Material Gains

The rebalancing of high-tech power must involve the entire supply chain – and will increase prices for everyone.

Advanced technology is an important instrument of power on the world stage. Arguably more than at any previous time in history, it's closely linked to economic influence, energy generation and management, healthcare delivery, international diplomacy, and military strength including cyber capabilities. Access to advanced technology is the issue at the heart of the current maneuvering between western nations and China, in particular.

Concerned about the potential for Chinese control over its communication networks, the West has restricted involvement in 5G infrastructure projects. It's currently limiting shipments of advanced industrial technology. Of course, China has responded, announcing export controls on raw materials like gallium and germanium, which are basic ingredients for producing compound semiconductors: a critical enabling technology for future generations of equipment such as optical networking, 5G infrastructure, and high-efficiency power conversion needed to ensure affordable renewable energy and e-mobility.

Read more: The Cost of Reshoring

Adaptability in all aspects is the PCB industry's greatest strength.

“Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.” – Robert C. Gallagher

It’s an amusing quip (although perhaps increasingly incongruous given the rapid adoption of contactless payments) that lets me comment on some of the transformations we have experienced in the PCB industry over recent years. Some challenges, such as thermal management, had receded for a time but are now back and more urgent than ever. Others, like the constant demand to support faster and faster signal speeds, demand that we continue to extend the limits of performance from the materials and techniques at our disposal.

The PCB’s role has become hugely more significant and influential as electronic systems have gotten more complex, more performance hungry, and more mission critical. It has extended from providing basic mechanical support and connectivity to becoming a comprehensively engineered part of the system.

The electronics industry of today is vastly different from the way things were as recently as the 1980s. Thermal management was a great challenge, largely due to the inefficiency of circuits such as linear power converters and power amplifiers. The adoption of much more efficient switched techniques, as well as exponentially smaller chip fabrication processes, solved that challenge for a while.

Read more: Pushing the Limits

AI could be the key to understanding the data collected by the IoT.

Big data is useless and all the sensors in the world are not enough. Contentious? Maybe. I've talked in the past about the prospects for digitizing the world and it's true that we have many of the ingredients to make this happen: tiny, low-power sensors including optical and MEMS inertial sensors that provide contextual awareness; connectivity technologies for almost every practical and budgetary constraint; low-cost processing power and mass storage.

We're well on the way to seeing almost 30 billion devices connected to the IoT in the next couple of years, and there is no practical limit to this. We have enough IPv6 addresses to cover the earth's surface many times over with smart "things." We can easily collect the data we need to digitize the world.

The bigger challenge is to understand what that data are telling us and, from there, determine suitable responses. The sheer volume, velocity and variety of data we can now capture through IoT devices easily exceed the capacity of humans to analyze and extract meaningful insights manually. AI is the perfect companion to the IoT, capable of providing the assistance we need. Bringing them together as the AIoT is the key to tackling complex challenges such as sustainability. Studying the climate and humans' impact, the effects of using natural resources such as energy, and the prospects for controlling and managing these are subject to huge numbers of variables that are impossible for us to analyze effectively.

Read more: Data Overload

The road to resilience for Western manufacturing must begin with small steps.

For more than three decades, leading electronics brands in the West have enshrined leanness, maximum efficiency and lowest cost. The drive to outsource manufacturing to areas where labor costs are lowest has enabled the industry to deliver more advanced electronic products at relatively affordable prices.

It has made perfect sense for the world's OEMs, relieving demand for capital investment and helping to cut costs while giving access to cutting-edge processes and providing rapid, low-risk scalability. The trend to outsource began in the late 1970s and became the dominant model in the '80s and '90s. Throughout the 21st century, this has been the way to operate a competitive supply chain. Now, the largest EMS operations are based in China and Southeast Asia and the sector is currently worth about $800 billion. It's still growing at more than 7% compounded annually.

But something else happened during this transformation. As production migrated geographically, the essential skills associated with designing and making advanced electronics products also moved away from the OEMs and became concentrated in Asia. Many associated industries also moved out. In the 1980s there were 23 full-scale manufacturers of substrate base materials in Europe. Currently, there are two. Similarly, the number of manufacturers of glass and copper foil has fallen from 12 to just one.

Read more: Reshoring or Resurrection?

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