New Year, Same Problems
Changes in materials and components mean yesterday’s issues are also today’s.
Industry is much like the classic Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day: We work on a technical challenge, solve it, and wake up the next day and solve it again.

A recent industry gathering offered such an example. The subject was profiling ovens used in the assembly of circuit boards. Over my decades-long career I have seen dozens of presentations on that very subject. Each time the challenge was the same: new solder materials, laminate or components require tighter and more-defined performance from the oven; thus, the oven must be profiled with ever-greater accuracy and precision.

This recurring phenomenon is not unique to the PCB industry. The original automotive engineers worked on how to make a car accelerate and brake faster, just as their successors do today. The materials, control technologies and performance demands may change, but the recurring engineering challenge is there, whether it’s for an auto braking system or wave solder process.

And that is what makes technology industries so exciting. Once you have met “the” challenge, a new material, process or requirement forces you to rethink that solution in favor of an even better one.

The drivers behind the technical challenge always seem new, and often awe-inspiring, channeling out-of-the-box thinking. In reality, however, they are most likely the usual suspects.

Materials. The appetite is insatiable to develop new materials that enable tighter, smaller, lighter and more feature-rich performance laminates capable of higher temperature performance; films and coatings that support finer definitions; the list goes on.

Chemicals. With advancing performance requirements and evolving environmental demands, few categories have required such constant rethinking of processes and processing, with no end in sight.

Manufacturing equipment: Becoming more sophisticated as sensors, software and achievable tolerance advances enable capabilities only dreamed of a few years ago.

Data and analytics. Call it smarter processing, ERP software or Industry 4.0, the ability to collect and move data among equipment and processes, and slice and dice that data to generate usable analytics to improve quality and throughput, the future of manufacturing is entering the next phase of information sophistication.

People. The skills needed to manage equipment, process, product or enterprise are changing, challenging all to rethink what we need to master to meet the new and recurring challenges of evolving materials, chemistry and equipment.

All the above have been evolving for centuries. New materials, chemistries and equipment may show more obvious transformations, yet data too has changed from simple observation and verbal communication to written documentation to typed documentation through various iterations of computerization. And despite what some proponents of AI may think, people are still at the center of creativity, process and material improvement, as well as harnessing the equipment and data to move product and industry forward.

Anyone who feels stagnant or bored in their current role, regardless of their level or job task, pull off those blinders and look around. Even the most rote and seemingly basic task requires commitment to meet the new challenges. Maybe it’s a different way of handling necessitated by a change to material or process; maybe it’s understanding that tolerances require sharper attention to detail to ensure compliance; or maybe it’s managing employees differently to teach new skills or techniques. For some, opportunity may be as simple as an attitude adjustment.

For people beginning their career, regardless of education or discipline, our industry offers opportunity. Being part of technological advancement that enables new and exciting products essential to and enjoyed by users is just one reason. Unlike many careers, in electronics you are actively involved in the future of technology and products. In addition, our industry has an unprecedented number of people approaching retirement age. For anyone who is smart, hardworking and ambitious, there is no better career track than an industry that offers both a bright future and ample opportunity for relatively rapid advancement.

So, as we embark on a new year and the next decade of this century, there’s much to look forward to. There will always be new challenges, technical as well as commercial. There will be new solutions in need of thorough vetting, but that might improve quality and enhance technical performance and capabilities. Many of these challenges will appear the same as in the past; others will at first glance look completely different but may require leveraging methods and tactics that have been successfully implemented to meet past challenges. All, however, will require every participant to collaborate and creatively think and rethink how to meet that challenge. Much like Groundhog Day, face the new challenge, overcome it, and repeat!

Peter Bigelow
Peter Bigelow
is president and CEO of IMI Inc. (; His column appears monthly.