EIPC Technical Snapshot: Thinking Differently in a Post-Pandemic World


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Alun-Morgan-new-250.jpgIn his introduction of the 10th EIPC Technical Snapshot series on July 24, EIPC President Alun Morgan said, “EIPC exists to provide a platform to exchange business and technology information for the success of the European PCB and broader electronics industry.”

Although these enormously popular webinars have been directed at specific technical issues, Morgan said the focus of the present session was expanded to include a good measure of business content to provide better understanding of how it has developed during the pandemic, as well as some pointers for how it will look and feel as we began to emerge from such unusual times. He introduced two speakers, the first representing a trusted source of technical and business information at many EIPC events; the second was an entrepreneur and business coach with a compelling interest in supporting internationalism and network building—epitomising the ethos of EIPC.

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Dr. Shiuh-Kao Chiang, managing partner at Prismark, gave an update on the PCB market and the outlook for the future. “PCB is acknowledged as a key component of the electronics system, and it’s still a very dynamic industry,” he told the group. “We still see lots of uncertainty; we still see surprises; we still see challenges. It has gone through several different phases since 2020. Right now, the electronics industry is probably in the middle of second phase of the pandemic period—not completely out of it yet, but seeing some signs of recovery.”

Chiang observed that because the PCB industry continued to follow the cycles of the electronics industry, and the pandemic period had been expected to impact multiple areas of the global economy—disruption of manufacturing, different levels of lockdown in different places, and the electronics industry suffering as a result. In fact, 2020 had seen the revenue of system companies remain basically flat or grow slightly, a surprise when most people were anticipating a significant recession. Electronic products survived the early pandemic period, and the technology hardware industry had weathered the pandemic remarkably well.

Although 2020 was a challenging and unpredictable year, Prismark estimated the PCB and substrate market grew by 6.4%. PCB production in China was disrupted early in the year and the pandemic reduced demand in several end markets, but working-from-home boosted the requirement for personal computers and tablets. There was a peak in orders for server, networking, and communication infrastructure in the second quarter. There was a significant increase in the demand for packaging substrates, especially flip-chip ball grid arrays, and the 5G smartphone roll-out had driven advances in high-density-interconnect, flexible circuits, and substrates. Japan, Taiwan, and Korea all saw substantial growth in HDI technology, driven by broader applications and an increasing demand for package substrates. 2.5D and 3D packaging technologies were being progressively adopted for high-performance devices. An additional effect of the pandemic had been to support the diversification of global manufacturing and the realignment of some supply chains.

Moving into 2021, with vaccination continuing and the pandemic appearing to be coming under control, there was some encouraging optimism. Most research groups forecasted a global recovery, and this included the electronics industry.

Chiang expects 14% growth in the PCB market in 2021, resulting from a recovery in demand, product upgrades, inventory restocking, average selling price increases, and a weakened U.S. dollar. The package substrate market will remain strong, especially for flip-chip chip-scale packages, flip-chip ball grid arrays, and the emerging antenna-in-package and system-in-package devices. There will be a recovery in automotive volumes, heavily influenced by the transition to electric vehicles, and the broader adoption of advanced driver assistance systems, which will return the automotive electronics market to trend-line growth. 5G smartphones will drive advances in the technology of high-density interconnect and flexible circuits, and the roll-out of 5G radio-access networks, active antenna units and remote radio units would accelerate. The market for consumer-focused hardware remains strong. Much of the growth in the server storage equipment market will be related to artificial intelligence and machine-learning accelerators, which will increase the demand for high-speed circuit boards.

However, there remains other significant issues that could critically influence the market, particularly the price and availability of PCB raw materials, supply shortages of semiconductor and passive components, and currency exchange rates. The pace of economic recovery and PCB market development will continue to depend on the effectiveness of global and regional COVID vaccinations and the resolution of U.S./China trade disputes.

Reviewing the geographic shift in PCB production over the last 20 years, Chiang commented that China has become the dominant manufacturing site for circuit boards, whereas the Americas, Europe, and Japan have become niche-product or low-volume board suppliers, Taiwan and Korea are concentrating on advanced technologies, and SE Asia has become a preferred investment location for Japanese and Korean companies. He questioned whether the trade, political, environmental, and labour cost issues will change the PCB industry landscape again in the future.

