on China, how he will achieve
them deserves scrutiny.
It’s been way too long, let’s look in on Patty and the boys…..
It was 5:30AM and Patty’s alarm went off. She was unusually tired
today because of a PTA meeting last night. She had become much more interested
in the school her twin sons went to when she found out that the school was no
longer teaching cursive writing. She was too late for that battle, but had
heard that the school was not going to teach long division. Another mother told
her that the reason was that long division was too hard and it could be done
with a calculator. When Patty heard this she “went through the roof.”
Fortunately, when Patty attended the PTA meeting, she and the other
parents were assured that long division was still being taught.
Patty’s sons would learn cursive, however, as both her mother
and her husband’s mother would teach the boys during baby-sitting sessions –
and once a week the boys would read one of the 100+ letters to home that their
great grandfather wrote to their great grandmother during World War II. All
written in cursive of course!
After her morning jog and workout Patty was in her office at Ivy
U by 7:30AM. She turned on her laptop and saw an email from Mike Madigan, her
former employer’s CEO. It read:
Dear Professor Coleman,
One of my golfing buddies owns a small jewelry firm, Galahad Jewelry in Providence, RI. One of the units in the company produces silver charms for charm bracelets. This unit is not performing well financially. After chatting with him I sensed that productivity is low, inventory is out of control, and the processes are not lean.
Could you visit his factory and perform an audit? Maybe Pete can go with you – just make sure he behaves.
The note finished with contact information for the company.
Not only was Pete willing to go, but Rob also had a colleague in
nearby Brown University that he wanted to visit. A few days later our trio
was heading south to Providence in Rob’s Buick.
“You guys don’t know squat about making charms for charm
bracelets. Do you really think you can help them?” Rob teased.
“Hey, we’ve got the great Professor Coleman here. She can solve
any problem! — Seriously, we’ve discuss this before, most manufacturing
processes are similar. I won’t be surprised if we can help them a lot,” Pete
They stayed in a hotel near the Galahad facility the night
before the audit. They arrived at the facility the next morning and met
with the site superintendent, Don Smithson. After exchanging pleasantries,
Patty and Rob toured the manufacturing, inventory storage, shipping, and
administrative areas. By then it was lunchtime. Pete had stayed behind to watch
the manufacturing line and collect productivity data. During a late lunch, they
requested some additional production and cost data from Smithson. They then
requested that Smithson give them two hours to develop a summary of their
After preforming all of the necessary calculations, Patty and
her team prepared a Powerpoint presentation. Smithson had gathered a few of the
process engineers and the manager of production Ervin “Bud” Clark. Clark was an
intimidating man with sharp features and, it appeared, a quick temper.
Patty started the meeting by reviewing the strengths of the
operation. The facility was so clean it could only be described as spotless.
The production workers appeared to have very good attitudes and the quality of
the resulting charms they produced was excellent. Bud Clark beamed as Patty was
sharing this information. Then she reviewed the “Opportunities for Improvement”
‘The greatest OFI is the line uptime. From the data you gave us,
and from what we gathered today, we calculated that your uptime is 30%,” Patty
At this, Clark turned red in the face and demanded,” What do you
mean by uptime Dr. Coleman?”
“Simply the amount of time the line is running during an 8-hour
shift,” Patty responded.
Clark was now shaking with fury, “This is the greatest insult I
have ever experienced, my lines are running almost 100% of the time. Smithson,
let’s kick these Ivy Tower intellects out of here, they’re wasting our time!”
Smithson calmed Clark down and then said to Patty, “Thirty
percent seems very low, how did you calculate it?” he asked.
“We did it two ways. Rob and I took the production metrics you
gave us and calculated uptime, Pete also monitored the line and took readings,
both methods yielded about 30%,” Patty responded.
At this Bud Clark exploded, “My lines run nearly 100% of
the time. I can’t be convinced otherwise,” he fumed.
“Dr. Coleman, can you share some of the details relating to how
you calculated 30%?” Smithson asked reasonably.
“Of course. Pete monitored the lines from the start of the shift
through lunch. The time was from 8AM to 1PM.” Patty stated.
“Well, it shows right off the bat that you don’t know our
schedule,” Clark fumed, “lunch is over at 12:30.” He was so riled that his face
was red and he was shaking.
“That’s true Patty” said, “I’ll let Pete explain.”
“Technically the lunch period starts at 12 noon, but the workers
shut their machines down at 11:48AM today. The lunch period is supposed to end
at 12:30PM, but the workers did not get back to their stations until almost
12:45PM. It then took them until 12:55PM to get the machines running. So the 30
minute lunch period was actually 1 hour and 5 minutes,” Pete explained.
“Boy, what an eye opener,” Smithson said.
Bud Clark seemed numb, but then he chimed in, “There’s no
way that extra lunch time gives us only 30% uptime,” he snarled.
“True,” said Pete, “but the 15 minute break at 10:00AM was
really 35 minutes.”
