The Route

Mike Buetow

Have big box stores learned lessons that can be applied by electronics manufacturers?

One of the big takeaways from the Future Compute conference on the campus of MIT in May was a definitive “yes!”

There, we heard about how some of the large retail chains like Target use software, hardware and data in all kinds of customer experiences.

Almost every employee has handheld devices tracking the billions of sensors and cameras in use across some 1,900 stores and 50 regional distribution centers. At each store, it runs about 100 different software applications. They look at traffic trends: When is the peak? When is the lag? And how can they be modulated?

Now consider an electronics manufacturing operation. There could be hundreds of operators, thousands of PCBs, millions of components, billions of solder joints, each one needing traceability.

Read more: ‘At the Edge' of a Data Revolution

Mike Buetow

And we’re back!

After a (too long) break, PCEA meetups have restarted with a bang, with two local chapter meetings, plus the first national event in PCEA history.

Professional development was the focus of both chapter meetings. This can be looked at two ways: one in terms of technology advancements and the other tied to learning the basics of placement and routing.

The pandemic is driving change, not just to the way we work, but what we work on. Per John Watson of Altium, who spoke at both meetings, “Advancements in technology are partially a result of the pandemic.” The industry “forced us into redoing the way we do things.”

As reported by PCEA chief content officer Chelsey Drysdale, Watson says designs for IoT, drones and nanotechnology, among others, were “science fiction” just a decade ago. Today, they are commonplace, and others (additive manufacturing?) are right behind them.

Yet, while today’s designs are typified by higher frequencies, smaller boards, and bigger, heavier stackups, the industry is losing experience. A survey shared by Watson suggests more than half of designers plan to retire in the next 12 months.

Read more: Recent Meetings Revive Future Possibilities

Mike Buetow

More than 15 years ago, the Restriction of the Use of Hazardous Substances in Electronics (RoHS) went into effect with great fanfare. While it had far-reaching effects, the most prominent material affected was lead.

Lead has for decades been the industry’s bad boy. (I’d say red-headed stepchild, but I am still mostly red-headed.) Several attempts were made in the US alone to eliminate its use, and the remediation and eradication efforts for lead in plumbing has had a pronounced effect on lowering rates of birth defects and learning disabilities. While an EU mandate, RoHS had a ripple effect throughout electronics-producing regions, and most eventually migrated to using lead-free materials in electronics solder as well.

As the early RoHS end-use exemptions expired, the number of electronics hardware applications using lead has become limited primarily to legacy high-reliability programs. One of the last holdouts has been the US Department of Defense, and even that pendulum is swinging. The last few US defense appropriations bills have included millions of dollars in funding to support the transition of various aerospace, defense and high-performance electronics to lead-free technologies.

But as we focus on the molecules, are we missing the larger compound? By that I mean the ability to recycle and reuse the materials in electronics products, regardless of their relative toxicity?

Michael Kirschner, president of Design Chain Associates, thinks so. As he explained to PCEA chief content officer Chelsey Drysdale in March on the PCB Chat podcast, many of the directives and regulations, while well-meaning, have fallen short of their ultimate goals, which was to change manufacturer behavior. And yet it is manufacturer behavior that must change if the needle is to be moved. After all, it’s been years since the packaging containing electronics came adorned with the green lead-free labels that signified to consumers they had a choice to buy eco-friendly products.

Born about five years prior to RoHS, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulation (WEEE) directive mandates electronics recycling. Compliance rates, however, have been stubbornly low. The percentage of e-waste that’s properly recycled hovers around 40% per European Commission data, well below targets.

According to Kirschner, manufacturers have been reluctant to change their ways. “Fundamentally, we’re still using the classical linear product lifecycle process to design products and manufacture them. And really, manufacturers haven’t made changes to process or design to products to make them more recyclable or more reusable. They’ve just paid the amount of money the recyclers and member states are asking and said, ‘OK, it’s your problem now.’”

