In the wake of pandemics and travel bans, visitors still turned out for the annual exhibition.

Heading into IPC Apex Expo the first week of February, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The overall market appears to be slowing somewhat. Many EMS companies have reported lower sales for the past quarter. US presidential elections often seem to dampen electronics orders, at least until November, even though a review of the overall GDP disputes any such letup. And fears of the coronavirus in China have clearly spooked the industry, as some firms have reduced or banned employee travel for the time being.

But once the show started, many of those concerns abated. Floor traffic was up and down through the first two days, before grinding to a near halt per usual on the third and final day of the show. Exhibitors took note, reporting mixed reviews of the attendance. But when it was busy, it was really busy. It’s hard to say whether the postponement of overseas shows such as Nepcon China and the International Electronic Circuits (Shanghai) Exhibition (better known as the CPCA Show) boosted attendance an ocean away in San Diego, but it probably didn’t hurt. (As of this writing, IPC has not released official attendance figures.)

The hallmarks of IPC Apex Expo, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year (some argued that the show is actually older than that, since it’s a combination of Apex, founded in 2000, and Printed Circuits Expo, which launched in 1994), include size and pageantry. The IPC Hall of Fame, keynote addresses and committee luncheons all feature a lot of color and lights and balloons and massive flashy electronic displays. Those are distinct improvements over the shows of yesteryear. And there’s a clear emphasis on younger engineers, even though there aren’t many of that demographic walking the halls. On the show floor, chatter over China, the virus and the subsequent factory shutdowns was all the rage. The consensus was the situation is probably worse than has been officially disclosed, that supply-chain disruptions range from mild to severe, and that restarting the lines, especially for fabrication plants that typically run 24/7, might be more complicated than anyone has dared to say aloud.

The beneficiaries, if that’s proper to say, are those companies that relocated production in the past year to Mexico, Vietnam or Taiwan. Although generally those moves were made to defeat the onerous tariffs, the timing of the coronavirus only reinforced the wisdom of the decision.

For those who attended Productronica last November, there wasn’t much new at Apex Expo in the way of equipment or materials. The German trade show remains the best place outside Asia to see brand-new machines, which are then rolled out regionally, as the other shows follow. This year was no exception. Products previously reviewed in our Productronica recap last December are not covered here.

Industry 4.0 and the coming robotic revolution remain points of focus, but there is the inevitable lag between conception and implementation. We are at the point where, if one wanted, a nearly fully automated assembly plant could be realized, with software dictating component pulls and AGVs moving feeders and trays to lines just in time to maintain peak overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). But the cost and time to implement remain prohibitive, and perhaps unachievable in non-purpose-built plants.

Each year, the fabrication side of the show seems less busy. Orbotech was unusually reticent. It had a new inkjet solder mask printer called Neos. But finding someone authorized to discuss it was not possible, and booth personnel didn’t even allow photos to be taken.

Almost every other machine in the fab section was previously shown, in some cases years ago. Isola did have a pair of new laminates. TerraGreen 400G is a high-speed, low-loss replacement for ceramics in 5G applications. IS550H is a low-CTE, CAF-resistant version for high-power and voltage products. Isola is opening a quickturn manufacturing facility in Chandler, AZ, in the late second quarter.

AGC will have new laminates in a few weeks.

Polar Instruments added a variety of fill types, drill documentation and implemented backdrill capability to its Speedstack PCB stackup design tool.

The technical conference sessions appeared well-attended. Those who attend every conference will note some repeats or updates of previously published work. That said, most engineers lack the budget or time to get to multiple conferences a year, so I’m not certain that covering “old” ground is necessarily a negative. One timely session moderated by Greg Papandrew of Better Board Buying covered best practices for strategic board procurement. A panelist from NI explained the company’s process of coupling data from an industry capability index with the specific requirements of a new design to automatically winnow the AVL list to the relevant suppliers. With all the chatter about China and supply chains, that talk couldn’t have come at a better time.

For a review of the assembly products, click here.

Mike Buetow is editor-in-chief of PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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