Dissecting the IPC Regional Survey on PCB Technology Trends


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Starr: What’s even more interesting than the regional differences or differences between other segments is what the results are telling us about the future of the industry. Mike, you went into the drivers and underlying conditions for a lot of those things in your buzz session at IPC APEX EXPO in January as well as a webinar that we did for members in February when the report was published.

Johnson: The regional differences seem to be driven now more by the application or the market associated with the OEMs, using that region, more than raw capabilities or fabrication expertise.

Carano: Correct; that’s what the report showed, and that’s what our experience is telling us. Look at the evolution of mobile phones or the de-evolution of the desktop computer, laptop, and tablet. The application is higher computing power, but we are doing this with a different set of materials, chemistries, and technologies that are used to make the circuit boards.

It’s about three things: humans, materials, and machines. All of those things are blending together and changing how we do those things. Based on the survey results, there’s an equipment evolution. We asked the participants what equipment investments, capital expenditures, etc., that they were making. Over the last four to six years, more and more people are trying to get finer lines and spaces, and they’re getting there with laser direct imaging, new chemistry techniques, or equipment with etchers, etc. These things are being driven by functionality and reliability, and besides the application, it also involves functionality, form factor, etc.

How many angels can we get to dance on the head of the pin? Look at the folks on the semiconductor side. They start with the chip, and those I/Os are increasing, so what’s going to happen? It changes the way the board needs to be made. Happy Holden has always been involved in design and a strong proponent of HDI, and rightly so. There are all of the technological, reliability, and functionality reasons you want to be in HDI.

But you can’t get into HDI unless you have the right investments in people, materials/chemistries, and equipment. The report showed that. Just because more HDI is done in Asia in terms of volume, that technology is still here in North America; it’s very strong but concentrated in the hands of fewer fabricators as a percentage of the world.

Fritz: I had two takeaways after reading the survey results. One was that North American fabricators are more aware of what’s coming in the future, and they are doing a decent job of forecasting what they’re going to need in five years. Please remember this is called a technology survey. The other was that Asia can and does make a lot of the same stuff as North America because they produce the volume. If you have 90% of the world’s production in Asia, 5% here, and 5% in Europe, they have to make most of the stuff that we’re going to need when it turns up to big volumes.

Johnson: With these recent changes and what you found in the report, what do you see as the implications looking out the next 5–10 years?

Fritz: For me, North American shops have to stay on top of technology, and be aware that they have to make investments, pick and choose, be very sharp, and know their customer and the OEM they’re building for. In Asia, I can’t imagine that they’re not going to stay at 90% of the world production of boards, and they’ll have to make whatever is produced in volume. Currently, it’s cellphones and things like that, but automotive is a rising trend and presents a big challenge. It’s mostly Asian, but you have European and American OEMs as well, so they’re going to have to pay attention to where the OEMs are and what they need in their products. Know your customer is the bottom line.

Johnson: Thinking about automotive in particular, do you foresee, for example, Asian companies looking to manufacture PCBs in volume in other regions to get closer to the OEMs?

Fritz: I do not necessarily see that. With shipment times down low for electronics, in a matter of hours or days, you can be anywhere in the world. I wish I knew the answer to this trade problem that we’ve developed between the U.S. and China because production is not leaving Asia, but some people are hedging their bets on moving out of China to Vietnam, Thailand, or Taiwan. Right now, that’s a bigger concern of mine than manufacturing in Europe or the U.S.

Happy Holden: Especially for automotive because it has a requirement that cellphones and consumer electronics don’t—high reliability. High reliability is a real challenge. That’s why Gentex doesn’t source any of its 120 million PCBs from China. Taiwan is diversifying into Vietnam, so they’ll also be getting boards from Vietnam through Taiwan suppliers, but they’re leaving China. They’re not hurt at all by the trade negotiations because they were never going to buy from China.

michael_carano100.jpgCarano: Since I know Gentex as well, every one of those 120 million circuit boards that are made in Taiwan—and maybe some in the U.S.—are all assembled in the U.S. They don’t even trust the assembly of those boards to anybody else. They do it all themselves with the phenomenal circuit board assembly operation in Zeeland, Michigan. I’ve been there, and Happy worked there, so that’s how deep they think. Everything—especially the big, important stuff—is done in-house. They won’t even farm out the bare board assembly.

Holden: The investment doesn’t bother them. But automotive is strange because Europe is going to be strong in making automotive PCBs as well, and the Chinese want to get into automotive in the worst way. But they can’t break into any of Gentex’s products, for example, and frankly, they have a quality problem. We don’t have Dr. Deming anymore to come over and teach how to do it, and that’s a tough challenge for them because automotive will continue to grow—especially with the electronics going into automotive. It isn’t going to stop.

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