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Ken Parent, Chris Hunrath, and Michelle Walsh discuss their educational and training vision, programs that they are bringing to the industry, and why. There’s a gap, they say, in the talent pool from entry level to engineers.
“There’s a huge demand now,” says Chris Hunrath. “The quicker we can fill that gap and train new people, the more PCBs can be built and more of the new products and technology will be accepted into the industry.” We are living in a people-constrained business today.
Nolan Johnson: How is the talent pool changing?
Chris Hunrath: The reason Insulectro has become so passionate about education is the way it supports our industry. Helping our customers and our suppliers by providing our resources for educating people that are coming into the business at different levels has become a common theme throughout COVID times. Although COVID remains a challenge, domestically, people are starting to travel again. With customers staffed 20, even 40 people short of where they’d like to be, it is really constraining our ability to sell more materials, and for our customers to ship more circuit boards. We decided that we are going to take a more active role in helping develop that talent.
At Insulectro, for example, we’ve brought people in from other industries—such as food and beverage, and cabinet woodworking—with transferable expertise to fill gaps in our company, but we must educate them to the nuances of our industry as well. There is a need for introducing PCB materials and PCB processes at a very entry level, to even a higher level of education for new products that are changing the capabilities and the technology in circuit boards.
The talent gap is throughout the whole business. A lot of talented engineers that have been in the business a long time are looking for new products and processes to bring solutions to their customers. It just can’t happen fast enough, right? There’s a huge demand. The quicker we can fill that gap and train those people, the more our new products will be accepted into the industry, and the more products our customers will be able to ship to their customers. That’s where I see the talent pool being in need education and how I see it changing.
Johnson: That’s an interesting perspective; plugging in with your customers to help them get back up to full capacity?
Hunrath: There is a certain concern at Insulectro that it may be perceived as being just self-serving so that we can sell more materials, and obviously we do have a bias toward our products. That’s where we spend a lot of our time. That’s where our knowledge is. But there’s also a part of our culture that says, “If we don’t do it, our business (the U.S. PCB industry) is going to go away.” So, I am encouraging customer A and customer B to work with us. Why can’t we be in the same room training together? We’re not interested in your trade secrets, but the OEMs will benefit from fabricator A and fabricator B learning best practices and improving yields and efficiencies throughout the supply chain. That’s where we hope that it’s perceived as Insulectro supporting the industry as a whole.
Michelle Walsh: With the supply challenges, if we can enable our customers to understand how to optimize their processes from a yield benefit standpoint, they are in less of a position to need to expedite materials for remakes, as an example. We want them to be able to utilize the materials that they’re getting with the highest yields and maximum output. It’s in all our best interests to make sure that we’re enabling our customers’ technologies to achieve good yields through that training from the operator level to the engineer level. That need for the training is multifaceted.
Johnson: What do you envision these educational programs looking like as you bring it out to the industry? How are you structuring this?
Hunrath: Through our new website, they can access white papers, training documents, and even past webinars. We will also do webinars or onsite training for our customers.
Walsh: I think we’ve all gotten very comfortable doing the training in this virtual world. We are being proactive with the Insulectro product management team to build a lot of content that can be used onsite at our customers and/or virtually to expand training across a broader audience for our multi-site customer base. We continue to build content and are sharing the training menu in our monthly customer newsletter so they know what’s already available. We are targeting each of the PCB processes as that foundation—that PCB 101-type training for each process area.
It’s more about the basic processes, as opposed to the products we sell. It’s our knowledge of all the PCB processes, how they are all connected, and how decisions in one process area affects other processes. We want to know from our customers what training they need and continue to expand the available topics.
Barry Matties: There are a lot of opportunities for people to find jobs right now. There’s no shortage of jobs. Manufacturing may not be as appealing as another industry. How are you attracting people? How are you selling them into coming into PCB manufacturing? Is that an easy sell?
Hunrath: I think that giving employees an opportunity to learn more about what’s going on in the business helps us get people excited so they can contribute in the world that we’re living in today, whether it be 5G, electric vehicles, or protecting our country. There’s just a lot to be excited about in the U.S. circuit board world.
Matties: What you’re really getting people to connect with is the vision that they’re making a difference in a small way, but for a higher purpose?
Hunrath: Yes. This industry has a lot to offer, and part of our challenge is people just aren’t aware. There’s a lack of awareness for people coming into the business. They just aren’t familiar with electronics manufacturing. It’s diverse, challenging, exciting, and it’s never boring. There’s a lot of upside to it.