Chiang concluded his presentation with a view of the PCB industry from a longer-term perspective. It has been depressed both in value and in value-share, partly because of competition and price erosion, and partly because components such as semiconductors and displays have gained in value-share. From 2000 to 2019, there has been a continuing decline, but now he is seeing a more optimistic trend. Over the next few years, he expects the industry to recover its value-share, thanks not only to its increasing contribution in packaging and its advances in technology but also as a consequence of an improvement in the overall health of the industry—meaning no over-supply, no over-investment and no more severe price erosion. “Hopefully, we’re going to see the industry change and grow over the next few years,” he said.

Thanking Chiang for sharing his knowledge so generously, Morgan remarked on the resilience that has been shown by our sector through the 2020-2021 period, acknowledging that packaging has made a substantial contribution. He believes that the challenge of materials availability is a major concern looking ahead.

We were still absorbing the details of a complex and comprehensive PCB market update and outlook when the webinar took a completely different tack. The lockdown has severely constrained our opportunities for networking. With our freedom in prospect, how could we re-establish the networking culture, meet people, interact, and exchange ideas? EIPC invited an expert to encourage us to take a lateral approach to the challenge.

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From tall, skinny, self-conscious schoolboy, to international swimmer, to supremely confident serial entrepreneur and networking specialist focused on business matchmaking, to director of operations at the Turku World Trade Centre in Finland, Jani Rusi gave the second presentation. His topic was international networking and his brand was “204.5 cm of Growth Expertise.” For those of us who prefer old-fashioned measurements, 204.5 cm equates to 6 feet 8½ inches—sufficiently tall to stand above the crowd!

He explained that the World Trade Centre network is a global community of more than 700,000 companies in more than 90 countries, with the goal of building a strong ecosystem of thinking to support internationalising companies regionally and, in part, internationally.

How to do networking? Various ways: suit and tie for the more formal occasions, and casual for others, although either situation could lead to business in Rusi’s experience. His personal preference was to have a sparkle in his eye and not make the occasion too serious. He was aiming to get some involvement and interaction from this webinar audience.

“Have you ever thought about your own elevator pitch?” he asked. I admit that I had to check with Wikipedia to learn that an elevator pitch is a short description of an idea, product, or company that explains the concept in a way such that any listener can understand it, in the time span of an elevator ride.

An example he used was a start-up competition, where the time allowed for the pitch was typically three or five minutes and a lot of practice was required to ensure that a good pitch included all the essential points to impress an investor or partner or customer. But a good pitch should include more, because “everything relates to you.” Referring to the terms B2B and B2C, he invited suggestions for the meaning of P2P: “Peer-to-peer and person-to-person.”

“Everything is related to who you are, what you do and what you can bring to the table,” Rusi said. He gave an illustration from a networking event where the organiser asked the audience how many were there to sell. Two hundred hands were raised. When he asked who was there to buy, a solitary hand went up. In situations like this, it was justified to change the angle a little, to “How can I help you?” Different elevator pitches were appropriate for different events. “What would you tell different about your business, about yourself? How would you sell yourself to the person that you want to talk about—maybe business, maybe if it’s not even a business event? How do you start with ‘How can I help you?’ and what’s your story behind ‘How can I help you?’ That’s where the elevator pitch is so important.”

Rusi remarked that people have become conditioned to existing within an online world, and although we were likely to escape from it eventually, it would not be simply a return to the “normal” —there will be a new future, not necessarily a new normality, and it will change all the time. Normally when we attended a event, we had time to think about the process that we had learned. Now, it was possible that the whole day could be filled with different online meetings back-to-back. There is not much time to reflect on individual topics, to convert the information into action, and to help others with that knowledge.

At this point, as he had earlier proposed, Rusi attempted to turn the webinar into an interactive session by inviting participants to make a spontaneous 15-second pitch, ending with “How can I help you?” There were no volunteers—cameras remained switched off and microphones muted.

Morgan remarked that, although conference calls were time-effective, it was difficult to achieve a real focus. Tony Senese from Panasonic stressed the importance of eye contact, and the difficulty in transmitting personality, thoughts, and karma across an online link. He likes people, not computer screens. Rusi agreed, commenting that although he had built his brand around his physical height, this was not easy to convey online. But the fact remains that networking is feasible in all sorts of situations and environments, although in-person is obviously better, and that small break-out groups of people who didn’t previously know each other can be very effective.

With apologies for the shyness of EIPC’s webinar audience, Morgan thanked the presenters and all participants, and he advised that although there would be no Technical Snapshot in August, it was intended to continue this highly successful series at monthly intervals for the long term.  

 

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