A Conversation (and Day) with Joe Fjelstad, Part 1
Joe Fjelstad spent a day with me recently as we toured the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum (home of the Spruce Goose), located in the Oregon community of McMinnville. Our conversation ebbed and flowed between a wide variety of topics, from the electronics industry, to political shenanigans and the “war against failure.” In Part 1 of this multi-part series, Fjelstad introduces his “war against failure” idea, and what went terribly wrong in the advent of lead-free manufacturing.
Barry Matties: Joe, you’ve mentioned to me recently that you are changing your approach to the world—that your message is different. You said, “the war is against failure.” What do you mean by that?
Joe Fjelstad: Ah yes, the war on failure. It is a recent epiphany of mine that failure is the true enemy of electronics. It is the disease, not the symptom, which must be attacked. To date, the industry has largely focused attention on trying to make something reliable using materials and processes that are intrinsically weak. It is a Sisyphean task that will never end. It's like the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. You bang down one problem and a new problem pops up in its place somewhere else.
Much of the challenge and most of the problems are related to solder, which has gotten worse with the introduction of lead-free, a movement that I and others rallied against for several years without success, having seen that the science did not support the claims of the proponents. On the bright side, that failure was what led to the inspiration for manufacturing electronics without solder. That said, I continue to pursue that goal. However, truth be told, I would be perfectly satisfied, and I've said this on more than one occasion publicly, if the only thing that came out of my effort was that the EU reversed the ban on lead in tin-lead solder. A lot of lead has been used in electronics over the last several decades and nobody was ever harmed by it. Well I take that back. An uncounted number of people in Asia and South Asia have been harmed by leaded solder in reclamation activities there. However, that failure and onus rests at the feet of unscrupulous businesspeople in the West, who were shipping electronic waste to those areas without giving people education and training as to what the hell they were doing and what the risks were. It was a case of capitalism gone awry and innocents victimized in the process. Elimination of lead from paint and gasoline were excellent decisions relative to human health; the elimination of lead from solder, except in the case just mentioned, was, at the end of the day, an expensive and wasteful exercise with ongoing expensive ramifications.
Matties: I was listening this morning on the news about the lead-free exemption for the military and they were talking about how that may even disappear. What do you think of that as a possibility?
Fjelstad: I would say that fundamentally it has already disappeared.
Matties: Is that because components just aren't available?
Fjelstad: Yes, and that's the great irony. I made a point of that in my recent talk at the IEEE Aerospace conference in Big Sky, Montana. Here's the scenario: Presently the military is exempt and can use tin lead solder. However, the military transitioned to commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) parts because it was going to be cheaper to make their electronics. It makes a good deal of sense. In fact, when I worked on the Land Warrior project with Pacific Consultants, we built the entire soldier-of-the-future system out of COTS. Colonel Jette, the Pentagon’s project manager overseeing this whole development made very clear his desire to use COTS. At the time, Pacific Consultants, which consisted of 35 to 40 scientists and engineers, went up against General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Motorola for the contract, and we beat them. The reason we beat them is because we actually made what the Pentagon asked for in its procurement spec. When it came to delivery, the product had the right look and feel as well as performance. In contrast, some of the competitive solutions delivered were quite bizarre. The military industrial complex got that name for a reason. It's because the military is so interwoven with the aerospace and weapons industries.
Anyway, we beat them and built the system completely out of commercial, off-the-shelf hardware. That makes sense to try and control your budgets and we built it with success and within budget, but did not win the production contract. That was given to one of the big boys. Now fast forward to what you have today with lead-free. Who drives the electronics industry? It’s not the military. They had their turn—back in the '60s and '70s; now they're just the caboose at the end of the train.
So presently, if you want to build military product, you choose a component that you want with the knowledge that it's going to come with a lead-free termination. Using a BGA as an example to track what happens to that component thermally, you find that it goes through one high-temp thermal excursion to put the balls on the BGA and another high-temp thermal excursion to remove them; then there is yet another thermal excursion to replace the lead-free balls with tin lead solder balls, a fourth thermal excursion when you mount the device to the printed circuit, a fifth excursion if the board requires two-sided assembly and potentially a sixth excursion if rework or repair is required on the device.
So you have multiple excursions at high temperature, and as the reliability experts continue to tell us, there's an inverse relationship between long-term reliability and thermal excursions. This is insane and yet we as an industry are saddled with this problem, all because of what? Perhaps, if one follows the money and looks for the greatest beneficiary, the tin industry looks extremely prominent. It is my understanding that the tin industry advised or perhaps lobbied the EU Parliament suggesting that there were lead-free solutions that were drop-in replacements ready to go. ‘Got the perfect solution for you; all you have to do is buy it.’ Sadly, it appears it was largely about money, politics and business as usual.
While they often nod at each other from across the street, politics and morality are not necessarily bedfellows. More often they don't line up with each other. In that regard, it's another sad fact that war is incredibly profitable. As a Vietnam veteran, when I listen to the arguments relative to matters of defense that are ongoing in the media on a regular basis, I find myself very disheartened. The present Congress doesn't want to stop spending on defense but they're more than willing to stop spending on education, infrastructure and other things that matter very much to the future of the nation. I find that unbelievably mind-numbing. I'm not going to live forever, but I worry for those of future generations who will have to deal with the legacy of this one.
One nice thing about getting older is summed up in a quote from the Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman: "Growing old is a lot like climbing a mountain. The higher on the mountain you get, the more tired and breathless you become. But the views, the perspective, become much more extensive." To which I would add, and well worth the effort. You have a much better comprehension of what you see happening when you get to look back through the prism of time. I'm looking at these younger players now like Ted Cruz, and I sense this guy hasn't got a clue. I'm not saying he's not smart or that he hasn't read and doesn't understand the U.S. Constitution, even though he might be a bit off in his interpretation, in my opinion. What he lacks is the perspective of age and it seems a good deal of common sense—although, intelligence and common sense are not necessarily lined up, either. In fact, somebody said, “Common sense isn't all that common.” Fortunately, I don't think he'll make the cut. His personality is just too abrasive and his ego much too great.
Matties: That remains to be seen of course, but I definitely think you are on to something.
Next: Part 2—The Future of Electronics, the Role of Software and (gasp) Liberalism vs. Conservatism!
Visit the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum website.