The Route

For more than 20 years, PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY has been proud to be the exclusive publisher of the annual NTI - 100 list of the world’s largest board fabricators.

One of the striking changes over the years has been the reshaping of the industry geographical landscape.

In this year’s rankings, which begin on page 32 of the August 2022 issue, see how many Europe- and US-based companies are in the top 25. I'll save you the suspense. One each: AT&S and TTM Technologies, respectively. Long gone are the days when Photocircuits, Sanmina, Hadco, Viasystems and the like dominated the top of the chart.

Read more: In the Rush to Get Big, Let’s Not Forget the Little Guys

Mike Buetow

Foxconn was in the news (again) last month, this time for alleging competitors are poaching its employees.

The complaints were levied specifically at rivals in Vietnam, where the world’s largest ODM/EMS is expanding its factories as major customers like Apple shift production away from China, in part to avoid being a pawn in the geopolitical tug-of-war between the US and China.

Foxconn, which currently employs about 60,000 workers in Vietnam, asserts its EMS competitors are establishing their own operations near Foxconn’s to make it easier to entice workers to jump ship.

Poaching complaints are hardly new, of course. Mexico is notorious for workers relocating en masse from company to company in pursuit of everything from higher pay to better food in the plant cafeteria.

Audrey McGuckin, who spent 10 years as chief talent officer for Jabil and now consults to Kimball Electronics, among others, points out the top stress point for CEOs is talent. And a McKinsey study found only 5% of CEOs feel their organizations’ talent management has been very effective at improving company performance.


Covid-related issues have raised the profile of workers and increased their bargaining power, at least in the current term. And for their part, staffers at all levels are taking advantage of the situation.

The issue isn’t whether employees can or should switch jobs. It’s what steps companies can and should take to ensure valued workers want to stay put. In short, what can companies do to keep workers?

Having a culture that respects and promotes employees is often cited, of course. But how do you get there?

Don Charron, CEO of Kimball Electronics, says developing the EMS company’s bench was a point of emphasis upon its spinoff from its parent company in 2014. In an interview on McGuckin’s podcast, he said, “We literally were one deep in several really important positions, not just in the leadership level but in middle management as well. And I thought about our practices around talent, and it was a concern to other leaders on the team, but we really didn’t know how to approach it.”

Kimball, which has more than 6,400 employees today, realized it needed a combination of formality, rigor and science for its talent acquisition.

Charron says Kimball put a framework in place in order “to have a tougher conversation, a better conversation with people about their personal development, and it ended up with insights that were more actionable.” It all started, he acknowledged, with him and his leadership team getting priorities in place, then getting the priorities down to the workforce.

This tracks with studies performed by Harvard Business School professor Robert Kaplan, who has shown that among publicly traded companies, those that best communicated their goals and objectives throughout the entire organization were more profitable over time than those that fell short. Kaplan arrived at his conclusions through interviews of upper and middle management and hourly personnel, where he studied whether the message as conceived and intended by the ranking officers was understood and internalized at the lower levels.

Oscar Gonzalez, vice president of operations, Mexico at Mack Technologies agrees. In an interview on the PCB Chat podcast this spring, Gonzalez said, “I think the best companies [in Mexico] are retaining talent. … There’s been studies on the key elements people look for. Competitive salary. Tasty food in the cafeteria. Being treated with dignity and respect. And training, the amount of hours you provide employees training.”

In my experience, middle management is where communications break down. Often those promoted to lower-level management positions are thrust into the role due to an unanticipated need and based on their skills and performance in operations or sales. They are not trained for their new responsibilities, nor are they given time to acclimate to the role under the watch of a skilled mentor. They are handed a budget, a handful of direct reports, and basically told to make it work. Those who lack flexibility and acuity quickly find themselves in tricky situations, without the tools to resolve them appropriately.

Workers, for their part, have a once-in-a-generation opportunity where they don’t need to hang around waiting and hoping for an internal change.

As Gonzalez says, training helps retain valued employees. The best printed circuit engineering training program of the year is PCB West, which takes place Oct. 4-7 at the Santa Clara (CA) Convention Center. Registration is open at pcbwest.com.

The greater economy is outside our control, but every company can study their internal goals and objectives, and put into place bidirectional communications systems that ensure those priorities are heard and met throughout the organization. 

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 (pcbeast.com), 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
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