the Route


The ’80s Revival

In a blast from the past, Marc Carter, one of the leading proponents of integrating electronics design and manufacturing technical skills into the educational system, shared a review of the Nepcon West trade show written by the LA Times … in 1986. The flashback is priceless.

Most readers won’t remember Nepcon, but it was the giant of that and any era when it came to electronics manufacturing. It would draw 30,000 to 40,000 engineers and other industry professionals to Anaheim, CA, each February to peruse the 1,000 or so exhibitors from all over the world. It was truly staggering.

The review Carter shared dwelled on surface mount equipment, which was just getting going in the US at the time. (Phil Marcoux, one of PCEA’s advisors, is credited with installing the first such line in the US while running an EMS called AWI in the early 1980s. One of the first SMT boards I’ve seen – or even know of – was used in the early Saturn rockets now on display at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL, and is featured on this month’s cover photo.) Most assembly process equipment then, however, was either through-hole or, if SMT, it was semiautomatic, a far cry from the robot- and software-intensive Industry 4.0-run factories in some regions today.

Per the article, about 10% of US manufacturers and 30% of their Japanese counterparts were using SMT at the time, with penetration in Europe nestled somewhere between the two regions.

Perhaps the most stunning change between then and now is the demographics. Attendees from offshore, including one quoted from Nan Ya, walked Nepcon looking for equipment not available in the Pac Rim. The US should be so lucky now.

One prescient manufacturer’s representative said this: “The boom days (for electronics) are over. Opportunities are going to have to be sought out and developed.” (Do you agree?)

Joe Fjelstad, he of more than 200 patents in flex circuits and packaging – and countless more pending – is one who continues to try to seek and develop those opportunities. I’ve been hearing the words “Fjelstad” and “guru” for so long, I was stunned when I learned he’s not much older than me.

A few months back I challenged Fjelstad to consider what ideas were conceived and discarded years or decades ago but might be relevant today. He returned to us our cover story this month, which investigates the unstructured evolution of integrated circuit package technology – and its consequences.

The article is a few clicks away and I’m not going to summarize it here. Rather, it’s the side conversations that led up to the contribution that I want to share.

Fjelstad’s mind is comprehensive and frighteningly dynamic, and conversations with him inevitably wander into all sorts of unexpected and neat areas.

Among other things, we talked about the renaissance of polymer thick film, for instance, a technology some four-decades-old that the US government is investing tens of millions in today. And we covered the seismic geographical shifts that took place, in some cases almost by accident.

To wit: Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the consensus was Japan’s investments in miniaturization coupled with its patience and long-range strategic thinking (remember the 100-year plan?) and superior marketing skills were going to dominate the electronics industry forever. Never underestimate those key decision points. Japan missed on array packaging, opening the door to geographical competition. (I should mention, the US and European bare board industries did something similar in the late 1990s and early 2000s, focusing almost exclusively on high-layer-count boards at the expense of HDI. And while it’s understandable why they did so at the time – order backlogs were pushing nine to 12 months – in retrospect that was a very big miss.)

One of the side effects of economic recessions and the race to lower-cost builds is the loss of a few more of the (already few) remaining seers. “We lose the dreamers, the imagination,” Fjelstad says.

We contemplated this ongoing conundrum of the industry today, which is that we are surrounded by great engineers, but they are tasked with improving what already exists.

So many new inventions come from outside the industry and get adapted for ours. As Fjelstad says, engineers today aren’t given the freedom and challenge to ask, “How do I make this disappear in favor of something that doesn’t even exist?”

We are ready for a new generation of architects, but where are they and, more importantly, who are they?

Assuming, of course, they are human and not ChatGPT-driven, we need look no further than our own conference and exhibition, PCB West, which takes place next month at the Santa Clara (CA) Convention Center. Our free sessions on Sept. 20, the same day as the exhibition, include presentations on developments that are expected within the next three years and their projected impact on the hardware and PCB engineering. These include development/convergence of AI, regenerative design, Mod-Sim and model-based systems engineering (MSBE). We could be on the cusp of a world with no netlists, highly automated data search and automated routing development that were the stuff of daydreams just a few years ago.

Nepcon West might be gone and (almost) forgotten, but the opportunities to be sought out and developed are staring right at us. Don’t miss them.

MIKE BUETOW is president of PCEA (;