All Worked Up

WITH THIS TIME of year come many opportunities to attend industry gatherings, catch up with industry colleagues, and find out what’s happening in the macro circuit board supply chain. Over the past couple months, I have seen many old friends. And, I have had more than a few opportunities to reflect on our industry, the state of the supply chain, and what is “critical” versus just “important.”

For the record, I have been in the “printed circuit board” industry for over three decades. Each decade had a distinct – and different – feel. During the 1990s our industry was in a go-go stage, and everyone – from designer through material and equipment supplier to fabricator to assembler – shared an attitude, perhaps even a swagger, that the future was limitless. Back then, some companies invested heavily in capacity and capability with the blind faith that if you build it, customers will come.

As one millennium passed to the next, harsh reality set it. Just after we ushered in Y2K, the party crashed to an end. Customers migrated production en masse to Asia, which offered comparable quality at a much lower cost. As manufacturers shuttered operations in Europe and North America, talent departed to other industries that offered more security, if not growth.

Over the past decade the new norm of the Western industry is smaller size and scope. New technologies and automation are adopted to maintain volumes and add some capability and capacity. The Western PCB industry, as have most manufacturing industries, has focused on survival; get through the next quarter and leave long-term concerns on the back burner.

Yet today, globally far more printed circuit boards are designed, fabricated and assembled than ever. Likewise, more laminate, chemistry and supplies are purchased, and there are more end-customers and product applications. A combination of circus-like politics, a European war, new Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) regulations, and strained global supply chains, is shifting the pendulum from buying cheaply to buying from secure, trusted sources. Amid the good news that North American companies want, or are being told they must, purchase from secure, trusted North American suppliers, however, is a new realization of what is “critical.”

Steps taken over the past two decades to “right-size” operations, with a focus on strengths rather than trying to provide all technologies to all types of customers, were indeed important. Without short-term survival there is no long term! Once that task was completed, however, too many returned to the “good enough” mantra: Keep doing what you are doing with whom you are doing it with. Regrettably, this again has provided a false sense of security.

Then Covid shocked the industry as well as the entire economy. Supply-chain shortages created serious and previously unforeseen challenges. But possibly the biggest shock in manufacturing, especially in electronics, was the combination of an aging work force, many of whom chose to retire early to reduce the chance of contracting Covid, and the lack of interest of younger generations to consider any manufacturing job, let alone a career.

With the supply chain easing a bit, and governments passing legislation to invest in critical industries (which printed circuit boards and electronics certainly are), the big question is, “Who will be the people who manufacture the critical products?”

What is needed, now, to address the staffing issue is a cross-industry effort to promote manufacturing. Promote it as essential, yes, but more importantly, promote how individuals from the design to the shop floor can impact the success of a technology, product and company – perhaps more so than other professions, and certainly over working at the mall or fixing cars. Manufacturing requires creative people and provides lucrative long-term careers. All manufacturing industries would benefit from that message being repeated over and over.

Important as it is that workers at the start of their careers hear about manufacturing, academia also needs to understand the skills needed. Too many teaching courses, such as CAD, do not understand the same skills are needed to be successful in CAM. Effort needs to center on educating the educators on industry’s needs and how to teach skills that are needed immediately by employers.

Enthusiasm, a positive attitude, a “can-do” approach: all are hallmarks of our industry’s entrepreneurial past. Those traits are needed more than ever if, long term, we are to have the talented workforce to fabricate and assemble the critical products that customers want from secure, trusted suppliers. If we can work together with other manufacturing industries to successfully attract the people to meet this critical need, we may regain the swagger of a few decades back. Those thoughts were contagious. Now is the time to focus on the critical. We have successfully accomplished the “important” with hard work and focus. But showing up every day and doing the same with the same will not at this point in time address the critical need of our industry to promote manufacturing and attract the next generation of circuit board talent.

President and CEO of IMI Inc.
His column appears monthly.