the Route


Shows Remind Us Why People Matter

It was gratifying to see the throngs return for Productronica in November. To the tune of 42,000 visitors, the crowds showed up for the granddaddy of shows in the Western world. (Nepcon Japan is roughly twice as big.)

And there was plenty to see. One of the improvements that jumped out was the increase in speeds, especially on the assembly line. Machine speeds are rising at remarkable rates, with placement machines hitting their fastest speeds ever, even while many of them add multifunctional heads for more flexible line setups.

Yamaha’s YRM20 placement machine allows nonstop cart and feeder changes. Fuji’s AIMEXR SMT placement machine, for NPI runs, relies on linear motors for its fastest speeds yet. So what if the semiconductor market is predicted to rise by double-digits this year? These machines can take the pressure.

In many cases, the machine is telling the operator what to do, instead of vice versa. Juki’s LX-8 SMT platform, for instance, walks users step-by-step through the head exchange process, and then the automatic calibration kicks in.

Innovations that made machines more operator-proof, such as the stencil auto changeover on the Panasonic NPM G/L printer, or in somewhat similar fashion, ITW’s Edison II printer, which automates changeovers by first wiping the solder from the stencil and saving it in a reservoir, then automatically loading everything – tooling plate, stencil and blade holders – in the correct orientation from a cart prepped by the operator. Europlacer’s new ii-P7 printer is said to have a maintenance-free printhead and cuts cycle times in standard mode by 25%, and by more than 50% with an optional special motor.

BTU’s new Aurora convection reflow oven has 16 (!) heating zones, and if that wasn’t enough, features dual lanes for high-volume production. Viscom’s i56059 AOI performs two-sided inspection for higher speed.

That’s just a few of the enhancements from the assembly side. We could go on and on, but you get the idea. Speed is in.

And yeah, there was that crowd which, even spread over four days, felt busy and engaged. All in all, it felt like the trade shows of the past, and in a good way.

Time was, trade shows weren’t just for the frontline workers. They were also a place companies would send their benches. They did so for a multitude of reasons: to get their eyes (and in some cases, hands) on the latest technology; to network; and sometimes just to reward them for the work they did (or would have to do).

But most of all, they did so to prepare them to become the next group of lead engineers, Quality Assurance directors, business development directors, and so forth. It was a low-cost way to expose valued staff to the world outside the factory.

Then at some point, they stopped. In some cases, it was economics: Business in North America and Europe fell off its 2001 peaks, and justifying travel became a chore. Many manufacturers reduced their headcounts, leaving their engineering benches a shallow fraction of what they once were. Still others pulled workers in out of fear of losing them to competitors.

While I see evidence that the next generation is joining the industry, in many cases their employers aren’t letting them out of the factories. The concern over losing a highly trained worker is real, but in my experience artificially holding them back retards their professional growth and only works for so long. A better strategy is to engage as much as possible with the rest of the industry so that your best employees act as a recruiting and sales tool for your business.

At the PCEA events like PCB West and, coming this spring to the Boston area, PCB East, one of the aspects that stands out is how excited engineers are to be there. And in our post-show surveys and conversations, they repeatedly bring up the desire to meet others in their chosen disciplines, to the degree that we’ve been asked to spread out the classes so attendees have more time to pick each other’s brains. (We are fiddling with the schedule to accommodate these requests.) We see this firsthand at PCEA, where offering new employees the chance to travel has been a huge plus in talent acquisition.

Remember when perks mattered? I think they still do. And while “perk” to some is synonymous with “expense” and “waste,” encouraging and supporting workers who engage in their industry is the kind of perk that keeps valued workers from bolting.

MIKE BUETOW is president of PCEA (;