Last month, the EU held an open comment period for the next revision of RoHS. One possibility, says the EU, is merging RoHS with the EcoDesign directive, also known as 2009/125/EC.

Kirschner thinks the EU will try to bring RoHS into alignment with the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP). The circular economy serves as a more holistic way of addressing environmentally sound recovery and disposal of waste, including electronics. In real terms, per the US EPA, the circular economy aims to eliminate waste through “superior design” of materials, products and systems, including business models.

Says Kirschner: “I think they’re going to try to tie this all together to be more sensible and coherent, rather than have RoHS, REACH, EcoDesign, Persistent Organic Pollutant (POPS) – all these different regulations impacting one aspect or another of the electronic product and the design of that product. I don’t know how they plan to make it more coherent, but I certainly expect to see changes to a regulation that simply bans substances like RoHS to make it more circular.”

Likely, changes are coming. While Europe has often worked past deadlines for new publications, the European Commission says the RoHS revision is expected by the fourth quarter of this year. Industry can and should coordinate coherent feedback to ensure any changes are actionable and effective.

RoHS brought many changes to material systems, in particular ramped use of tin-silver-copper,  high-tin and tin-bismuth alloys, among others. In many cases, the changeover revealed improved performance that might never have been noticed had assemblers not been forced to switch.

But we must also take measures to ensure our own product designers understand the novel materials available that might not only be equal to or better than the current crop in performance but also recyc-lability. And those same designers must have access to best-in-class information on how to, you know, design products that can be reused.

Those interested in moving forward – or should that be moving in circles? – would be wise to consider PCB East (, coming April 11-13 to Marlboro, MA. Bump elbows with those at the leading edge of technology development. We’d love to see you there. 

Mike Buetow

It wasn’t long ago NASA administrators were lamenting ongoing cuts to the world’s leading space agency’s annual budget were putting the US at risk of falling behind its competitors.

No one remembers, but in the 1960s the line item for NASA made up more than 4% of the federal US budget. Once a few footprints were made in space, however, the shine was off the moon rock. A decade later, NASA’s budget had been slashed by two-thirds in real dollars, and only briefly topped 1% of the federal budget again over the next 50 years.

Today it hovers around 0.5%, which still translates to more than $20 billion a year in funding. Indeed, the Biden administration proposed allocating nearly $25 billion to NASA in 2022 to support moon exploration and more.

As craft go up, costs come down. It can cost up to $400 million to lift some United Launch Alliance ships off the ground. That’s one reason why NASA is so interested in its so-called Venture Class of launch vehicles, smaller vessels that carry smaller payloads but lower risks, especially to the bottom line if they end up cone down. These rockets are priced at a few million dollars apiece, chump change, especially for those, ahem, explorers named Branson or Bezos.

Read more: The Future of Space is No Longer Up in the Air

Mike Buetow

It took longer than expected, but only by a couple weeks. PCEA is now the owner of a number of publications, websites, educational events and trade shows for printed circuit engineers.

In January, we completed the acquisition of several longtime and popular brands from UP Media Group, including PCD&F, CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY, the PCB2Day webinar series, the Printed Circuit University online education platform, the PCB Chat podcast series, and of course, the leading technical conferences and trade shows for design engineers: PCB West and PCB East. It’s the latter one I’ll look at today.

Last month’s discussion focused on training opportunities. We looked at developments at the college level and new certification programs like the Printed Circuit Engineering Professional course offered by PCE-EDU, the brainchild of a team of veteran design engineers led by Mike Creeden and Rick Hartley.

This month, we dive into the upcoming PCB East technical conference. For the uninitiated, PCB East is the Eastern US version of the popular PCB West trade show. It debuted in the 2000s, then went on hiatus after the industry downturn in 2007-08. At the urging of several companies and individual design engineers, it was set to return last year, until the pandemic got in the way.

