Caveat Lector

Mike Buetow

I’m often asked what I think the electronics manufacturing company of the future will look like. I know this: It will be different than it looks today.

Why am I so confident? In part because today’s firms don’t look like they did when I entered the industry in 1991 (yikes!). Back then, dominant players were the bluebloods like IBM, Digital Equipment and Hewlett-Packard (you may know them as HP). These were all-in-one firms. They designed chips, fabbed boards, built assemblies, and shipped their own products.

Then someone got the bright idea that “merchant” (the terme de ce jour, as opposed to captive, meaning in-house) manufacturing businesses could unlock value by spreading costs of production across many customers and ensuring close(r)-to-steady-state operations. In reality, that never quite happened, but the mass outsourcing that took hold has never ceded ground.

There’s a saying in journalism that you should follow the money. As I note in our annual CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY Top 50 listing of the largest EMS companies, which starts on page 36, we track more than 115 publicly traded EMS companies. And that’s even after some really large ones like TPV and Shenzhen HyteraEMS have gone private in recent years. While private equity is in the game today in a major way, we’ve seen this play out before. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, fabricators and EMS companies were the hottest dates at the prom. Then midnight struck in the form of the dot-com bust. Billions in valuation went poof. So did the PE guys. They are back with a vengeance, but it won’t be forever.

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Read more: EMS Past is Prologue

Mike Buetow

Consumer pressure on corporate behavior is cyclical and typically short-lived. Consider “dieselgate.” Volkswagen for years rigged the emissions testing on certain vehicles to appear to meet state and national standards. Confronted with the discrepancies, VW management lied in what would be a futile attempt to cover up its wrongdoings. The transgressions cost the carmaker more than $30 billion in fines and penalties. At the time, it looked like a major hit to the company’s reputation.

We are in an era where focused consumer pressure has the potential for immediate worldwide impact. Primed by social media, buyers have never held so much broad sway. Will this this newfound power to drive electronics industry decision-making?

The nongovernmental organization China Labor Watch routinely pummels Chinese-based manufacturers for mistreatment of workers and labor law violations. The leading media companies in the world pick up its investigations. Yet its efficacy in changing corporate behavior is murky.

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Read more: Branding Citizenship

Mike Buetow

Munitions are cool again.

Well, maybe they always were. But the emphasis by North American manufacturers on procuring defense contracts has perhaps never been greater.

In the throes of the dotcom meltdown of late 2001 to early 2003, when China and Taiwan hoovered up the vast majority of the Western PCB market, forcing those hardy remaining souls to repurpose their business plans, the Pentagon became an unwitting savior. Manufacturer after manufacturer pivoted from the “3Cs” (computers, communications, consumer) to CET&I (military communications, electronics, telecommunications, and intelligence technologies). They eschewed past complaints of onerous red tape and sprung for the certifications to elbow their way into the Pentagon supply chain.

There wasn’t much choice at the time. It was military or bust.

Going back to 2001, the United States made about 45% of the world’s electronics equipment. Defense and related high-rel sales made up less than 10% of the US domestic fabrication market, which at the time was coming off a record year at around $11 billion in production output spread across 650 or so facilities.

We all know what happened.

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Read more: In Defense of Diversity

Mike Buetow

What do you do when the very thing for which you’ve been asking, nay, begging for years actually materializes?

That would be US government support for the printed circuit board industry. And it’s coming in the form of real dollars, not just platitudes.

As we report in our digital edition this month, the US Partnership for Assured Electronics (USPAE), a subsidiary IPC formed last year to give it room to lobby on behalf of US members without running afoul of its international cohort, has as of late January garnered more than $42 million in taxpayer dollars to manage joint industry-academia programs to tackle electronics-related challenges.

How we’ve waited for this.

Going back to the 1990s, when I worked at IPC, we spent thousands of hours (and countless more dollars) vainly waving our hands in front of Congress’s collective face. And once a year, we would gather in Washington and run from office to office on Capitol Hill telling anyone and everyone how important the industry is. After, we would retreat to our hotel bars and pat each other on the back for a job well done. After many years of this, Congress even passed a resolution. “The PCB industry is important!” they said. “Hallelujah!” we rejoiced. Our souls were saved. Or so we thought. Then the OEMs packed up and moved their orders to Taiwan and China. Poof.

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Read more: An Electronics Holiday?

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