Over the past couple months, I took my now 14-year-old on his first electronics manufacturing factory tours. He had visited a vocational school with his 8th grade class, but I think it really opened his eyes to what real-life manufacturing looks like. He’s not considering vocational school, but I think it’s important that he – and all kids his age – understand what really goes on in (well-run) factories.
As background, “14” knows what a circuit board is, but has no knowledge of how they are made or assembled. At IMI PCB and Lightspeed Manufacturing, both located in Haverhill, MA, he was able to see the basic operations up close, and listened to explanations of how boards are transformed from digital 0s and 1s and schematics to large green (or other colored) panels and arrays, and then screened with solder paste and assembled, and (sometimes) reworked. Both plants are low-volume, high-mix operations, which altered his impression somewhat, for as a kid with multiple handhelds of his own, he naturally expected to see machines pumping out cellphone boards every three seconds.
Before he entered, I asked what he was expecting to see inside. “Mainly machines,” he said, “because since the Industrial Revolution and the invention of mass production, we are in an age where machines are huge parts of our lives. I think the machines are doing the work, and people are just here to help run them.” He was in for some surprises.
Jim Raby has been one of my favorite subjects over the years. How could he not be? He lived such a rich and interesting life. How many of us, for instance, can say we started our careers working side-by-side developing rockets with Wernher von Braun?
A legend in electronics soldering, Jim’s backstory is well-known. He spent his entire career in electronics manufacturing. Starting with the Saturn/Apollo Program, he became synonymous with soldering and high-reliability printed circuit assemblies. He is credited for developing the NASA and Navy (the famous China Lake) soldering schools, and was instrumental in developing the IPC soldering certification curriculum, used by the vast majority of the industry today. He initiated the Electronics Manufacturing Productivity Facility (later known as the American Competitiveness Institute). All in all, he trained tens of thousands of engineers and operators.
He was issued patents for wave soldering and embedded components, and initiated the Zero Defect Program for wave soldering. He also was the driver of the Lights Out Factory concept that revolutionized the modern electronics manufacturing facility.
Consolidation is the enemy of innovation. Don’t believe me? Look at how, ahem, fast AT&T rolled out changes during its early heydays.
Ma Bell – the colloquial name for the telecom monopoly – took three years of testing (!) before it rolled out touchtone phones (aided by the invention of low-cost transistors, which Bell also patented). That was 1963. And the rotary dial was still the norm when I grew up in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the early ’80s that we made the shift, and even then AT&T was still offering rotary for wall-mounted units.
In 1982, the US government forced the breakup of Ma Bell. Cordless phones were starting to take hold about that time. The breakup unleashed a slew of digital features that to date had been wasting away in research labs. Call waiting was a revelation. Conceived by Western Electric in the 1970s, it was offered an option and hardly commonplace until the mid to late ’90s. Voicemail was invented in 1979. It was picked up first by businesses and made its way to consumer accounts only as cellphones began their relentless penetration.