Read more: Diving into DDR: Highlights of PCB East

Mike Buetow

You know the labor situation is bad when even the Air Force is getting involved to find solutions.

Indeed, as was recently announced, the Air Force Research Laboratory is working with NextFlex to come up with ways to attract students to careers in technology and science.

NextFlex isn’t a random choice. It was formed under the auspices of the US Department of Defense’s Manufacturing Technology Program. As one of eight DoD Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, the consortium is a partnership among the DoD, industry and academia. Its specific focus is development of flexible hybrid electronics (FHE), and to develop an education and workforce development program.

To the latter, the goal is nothing less than the creation of a skilled pipeline of STEM talent ranging from R&D to manufacturing. To that end, NextFlex is working on training and recruitment programs that work hand-in-hand with existing curricula. Called FlexFactor, this model is considered far more effective than designing a program from scratch and convincing institutions to adopt it.

In these programs, students attempt to address real-world problems, create the hardware that might solve that problem, and design the business model for their solution. They are similar to capstone projects at universities such as Rochester Institute of Technology, which go a long way toward resolving the criticism that higher education teaches only theory and leaves graduates woefully short on relevant industry experience.

“Colleges adopt and run FlexFactor for local high school students in their service area as a means of engaging students with STEM pathways in higher education,” says Emily McGrath, workforce development director, NextFlex. “So, although the participants are all in high school, the teams represent their colleges (not their high schools) in the finals because we work with the colleges, not the high schools, to run the program.”

This is appealing, I think, because today’s students seem much more driven by hands-on instruction and an accelerated path to accomplishment.

One of the facets of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association is to promote printed circuit engineering as a profession and to encourage, facilitate, and promote the exchange of information and integration of new design concepts through communications, seminars, workshops, and professional certification. So central is training to our mission, we spell it out in our bylaws.

We have affiliated with PCE-EDU, a training company established by some of the leading names in printed circuit engineering and manufacturing tooling. They include Rick Hartley, Mike Creeden, Susy Webb, Steph Chavez, and Gary Ferrari. They have developed a 400-page handbook (Printed Circuit Engineering Professional) that covers more than 65 major topics ranging from design to materials and fabrication processes. (I should note several of the aforementioned experts will be presenting at our PCB East conference in Marlboro, MA, in April.)

To teach the principles set forth in the Printed Circuit Engineering Professional curriculum, PCE-EDU has set up a five-day course covering the basics of the profession, materials, manufacturing methods and processes; circuit definition and capture; board layout data and placement; circuit routing and interconnection; signal-integrity and EMI applications; flex PCBs; documentation and manufacturing preparation; and advanced electronics (energy movement in circuits, transmission lines, etc.). At the end of the workshop, registrants may take the optional certification, called the CPCD, or Certified Printed Circuit Designer. PCEA is the registrar and certifying body for the CPCD.

Again, the emphasis is on real-world engineering and design, not pie-in-the-sky theory. Students are taught facts and principles in a tool-agnostic way. One medium-term goal is to get institutions to adopt the CPCD, much in the way they are latching onto FlexFactor, so students are not just aware of careers in printed circuit engineering and manufacturing, but prepared for them.

Not so long ago, a Lockheed-Martin engineer keynoting an industry conference extolled the virtues of the F-35 joint strike fighter. And I admit, the war-fighter is a freak of advanced engineering. But after his presentation, I asked what L-M was doing to compete with the Facebooks and Googles to attract the next generation of engineers. His somewhat incredulous “what, me worry?” response: “Who wouldn’t want to work on a machine like this?”

The answer, of course, is far too many people.

Covid has highlighted the skilled labor shortage experienced at many technology companies over the past three decades. Finding the right employees is an ongoing industrywide problem. Fortunately, programs by organizations like NextFlex and PCEA are starting to fill the void.

  •  Start 
  •  Prev 
  •  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8 
  •  Next 
  •  End 

Page 1 of 8