Caveat Lector
Mike Buetow Editor in Chief Image
After 30 Years, The Recorder Goes On

his year marks the start of my fourth decade in the electronics industry, and if you find that hard to believe, well, so do I.

I was reminiscing with a couple of other “old-timers” in recent weeks over the changes that have occurred since I first stepped foot in a factory. I was a graduate of the University of Illinois, and recently relocated to Chicago, when I joined a few others on a tour of the just-revamped Allen-Bradley plant on Second St. in Milwaukee.

Who remembers any of these names: deHaart. HTI. Conceptronic. Dynapert. Sensbey. Celmacs. Those were some of the bigger names in assembly equipment at the time. Many key suppliers then were subsidiaries of end-product OEMs. Kester was owned by Litton. Dynapert was a unit of Black & Decker.

Forget “lights-out” manufacturing. Even “hands-free” was more theory than reality. Semiautomatic machines, including printers and even placement, were common. DEK had just launched the programmable automatic printer it called the 265. What we now call solder paste was in some circles referred to as solder cream. In those days, as many equipment vendors made IR reflow as forced convention.

The big placement equipment OEMs included Siemens and Philips. Zevatech (purchased by Juki in 1999), promoted its first dual-placement machine, capable of 4,200cph, considerably faster than rival Quad’s 3,400cph “production volume placer.” Companies still pitched manual assembly workstations.

The big names in cleaning were Westek, Accel and EMC. ECD was around, but it made dispensers.

Fine-pitch was 25 mils, and to inspect it CyberOptics had invented something called an “SMT Process Control Cell.” The global SMT assembly market added up to about $8.2 billion. That was about 40% of the size of the bare board market, pegged by IPC at $20.5 billion. The market for solder paste (“cream”) was about $120 million worldwide. Contract manufacturers (the term “electronics manufacturing services” had yet to be coined) were starting to be leveraged by OEMs that didn’t want to tie up all their capital in new surface mount machines.

That Allen-Bradley plant was revelation. A-B had teamed with Digital Equipment to install computer-integrated manufacturing throughout the production area. It invested nearly $10 million (in 1991 dollars) to overhaul the 28,000 sq. ft. space in downtown Milwaukee with screen printers, dispensers, placement lines, and IR reflow systems from Universal Instruments. Electrovert provided the wave machines, and H-P supplied the inline ICT systems.

Product traveled the factory in an “S” pattern from top-side SMT to through-hole insertion to bottom-side SMT, then manual assembly, wave solder, ICT and repair, and finally routing. One-day throughput without a qualification run was achieved, and work-in-process was cut to one day. One of the novel features was overhead conveyors that moved panels past the operations that didn’t need to touch the product, such as ICT.

The design side was no different. Signal processing speeds were just breaking 50MHz. One of my first stories was on the state of the CAD industry. I discussed Cadence, Intergraph (fresh off its acquisition of Daisy-Cadnetix) and Valid Logic.

Geographically, the market consisted of the US, Japan and Europe. China wasn’t on the radar of many. The dissolution of the USSR in late 1991 had the seers excited over the potential Eastern Europe, however, with some calling it the most dynamic economy in the world. That the industry would someday chase low labor rates was not a commonly held view at the time. John Maxwell, a leading component guru and one of my early advisors, went so far as to say, “There is little to be saved when high technology production is moved to low-labor-rate countries. The Japanese have proven without a doubt that labor is not a major factor in production cost.”

In Maxwell’s defense, I’ve made far worse assessments. So, too, has the industry. Sometimes we learn; sometimes we don’t. Failure is an integral part of progress.

As for that Allen-Bradley plant? It’s still humming, and it’s still pushing the edges of software-driven processing as part of Rockwell Automation’s Smart Manufacturing vanguard. (In fact, the term “connected enterprise” comes from Rockwell Automation’s CTO.)

The people and companies that push the envelope don’t always succeed in the long run, but they pave the way for those who do – and make it interesting for the recorders of history like me.

Mike Buetow
P.S. Join us for our annual NPI And Service Excellence Awards on Feb. 4 at IPC Apex Expo, booth #2748!