Mike Buetow

Rapid prototyping and first-article inspection are technologies that have been around for years, but should gain significant momentum in the coming months as companies look to cut the cost of new products. It can't happen soon enough: Years ago then-Flextronics CTO Nic Braithwaite told me he calculated a large, multi-board server program could conceivably cost $50 million to ramp, once all the ECOs and respins were accounted for.

Granted, upfront spending of that degree would be the exception, not the rule, but in the past year or so we’ve known of programs where multiple iterations of the same end-product are in development simultaneously, all as the OEMs race to get important high-volume consumer electronics to market.

Rapid prototyping systems and software enable very quick product realization for everything from boards to molded packages, even in 3D. More than “just” an AOI, FAI performs impedance measurements and adds high-resolution cameras to view components. As such, they can help speed AOI programming and electrical test. Again, these aren’t new technologies – although they continue to be improved – but I think that’s actually a point in their favor. There are years of field testing to rely on.

But technologies like these are important, not just because they can speed time to market by reducing prototyping time. They are equally critical because few companies have the requisite number of staff anymore to properly engineer a product. What we are left with instead is too much engineering by trial-and-error.

When I was starting out at IPC in 1994, I was assigned to a design standards committee headed by my late friend Harry Parkinson. Harry, bless his soul, was a DfM engineer for the equally late Digital Equipment (bless its soul), where he spent a good amount of time keeping an eye on Hadco (now Sanmina), DEC’s largest bare board supplier. Over countless dinners, Harry would regale me with stories of problems that appeared at the fab level. Inevitably, Harry’s boards would be late, and the Hadco folks would give Harry a litany of reasons as to why. Harry’s response as a highly experienced DfM guru was always the same: “Hey, that’s your problem!” Back in the day when board shops were plentiful and DEC was a veritable country club, it was a great punch line, but with reams of engineers sidelined due to anticipatory budget cuts, it’s just not that funny anymore.

Actually, is it perhaps outsourcing’s problem? OEMs are paying their suppliers not just to build what’s designed but to fix what’s broken. It’s not working all that well. It’s impossible to properly account for improvements in process equipment during the past two decades of SMT, but they have been significant. Still, given our propensity for pushing boundaries of component and materials technology, we are still a long way from 100% first-pass yield, despite all the available knowledge at our disposal. Without the depth staffs once had, those left are too inclined to tell their suppliers, “Hey, that’s your problem.” And that, I think, is the biggest flaw with outsourcing. Outsourcing did not resolve the old “throw it over the wall” syndrome; it compounded it.

This month we will see more than a few readers at the annual IPC Apex Expo show. But even a “good” turnout might be one-third of what could be expected a dozen years ago. Companies just don’t have the bench strength to send staff to the shows. (What they do have, despite exhortations to the contrary, is the money, but that’s a column for another day.) So they either send one engineer to do the job of 10, or the engineer says to themselves, “I can go, but I still have to get all the work back at the factory done, so I’ve just doubled my work day.” That’s not much of an incentive.

One close industry friend of mine thinks this will be the biggest problem: You can’t dislodge the mentality. I can understand the feeling – changing a culture is difficult – but when the goal is to come up with more fully featured end-products at lower costs, and to do so at a faster rate than ever before, there’s plenty of machines out there that will aid the pursuit, provided companies invest in the engineering talent to make them work.

Show offs. Speaking of Apex, please come see us at booth 2450. And be sure to stop by on the afternoon of Feb. 19 during the Service Excellence and NPI Awards to see which EMS companies and suppliers had the best service and new products, respectively, of the past year.

Sadly, one face we won't see in San Diego is that of our favorite former colleague, Jerry Murray. Murray, 82, the longtime West Coast Editor for Circuits Assembly and PC FAB, passed away on Jan. 13. I will miss my old friend and mentor. Love you, Jerry.

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