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It has been over 15 years since Bob Neves started Microtek Laboratories China to service the local Chinese market. On a recent visit to Microtek’s Changzhou facility, Barry Matties, publisher, and Edy Yu from the I-Connect007 China team spoke with Bob, who serves as the chairman and CTO. Bob discusses the changes he has seen living and doing business in China over the past 15 years, most notably the increased importance of standards and testing as China moves into manufacturing more high-reliability products.
Barry Matties: First, we’re here at your facility in Changzhou, and Microtek Labs has been at this facility for 12 years. Can you talk a little about Microtek?
Bob Neves: Microtek is a laboratory that specializes in testing for the supply end of the electronics industry. The primary companies that we do testing for are PCB manufacturers. We do testing and validation for the suppliers to the PCB industry, and people that buy PCBs and use them in assembly. The top end of our testing services for our customer base usually starts at the solder joint, and we do evaluations from the solder joint all the way through the raw materials, such as glass, epoxy, copper, and all of the other things that go into making a PCB. We become involved in the relationship between the supplier and customers as an independent source to determine whether the product does or doesn’t meet the requirements. Sometimes, it’s just routine, and we check on ongoing things, but other times, when there’s an issue, a problem, or a discrepancy, we mediate.
We test to IPC standards primarily, but we also test to local GB standards. We test to IEC standards and a variety of customer internal standards, the biggest of those being from the transportation industry right now. Transportation is the fastest growing segment of the market because it’s also the fastest changing. People in the transportation segment have to design and integrate things into their vehicles that they never have had to do before, so there are lots of new designs, chips, and components going into their electronics. And the expectation is that these electronics are going to last a very long time. Right now, most of the commercial market has been geared toward the things that don’t last a long time, such as cellphones and cameras where if they fail, it’s not as critical, unlike if something in a vehicle would fail, life is at risk.
Overall, there’s a lot of effort around automotive as well as the transportation market in general, which is where we see our biggest growth. China is opening up its internal airplane market and creating their own airplanes for both commercial and cargo use and trying to export those. The same thing is happening with trains and subways. China has train cars and subways in 100 countries around the world, and they have several active builds of trains around the world right now and are bidding for a bunch of others. China is looking to be an international supplier of public transport and a leading supplier of electric buses and vehicles in general around the world.
Matties: Is there also a space race going on in China?
Neves: It’s interesting. The government side of the electronics industry is a totally closed market, and they have their own supply chains. China is doing something similar to what the U.S. used to be back in the old days when military contractors like Rockwell, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, etc., would have the entire supply chain as their own. We don’t see anything coming from the space, aerospace, and military sides of the market; that’s entirely their own industry. People attend trade shows seminars from those segments, but not as often. They don’t participate in the commercial side of things as much.
Matties: You’ve been living in China for many years now?
Neves: I’ve been living there full-time for about 15 years, but I started coming in the early ‘90s almost every year, so it has been interesting watching the differences between China from then to now.
Matties: You mentioned automotive, and looking at the sheer number of cars on the road compared to just eight or nine years ago is quite incredible.
Neves: Yes. I gave a paper on that at IPC APEX EXPO 2019 with a whole bunch of numbers as far as the number of cars that are being sold in China and that are on the road. It dwarfs anything that’s happening anywhere else in the world. China struggles to keep up with the infrastructure. Being a foreigner, you have to go through registration, insurance, and all of the things you take for granted. I’ve watched that whole process become a lot more streamlined and successful. China monitors emission to make sure that cars are not spewing too much junk into the air, and the Chinese people want to get ahead with good quality of life. Overall, China has gone through many progressions and stages lately.
Matties: How has that changed in the type of testing or work that’s coming through your facility?
Neves: If I go back to the early days, the one thing that we brought to the market from our U.S. business was integrity—people relied on us to always give them an unbiased opinion of what we were testing. In the early market, China was so focused on getting ahead and qualifying for things that testing and certificates were merely a barrier to registering or shipping your product. Chinese customers didn’t see it as a necessary part of the whole process. A lot of things happened where the expectation of our customers was that we would let them pass regardless of actual results, but we wouldn’t do that. The first five years of our business was very challenging because we had a reputation for not being flexible in our testing methodologies.
As China became more interested in the transportation industry and other industries that require high reliability, companies became aware of this and were very concerned. Customers started looking for someone that they could count on to give them unbiased opinions, which is when the market really changed for us because we had developed a reputation for integrity. It almost killed us in the first few years, but now it has made us a leader in this particular market in China because all of the customers that utilize our testing services know that they’re getting unbiased data from us.
To read the full interview, which appeared in the May 2019 issue of PCB007 Magazine, click here.