Now Smithson was getting agitated at Clark.
“Bud, what is going on?” Smithson said.
Patty felt it was time to interject some calming comments.
“To be honest, this type of situation is what we see in most
audits,” Patty said sympathetically.
“Let’s let Pete finish,” Clark said glumly.
“Works starts at 8AM, but the team really didn’t begin making
parts until almost 8:30AM,” Pete went on. In addition, set-ups for new jobs are
performed on most machines two to four times per day. In theory they take 15
minutes, in practice more like 45 minutes,” Pete went on.
“So with all of this downtime our uptime is only about 30%?”
“Yes,” Pete responded.
Patty then showed how the production data for the last 3 months
support the 30% uptime number.
“The good news is that if you can increase productivity
by only 10%, your profits will more than double,” Patty added cheerfully.
“I find that hard to believe,” Clark said with an agitated voice
and a red face.
“Me too”, said Smithson, “ if I increase productivity by 10%, I
only have 10% more parts to sell, so profits will go up only 10%.”
“That would be true if you had no fixed costs, your fixed costs
are high. Every additional part you sell brings in more revenue, but costs less
to make because your fixed cost per part is lower,” Patty explained.
“I developed an equation the shows this,” she went on.
“In this equation nimproved is
the number of charms produced in a day after process improvement – let’s say
that is 10% more than the current amount. We’ll use nold as the current
amount per day. Pu is
the price you sell the charm for and Cu is
the material cost. CostFixed represent
the fixed costs,” she explained.
“I plotted a graph of profit versus productivity increase from the cost and production metrics you gave us. Note that current profits are at about $160,000/yr. With just a 10% increase in productivity the profits go to about $360,000/yr,” Patty continued.
Figure. Patty’s Graph of Profit Increase
vs Productivity Increase.
Both Smithson and Clark sat in their chairs dumbfounded. “If we
can’t improve productivity by 10% we should be fired,” Clark humbly replied.
Discussion then ensued on how to improve productivity, much of
it focused on how to minimize or eliminate turning the machines off. Both
Smithson and Clark became energized by this discussion and also expressed their
gratitude to Patty, Rob, and Pete.
“Did you notice anything else beyond production that could help
us reduce costs?” Smithson
“You could save quite a bit by better inventory control,” Rob
“I’m off the hook on this one Smithson,” Clark teased.
“I own inventory control,” Smithson agreed, “what did
“Well you have way more inventory than you need. We especially
noted a block of silver as big as a microwave oven in your store room. We
calculated its value at about $500K. I asked some people who have been with the
company for over 15 years and they say it was there when they started,” Rob
“The block is so big and heavy, we could never figure out how to
work with it so we just put off dealing with it. Weeks became months and months
stretched into years,” Smithson sadly replied.
“In addition, the shipping department, although neat, had
multiple shipping cartons of the same box size that were partially used. People
also commented that they sometimes had to hunt for items for production or
shipping,” Rob went on.
Smithson sat in his chair looking glum.
“Dell estimated that the cost of one week’s inventory is about
1% of the value of the inventory, you have about 30 weeks of inventory. We
estimate that your inventory carrying charges are greater than your profits,”
“I always wanted to assure we never ran out of material,”
Smithson added a bit defensively.
“A worthy goal, but you can almost certainly accomplish that with five, or at most 10 weeks of inventory,” Rob replied.
The group then began discussing to how to reduce inventory and outlined a plan. Our trio agreed to come back in six weeks and access progress in both productivity and inventory control.
On the car ride back to Ivy University, Rob sensed that Patty
and Pete were a little pensive.
“Hey you two, what’s up?” Rob asked.
“It seems like déjà vu all over again,” Pete chuckled.
Patty agreed, “The first productivity problem the Professor
helped us with at ACME was so similar to this it’s so surprising.”
“That was the first of our many adventures together with the
Professor, too many years ago now,” Pete added.
Patty agreed and Rob noted a little catch in her voice ….
China is a country that should be viewed through its actions, not its words.
It’s important to keep that in mind when considering the news today from the Associated Press, which is reporting China will cease its practice of forcing multinational companies wishing to do business there to share their IP.
If this turns out to be true — and the China legislature ratifies the law — one of the big trade hurdles between the US and China will be eclipsed.
As usual, the devil’s in the details, and this case is no different. Per the AP, the new rule simply bars “government authorities” from making demands of foreign firms. So if, for instance, the steep duties China places on imports remain in place, an MNC will almost have to partner with a domestic company.
And that’s the rub. As the AP reports: “[T]he central government routinely says it has little control over commercial agreements between Chinese and foreign firms.”
So for most firms, the Catch-22 will remain.
China has a history of saying one thing and doing another. Sometimes it does so brazenly — such a ignoring WTO trade practices or currency interference. Other times it is on the sly, such as when it says it doesn’t believe in meddling in other nations’ affairs all while it’s meddling in other nations’ affairs.