Peter Bigelow

PCB equipment is long in the tooth. Time to get it talking.

Technology is a wonderful thing, and a moving target. When I first embarked in the working world, “high tech” meant plain paper copiers and push button desk phones. Then came fax machines, copiers with automatic feeders and then, the first real game-changer: the personal computer. Today, a whole new generation is embarking on the world of wireless omnipresent communications, as exemplified by smartphones, tablets and apps. Yes, technology is a beautiful thing.

Now consider the extraordinary role our industry has played in ushering in new ways to do almost everything. And we’ve done so on machines that have more in common with the rotary dial phone than the iPhone.

Don’t agree? Take a walk out onto the production floor of the typical factory. It may be a bit scary. My guess is that, unless you are in a greenfield startup, the average age of the equipment is 15 to 20 years. Worse, even the newer equipment is likely just an upgrade of something introduced over 20 years ago. It works well compared to what is now the industry baseline, but it still makes you wonder.

Almost every other industry seems to have done a better job incorporating new technology into their day-to-day operations. Consider two extremes: a large hospital and a local auto repair facility. As different as these two businesses may appear, they have more in common than you might think.

Hospitals are typically well-funded entities where “life and death” requires the newest, best technology available. As recently as a decade ago when you went to a hospital, registration was performed by a clerk who filled out paper forms, typed some basic information into a standalone computer, made photocopies of insurance cards and then passed you on to the next in line. Ditto the nurse or doctor, who would sit with you and take notes, scribbling on set forms as they worked through their diagnosis check lists.

A hospital visit today is a very different experience. Admitting staff – often nurses – walk the floor with tablets and begin the check-in process. All data collected from previous visits are on the screen. The nurse or doctor logs into your file via tablet or smartphone, and through voice activation dictates comments and uses apps to record and diagnose based on the data input. Concerned about dosage or drug interaction? There’s an app for that. Want to know what your home dos or do nots are? There is an app for that as well, which they send to your email while you’re still in the office. And if you return even years later, all the data are immediately available on file.

More impressive is that should you need surgery, all the data are uploaded into the surgical instruments to reduce the possibility of input error and to make sure all attending nurses and doctors see the same information in real time. Hospitals are a high-end showroom of what and how technology has changed the way a professional goes about doing their business.

The auto repair shop lies on the other end of the economic spectrum. Most are independently owned by folks who like to tinker with cars. A decade ago that meant opening the hood of a vehicle, looking in, and by feel or sound diagnosing what repairs might be needed. A handwritten – if not verbal – estimate was provided, and when you returned, you hoped the estimate was right, or, if not, the mechanic had the courtesy to pick up the phone on the wall to call you.

Today, that same mechanic will plug a laptop or tablet into your car to perform a diagnostic check. They then can hit an application that checks the price and availability of needed parts, estimates the hours to perform the work, and emails an estimate while you wait.
The major hospital and the local mechanic, operating in different paradigms, have one major commonality: affordable technological tools available to them that enable each to be more efficient in their job. Technology is a wonderful thing, and both are benefiting from it.

This brings me back to the design, fabrication and assembly of printed circuit boards. When I look at most manufacturing facilities, darned little new equipment effectively communicates with each other. The user interface is too often abysmal or just a simple binary “on” and “off” switch. Upgrading old equipment manufactured by now-defunct companies is part of the problem. However, when you look at the new machines offered, very little of it truly takes advantage of state-of-the-art technology – the technology that equipment is supposedly producing.

For our industry to remain viable – at any scale and in any location – our capital equipment needs to reflect user interfaces as thoughtful as its users’ personal devices. Collection, reporting and analysis of data related to what the equipment is processing is as important as turning that process on or off. The user interface must become clearer, more intuitive and most of all, more useful, not just as a way to operate the equipment, but also to incorporate itself into the bigger picture of manufacturing product.

Even more important is the need for new equipment to be cost-effective. That means affordable to purchase, as well as to maintain. If the local mechanic can affordably procure technology that propels him to the next level, then our global industry should be able to do the same.

Yes, technology is a wonderful thing, wonderful and amazing to produce. Equally, wonderful new technology is dearly needed today so we can support the ever-rising bar our customers expect. It’s time that the PCB industry enters the age of user-friendly, smart apps.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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