Step up the technology

Printed circuit manufacturers in Canada and the U.S. need to retool and learn advanced PCB technologies if they hope to become viable. Period.

In my travels, I have been fortunate enough to visit the best printed circuit shops—and the worst. From the best to the worst shops, most of their managers have no idea what caused the massive fallout and disappearance of 2,000 PCB manufacturers over the last 20 years.

In a word it's technology. American board shops have no idea how much advanced printed circuits are being ordered overseas solely because that is the only place they can be purchased. We are losing billons of dollars in orders because we cannot manufacture what is needed. How many shops in the U.S. and Canada can make HDI circuits? How many can manufacture fine lines below 2 mils?

The majority of electronics sold today contain these advanced circuits, yet most owners and managers of PCB shops in the U.S. do not know this simple fact: They do not sell what most high-end electronics manufacturers want.

An electronics company that needs 1.5 mil lines will not call a PCB manufacturer who has not advertised the fact that it can do fine lines.

I know of two big U.S. military electronics facilities that can't find anyone in the Americas that can manufacture the small HDI circuits they need, so they are setting up their own circuit facility. Because the requirement is military, the product must be made in the U.S. or Canada. Because existing facilities are either unable to manufacture the volume required or are unwilling to retool, the military companies needs to set up their own high-technology shop. What a waste.

A successful PCB business must look at price per square inch. The goal would be to get as high a price per square inch I could, but most board shops struggle in the cents per square inch area. One recent HDI circuit I was involved with sold in hundreds of pieces for $300 per square inch. It's hard to make a profit when you're operating in the 10 cents per square inch range.

In fact, one five-day turna very fine-line job of 1 mil lines on a 0.4 inch by 0.4 inch, four-layer boardsold for $2,000 per square inch. Typical? No. But wouldn't it be great to increase sales with some higher-profit margin work? The higher-priced, higher-profit work does not have to be just fine lines or HDI circuits; heavy copper PCB sales are typically 5 to 10 times the price of a normal 1 oz. job, as are high-voltage boards, thin multilayers or other high-tech work. You will not sell 100% of your shop capacity of the advanced technology—you will still need the normal work to fill the shop. But your profit will come from the higher priced, higher profit work.

But, no matter what, North American shops must invest in advanced technology or the OEMs will continue to ship most of their high-tech work to Asia.

What's wrong with our business? We are slowly disappearing because we cannot step up, tool up and make the more advanced designs.

I have asked a few of the better PCB facilities to advance and step up their technology to build the military HDI work, but all I get are excuses why they can't do it. My feeling is that we have lost the fire, the will to improve.

How many PCB shops today have a viable R&D program? How many have introduced a new idea or product in the last year? The answer is very few, which is why many industry experts are predicting the loss of 150 more PCB manufacturers this year. That's half our existing shops, gone. Vanished.

How hard is it to make HDI or fine lines? Are the managers of board shops in Japan and Taiwan that much smarter than us? Do they have more technology then we do? I can't answer those questions, but our Asian competitors seem quite able to see the need and create the product.

It's not costI sell a fine-line technology for the price of a few orders. And it's not timeI have successfully installed fine lines in bucket shops in a few weeks.

The technology to make HDI and fine lines is well-known, not terribly expensive to get into and features a short leaning curve, yet we shun any new technology. For us to survive as a group, we need to learn and implement higher technologies, help build the business by prompting the return of the high-tech business we sent away years ago and learn to compete with the rest of the world.

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