On Markets and Makers

Despite my pleasure in seeing the forecast for printed circuit board production this year, I have to admit it’s depressing to contemplate how far the US market has fallen, both in size and share.

Dial back to 2000, and North America was head-to-head with Japan for world supremacy. Both markets were roughly $10 billion in size, give or take, and each had their specialty. In Japan, it was chip substrates, while the US dominated in high-layer-count boards.

I recall, at a meeting with Jack Fisher and a few others early that summer, word was out that Hadco’s lead times were as much as six months, and the industry forecast was for double-digit growth for the next two years. Hearing that, Jack surmised that no investments in HDI would be forthcoming any time soon, reasoning that if order books were maxed for “conventional” boards, owners wouldn’t see the value in investing in next-generation technology.

How right he was.

We will never know which factor had the biggest impact on the fate of the North American board industry since. Certainly, extended lead times pushed OEMs to consider Taiwanese and Chinese sources that, up to then, were looked upon more as fallbacks than primary producers for markets outside of PCs and some handhelds. The tech bubble decimated many companies, and revealed tremendous operating and management flaws among several US and Canadian fabricators. Wall Street’s push for OEMs to have a “China” solution (read: lower wages) didn’t help. And, of course, the lack of investment in HDI paved the way for better-financed Asian plants to take the lead.

If there’s a bright spot, it’s that 1) US engineers continue to amaze in their ability to get decent results from 20-year-old Excellon drills and 2) wage pressures are hitting China considerably sooner than probably anyone imagined. Bare board process equipment continues to improve, making it easier to fab boards without years of experience. Thus, the bar is slowly being lowered for future generations to jump in.

Maybe even the US.

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (pcea.net). He previously was 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 spent 21 years as vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversaw all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 30 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