HDPUG Event Offers ‘Unbeatable’ Data, Networking

Thanks to the High Density Packaging User Group and the invitation from long-time industry veteran – and friend– Jack Fisher for the invitation to attend one of their open meetings on Sept. 9.  One of several annual meetings, this daylong event was held in my “backyard” in Atlanta, and sponsored by Engent.  This particular day was “open” to the industry; the second day of the event limited to member companies.

For those not familiar with the group, HDP is a 22-year-old international, project-oriented, nonprofit trade organization/consortium whose stated mission is “to reduce the costs and risks for the electronics industries when employing the use of electronic packaging.” Membership is offered to companies involved in the supply chain of producing products that utilize high-density electronic packages.  And lest phrases like “project-oriented,” “consortium”  and “trade organization” strike a bit of fear in your heart or bring to mind unwieldy committee meetings,  this particular meeting – and all such meetings – according to members in attendance – are  characterized by a refreshing lack of bureaucracy.  Numerous projects – and updates of – were discussed – and the meeting itself was nicely moved along under the watchful (and firm!) eye of Jack Fisher.

Members suggest projects, then gather a team together, set objectives and deadlines, and then report back to fellow members with regular updates and final data during members-only meetings.  It’s a value proposition that’s pretty unbeatable.  These activities are run, according to the HDPUG, “ in a domain where members are able to gain much more by joint activities rather than duplicating work in each member company.”  Visit hdpug.org to see more information on current, completed and new projects.

It was great to see old – and not so old – friends Tony Senese, Panasonic; Eric Moen, Akrometrix;  Paul Houston, Engent;  Glen Oliver, DuPont;  and Neil Chamberlin, Polar Instruments, along with HDPUG executive director Marshall Andrews. Larry Marcanti, marketing director for HDPUG, reminded  me he used to serve on the PC FAB review board, and we reminisced about the days of Continental Circuits and Velie Circuits.  And, kudos to Kim Andrews, who organized this event – I know what it takes to move people from point A to point B…well done! I promised Laurence Schultz a personal shout-out (he wins “best radio voice of the day”!) and to Alun Morgan, project facilitator and also Chairman, EIPC, who has offered me a place to hang my hat in the EIPC booth during Productronica!

Selfishly, on behalf of CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY, PCD&F and UP Media, I must claim the “highlight” of the day was the presentation by Mike Buetow, our editor in chief.  He was webex’ed in with a presentation “The Changing Electronics Market and Customer” – a provocative and thought-provoking look at the changing roles and opportunities for EMS, OEMs and ODMs.  Suppliers were advised now may be the time to “seize the day” – and attendees bemoaned the fact that Mike was unable to attend in person so they could “pick his brain.”

All in all, a day well spent. Many thanks to HDP Users Group for including CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY and PCD&F.



Whose Fault Is It, Anyway?

The change in administration at IPC will inevitably dredge up lots of the past as various factions position themselves for a seat at the table.

Those whom hew to the line that IPC’s emphasis over the past decade has shifted to the assembly market are correct: IPC followed the money, and since the massive shift of printed circuit board fabrication to Asia starting in late 2001, assembly has where the North American money has been.

But that assessment  just as inevitably turns to anger and blame — fingers get quickly pointed at IPC for somehow failing the domestic PCB market. I’m not sure that’s justified.

IPC’s interest in programs for fabricators has waned; of that, there is no doubt. But it has waned in large part because fabricators themselves stopped supporting those programs. The PWB Presidents Meetings and the TMRC are shells of their former selves, it says here, because the members stopped forcing the issue. Keep in mind, IPC has long followed a “build it and they will come” model. That’s not a good strategy for a trade association. But fabricators who abdicated leadership over the IPC share much of the responsibility for what it’s become. It’s not that the IPC board of directors no longer reflects the needs of small guys so much as it’s that the board no longer reflects the needs of the private owner, large or small. No one complained IPC wasn’t doing enough for fabricators when representatives from large fabs like Photocircuits were on the board.

Could IPC provide better direction for the North American fabrication industry? Yes. But the Chinese have done just fine without the help of a strong domestic association. Given that, it’s hard to argue that IPC was the cause of the decline. Back in 2000, when the forecasts for high layer count boards were staggeringly optimistic for the foreseeable future, old friend Jack Fisher lamented that it would keep the domestic industry from investing in HDI for another couple years. He was right: none did. Then the bottom fell out, and none of them had the cash to invest in the newer technology, thus relegating them to third tier status. As one who participated in the IPC Technology Roadmap going back to its first incarnation, I can say microvias were clearly expected to take hold. In that respect, the IPC did its part; the industry just didn’t follow.

It’s uncomfortable to admit we got beat, and no, the playing field with China has never been level, and yes, IPC’s lobbying and related activities have been confused and ineffective, but there’s plenty of blame to go around, and not all of it was a trade group’s fault. We’d all be better off, I think, to focus on the needs of the future rather than the sins of the past.

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.