Sweet Music: The PCB Reunion Tour

Getting the North American electronics band back together will take significant time and effort.

Thanks to a series of events and geopolitical shifts – think global supply chain strains caused by a pandemic; import tariffs ricocheting throughout the electronics industry; weapon systems depleted from regional wars – there is an outcry to get the band back together: the band being North American electronics manufacturing.

The band was playing the hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s when North America was in a leadership position as gauged not just by technical development but the ability to produce that technology in volume. The music (read: technical development) is still being written profusely, but where are the bands to play (read: manufacture) the music? That is why the crowd is chanting to get the band back together. The chanting comes in the form of legislation such as the CHIPS Act, as well as from “strategic sourcing” executives searching for local North American suppliers like they had back when the band was alive, well and making the hits.

But how exactly do you get the band together when it has been decades since they last stepped on stage? When the PCB music shifted to places far away, many decided to embrace other genres of music, or even far more different art forms such as construction. When tastes, or demand, changes, some musicians choose a different gig and industry genre. Others retire to bask in memories of their glory days. Getting the band back together is not a simple task, and playing the hits as once before may be an even more difficult challenge.

Though popular in concept, it takes more than throwing money around to get the music cranking again. Bands, especially great ones, need talented musicians who can create and execute consistently and accurately. Going on tour means establishing the concert list, practicing over and over, and then nailing it night after night. It’s tough to do on a good day, but when most of the talent has migrated elsewhere or retired, getting a band together requires extraordinary effort from a new generation of musicians.

Yet some new and very talented musicians have entered the scene. These people have created great music and, on a limited basis, have been able to produce and perform that music. But do we currently have enough to really get them kicking out the hits in the volume the crowd is demanding? And if not, then from where and how do you find the needed talent to perform in the genre of electronics? Back in the heyday of the ’80s and ’90s, places like Route 128 around Boston and Silicon Valley in California were hubs filled with available and wanting talent. Today, Route 128 focuses on biotech, while the Silicon Valley is more software than silicon. Seeking the next bandmate from the hotbeds of the past will not work. Times change, and so does where and how the next generation of talent will be found.

Regrettably, over the decades that have passed since the hits were coming, fewer people have wanted to be in a manufacturing band. Those that choose manufacturing often opt for a genre other than electronics – let alone printed circuit boards. So, a revival will require a series of initiatives – and investments – to fill all the positions that are going to be needed.

Time and money will need to be invested at the local community and technical college levels. Time to explain and demonstrate that there is long-term career potential in electronics that can be lucrative and secure for those who dedicate themselves to learning and relearning as technology develops, pivots and morphs, as it has with PCBs. Equally important is stressing that, as in any career, it’s the little things such as showing up every day, on time and with a willing attitude to learn and contribute that create success. Money will be needed to furnish labs and classrooms with the manufacturing equipment that students will be operating upon graduation. Hands-on teaching works exceptionally well when developing manufacturing talent.

Those who most want the band together will also need to invest by putting some skin in the game of showing up at schools, colleges, universities and especially local workforce development programs to promote – sell – the opportunities available to those who enter our industry. This may involve opening facilities up for student tours, or when regulations prohibit that, creating a video that presents the feel of a day in the life of making the hits.

Getting the band back together, or even just starting one, is no easy task. With the crowd chanting now is the time, we need to convince a new generation that electronics – and specifically producing printed circuit boards – requires talent that yearns to be industry rock stars. Article ending bug

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