January 31, 2005

National Academy of Science Workshop Weighs
PCB Industry's Worth

A CircuiTree Exclusive By Harvey Miller

Washington, DC—On December 13, 2004, during a study
workshop on “Manufacturing Trends for Printed Circuit
Technology” hosted by the National Academy of Science, a young
staff member of the House Armed Services Committee asked me
“Is this industry really necessary?” The young man, who also
works for an important Congressperson on that committee, was
speaking in earnest.

NAS Workshop Discussion Items
The workshop, attended by approximately 50 people, met to
discuss the future of the country’s military electronics supply
chain—and by proxy, the country’s entire electronics industry.
Twelve expert presenters discussed the crisis in the U.S. printed
circuit board industry from many divergent perspectives. Ten
well-qualified committee members from industry, academia, and
the military will report to the U.S. House of Representatives on
behalf of the Board on Manufacturing and Engineering Design of
the National Academies. They discussed the following items:

  • American PCB industry’s technical competence relative
    to the world, present and future
  • The role of PCBs in maintaining U.S. military capability,
    especially in meeting unique defense needs
  • The impact of legislation and regulation on PCB
    manufacturing’s contribution to military capability,
    also on its environmental and human health effects
  • The potential strategies for R&D and PCB manufacturing
    to meet both legacy and future U.S. defence needs

During that memorable day, I had observed a model technique for
reaching the best advice to help our Congress decide an
important issue—a requested $5 million appropriation to continue
printed circuit related R&D projects under the Emerging/Critical
Interconnection Technologies Program at NSWC-Crane with IPC
involvement, discussed further below. The money would be
included in the $450 billion Department of Defense budget.

The Present Crisis
The crisis in the U.S. printed circuit industry is told by one
statistic. Between 2000 and 2004, production plummeted about
50%, from $9.9 billion to $5.1 billion, back to 1990 levels, when
the U.S. produced 30% of world total. Today it’s less than 15%.
We have experienced an economic tsunami. This can be blamed
on two factors. First, the collapse of the 2000 telecom bubble.
Second, the migration of electronic assembly and board
fabrication facilities to China.

History of Comparative Advantage
Two reactions to the new reality are expressed on every platform
and conversation about the U.S. industry. They converged in the
Washington D.C. meeting. One opinion, held by some in the
government, concludes, ‘Let the chips fall where they may.’ The
English economist David Ricardo taught us 200 years ago that
“comparative advantage” should determine the location of
production.” His modern day followers say further that this
wisdom applies with special force to “commodities” like beer,
textiles, and printed circuit boards (sic). Why should special effort
be made at governmental levels to help the U.S. industry in any
way, except to retrain former employees in other more needed
skills? One problem with this view is that no other major U.S.
competitor believes in purist Ricardo when it comes to seeding
advanced technology. Everyone knows how pro-active the
governments of Japan, China, France, Germany, etc. are in
fostering and supporting their home-grown R&D technology.

The Opposing Viewpoint
The opposing view that the U.S. PCB industry is relevant and
valuable was expressed in many ways by many presenters at the
meeting. To John Shawhan and Roger Smith of Warner Robins
and NAVSEA Crane, respectively, PCBs are not a commodity.
Each is a custom, vital component that makes non-operational
defense systems operational. Sometimes, lacking prints or design
information, they have to reverse engineer their legacy PCBs.

Visit for the Complete Article
There were 19 presenters, impossible to cover adequately in this
newsletter. However, you may read the entire article, including a
discussion of the most valuable contributions to this workshop,
by visiting after February 1st, 2005, when
the complete article becomes available online.

Harvey Miller is a principal at Fabfile Online.
For more information, visit

PO Box 2697
Santa Clara, CA 95055

Phone: 408-244-1118
Fax: 408-244-0262


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