Nearly 20 years ago, a group of North America PCB manufacturers and suppliers came together to develop a game plan to counter the accelerating technological threat that was Japanâ€™s electronics manufacturers. What that collective of industry soothsayers ultimately came up with was the National Technology Roadmap for Electronic Interconnections.
IPC, the organization under whose auspices the Roadmap was created, would be wise to look at its origins as the industry faces yet another turning point in its storied and stormy life.
The Roadmap was developed during a low point in industry history. In 1991-93, PWB fabrication was steadily moving from merchant OEMs to contractors, and then offshore. The EMS industry was in its infancy, and SMT was just poking its head out. Many industry veterans questioned the future of bare board manufacturing, and wondered aloud whether the U.S. was compromising its future by letting that critical technology slip away.
Many conferences of the day failed to turn the tide, offering little more than venues to articulate the problems. The IPC Roadmap, as it came be known, brought a sense of strategy and cohesiveness to the fray. What the roadmap did â€“ perhaps better than anyone ever realized â€“ was to create a process for focusing the industry on possible solutions.
That process is more relevant today than ever. Information on designing and building ever-more-sophisticated electronics is ubiquitous, and, with the Web, often free.
The backbone of the Roadmap was input from the key OEMs of the age: AT&T, IBM, Hughes Aircraft, Texas Instruments, and many others contributed the heart of the game plan: the long-term technology needs, from which the path to supply those products could be drawn.
Today, IPC looks confused. It is a U.S. trade group trying hard to be global, yet the manufacturing communities of Europe and Asia do not perceive it as one of their own. As manufacturing escapes overseas, it is even more critical that standards reflect the needs of U.S. OEMs. However, the technical committees charged with writing those standards activities are often overlooked inside the organization, and it shows. The committees are aging, yet the organization has done little to mobilize the next generation, who will someday be asked to take the reins.
Perhaps sensing this, IPC this week announced the hiring of Dave Torp as vice president of standards and technology, responsible for certification, professional development, multimedia programs and oversight for all standards development and technical activities.
We strongly applaud this move. Torp is a highly respected engineer and business development manager, and with experience on the supplier side (Kester, where he was VP of marketing and business development) and the OEM side (Rockwell-Collins, at which he was two-time engineer of the year). He will bring a much-needed focus to IPCâ€™s standards activities and speak with the authority earned from years of actually building product.
When I spoke with Torp Thursday, he expressed surprise at the gaudy number of programs IPC has underway, and explained some ideas for developing what he termed litmus tests for separating what is vital from what are resource sappers. His seatâ€™s not even warm yet, but heâ€™s on the right track.
It would behoove Torp â€“ and the rest of the organization â€“ to take a page from the Roadmap founders (dare we call them the industry framers?), and identify and consult with the key OEMs from each major segment â€“ on their turf and terms, if need be â€“ so that those critical constituents are ensured a means to share their knowledge and needs with the North American manufacturing and supply base: for standards, for training, for information. While bare board fabrication is almost completely outsourced at this point, OEMs still conduct the vast majority of design and assembly work. That could change, and action is needed before it does.
A focused IPC is needed now more than ever. To fail that task could have devastating consequences for domestic companies, and even the nation.