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.