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.
We left off last month speaking about factory automation. Manufacturing in the US is always a hot topic, never more so than during the run-up to the presidential election last fall. (Oh, you didn’t hear about it? You will most definitely want to buy the book.)
By themselves, the numbers look good. The US manufacturing purchasing managers index, a barometer of the health of the industrial sector, has generally been moving up and to the right for years, according to the Institute for Supply Management. Over the same period, the Markit US manufacturing PMI has been solid as well. (Computer and Electronics Products is said to make up about 6% of the index.) But when manufacturing is discussed, it’s generally with an eye toward employment. In other words, the thinking goes, the more product the US builds, the more people it will employ.