Reflections on Supply Chain Issues


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Years back, one of my friends was the proud owner of a late ‘60s Volkswagen van—a “microbus” we called them, although your name for them might have been different. My friend’s microbus had a faulty fuel gauge; the float inside the tank was sticky and sometimes got hung up. Eventually, a bounce or a jostle would knock it free, and it would return to proper working order. Even though the issue was pretty easily resolved, the thought of opening up the gas tank to replace the float seemed daunting enough that the problem never rose high enough on her priority list to get fixed. Instead, she’d drive along, seemingly on a full tank, only to hit a couple of potholes and watch the gas gauge plummet to nearly empty all at once. It could be a shock to any of us friends who watched this for the first time during our turn behind the wheel. More than one of us was convinced the gas tank had ruptured suddenly!

All of this was no big deal until it WAS a big deal as in the moment the tank read half full, and then the engine would cough, sputter, and die, fuel-starved. Not to date myself, but this was during the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. Back then, with the even and odd license plate guidelines and endless lines at the pump, running out of gas might mean being without a car for multiple days. Yes, it could be darn inconvenient.

We learned to cope. One of us might pop underneath the rear end to knock on the tank with a knuckle. Did it sound full or empty? What did the gauge say? Did anybody know when it was filled up last? How many miles did we think we needed to drive? What was our guess on whether we had enough gas or not?

We paid attention to the gauge because when it worked, it was accurate. We just never knew whether it was telling us accurate information or not, and the consequences could be very sudden indeed. We’d carry a few gallons of extra fuel in a can, just in case.

There are parallels in the PCB fabrication industry right now. PCB fabrication is a lot like that VW microbus. Everything is running just fine while the supply is there. However, the materials supply pipeline is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Forecasting for materials purchases depends on customer purchasing levels, which are more volatile than ever right now thanks to component supply shortages, raw-metal  supply challenges, and the changing international trade landscape. Laminate suppliers are working hard to smooth out the flow and hold inventories steady, but that may not last forever. When market volatility finally catches up with materials, your factory’s inventory might start to act just like my friend’s sticky gas-tank float.

Communication and awareness are going to be key to manage the supply chain crisis and keep your fabrication facility running smoothly. In this issue, we bring you a number of timely conversations with industry experts to help position your company’s offerings to the greatest effect. To that end, our columnists this month concentrate on the fabrication techniques necessary to build boards to the current supply chain trends we’ve been discussing in this issue.

We lead off with an extended conversation with Stephanie Martin, senior VP of supply chain at Vexos. Stephanie is well positioned to have a wide view of the supply chain dynamics, and she shares her assessment with the I-Connect007 editorial team.

Next, we talk with Wayne Antal, a key account manager at NCAB Group. In this first part of a two-part conversation, Wayne and I discuss how NCAB helps their customers weather the storm.

In the number-three slot, I dig into SMT market news and analyses on supply chain in “Perspectives on Supply Chain Ripples.” A product development R&D manager at MacDermid Alpha Electronics Solutions talks 3D additive processes with Happy Holden in “Roger Bernards on MIDs and Automotive.” In Marc Ladle’s column, “Ladle on Manufacturing,” he discusses “VPC: The Future of Plating.” If you haven’t read up already on virtual continuous plating, Marc’s column is a great place to start.

Eduardo Benmayor, general manager with Aismalibar, discusses new thermal management substrate materials specifically for use in the rapidly growing automotive sectors.

Happy Holden, I-Connect007 technical editor, posts an article on “Chemical Recycling as Part of a Zero-effluent Strategy” related to the GreenSource Fabrication facility in New Hampshire.

While we don’t immediately think of it when discussing supply chain and the digital information that makes it run, John Vaughan’s column this month certainly does. John’s “The Fourth Pillar of Defense Acquisition: Cybersecurity” is required reading. Part three of Michael Carano’s multi-part column continues this month in, “Trouble in Your Tank: Moving Microvias.” In this installment, Carano’s thesis is that fabricators misjudge “the scope of HDI and what his manufacturing strategy truly entails. Here are a few common mistakes to avoid.”

So, strap into your seat, tap on the gas gauge, and let’s talk supply chain for 2019.

Nolan Johnson is managing editor of PCB007 Magazine. Nolan brings 30 years of career experience focused almost entirely on electronics design and manufacturing.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of PCB007 Magazine, click here.

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