One of our customers hired an intern. She thought she’d end up working at a paper towel manufacturer, and instead she interned at a PCB fabricator and discovered that she loves it. She thinks she’s stumbled onto something that’s much more rewarding than working in a factory that just makes the same thing day in and day out.
Matties: Are you looking at the engineering level or are you looking at line operators in your talent pool support?
Hunrath: It’s all of the above, and in the business side of manufacturing, not just engineering and operators. I would imagine working at a PCB fabricator is a lot better than working at a retail store, right?
Ken Parent: Some of my best conversations have been with very experienced manufacturing or purchasing people who come into the business from outside our business. It’s nice to get them excited about what’s going on in the circuit board world. They’re hungry for information and want to know more about the business that they’ve joined.
There were too many years in this business where people were scratching their heads and wondering why they were in this business. Now, I see people in our own company, our customers and our suppliers, excited to be in the electronics business again.
Hunrath: Actually, Michelle, you’re an example of someone who started in something different. Did you start in carpet fibers?
Walsh: Yes. I started with DuPont at a facility manufacturing carpet fiber, and then transferred into electronics. I was very fortunate when I started in the electronics industry that there were many mentors who had a lot of experience. I was always amazed how many years people had been in the business and I thought, “Wow, these people have so much experience.” We want to share with others and allow them to grow and keep this industry evolving as the technology shifts. It’s doing our part to give back as we learn from other great mentors; we want to be great mentors to the industry.
Johnson: You were kind enough to share a short outline about the kind of syllabus that you’re looking to put together. It’s got some interesting topics in it. PCB processes, material science, designing for success, and people development, increasing the awareness of what’s possible in the PCB industry. Can we talk about those?
Walsh: Yes, those are all examples of the kind of training we can offer depending on the audience. The process training is more focused on the fabrication processes, the design education, and material science really to help educate the OEM community to understand the material selection, standard materials, and how the material selection can solve problems from a technology and availability standpoint. There are different layers of our education that touch each of those areas outlined there.
Johnson: Much more than just teaching the operators on the manufacturing floor how to run the machinery, now this is intended to accelerate that intuitive knowledge, that qualitative value that an industry veteran brings to the manufacturing floor.
Walsh: Yeah. I think it’s about best practices. It’s tying in all that process knowledge together. I talked about maximizing yields at our customer, and that does cross over from the operator level to the engineering level to have the best outcome. Then it’s at a different level when considering solving problems with future technology.
Hunrath: I’ll give a great example. I’m working with a sizable customer that had some employee changes. Some people left and some new engineering talents had joined the company. They were having yield issues. Part of the issue was the new engineers didn’t understand the moisture properties of the materials. So, in hot air solder leveling, the boards were de-laminating. They didn’t understand that you have to bake the materials to get the moisture out, and about how long they can wait before going through the hot air leveling process. No one had given them that information. The people who handled those processes, both from an operator and an engineering level, had changed. The folks who had the experience left and then you have these new people. They’re just not familiar with the materials.
There is process training, but also material science, which is something I’m very passionate about. The materials that we use in the circuit board industry enable all the different kinds of technology that all the electronic systems run on. If you don’t understand how those materials work, you’re not going to understand how to yield well and deliver to your customer on time, let alone develop new products and new technologies.
Matties: How are you engaging with the industry now?
Hunrath: Like I mentioned earlier, some of it is the new folks coming into the business and they may have good engineering discipline, but they’re just not familiar with the processes and the materials. Some of that’s on demand. In other words, a customer will invite us in to train some of the new people. We don’t want to just accelerate it, but to make sure that all our customers know that’s available to them.
Of course, the other part is our website. When people do Google searches, we want them to be able to find what they’re looking for. I still see papers written all around FR-4, when there are so many more options today than FR-4. They’re really missing out on the opportunity to get better performing materials that have become readily available today.
We touch many different aspects of the PCB process on the material side—everything from copper foil and all of the different dielectrics to process chemistries, conductive inks, and substrates for printed electronics. I think we’re unique in that we have a combination of experience that even our individual suppliers don’t have.
Matties: Ken, what advice are you giving the industry for 2022? What should they be mindful of?
Parent: Network with experts in the industry, and there are a lot of them. A lot of things continue to challenge the industry. Use your resources that are out there. I like to say that Insulectro is the jack of all trades in building circuit boards, and we are the experts in many of them. Use us. If we can’t help you, we won’t waste your time and tell you that we think we can help you. There’s no good for either of us to go down that road. “Use your resources” is something I always like to tell my team, my customers, and anybody who will listen.
Matties: Perfect. Well, that sounds like a good note to wrap up.
Johnson: Thanks everybody.