A Conversation with Gene Weiner
In a discussion following the PCB Executive Forum at IPC APEX EXPO in February, Gene Weiner opened up to Barry Matties and Patty Goldman on the state of the North American electronics industry supply chain and the importance of cooperative efforts up and down that supply chain.
Barry Matties: The first thing that caught my mind for this year’s Executive Forum was attendance; it was disappointing, but OK. In what sense was it okay, and in what sense was it disappointing?
Gene Weiner: It was disappointing in that we had hoped to bring in a total of 50 companies. More than 150 printed circuit companies are not members of IPC, plus all the suppliers, plus those that are members. We allowed nonmember companies to register at the same price as a member company. The IPC also offered an incentive of one year's membership with 75% discount. This was such a great value that I thought it would attract several companies. I was wrong. It didn't motivate a single fabricator to register!
On the other hand, many of these non-member companies constantly complain that the IPC is doing nothing for them. We all know IPC is a volunteer organization and that one gets dividends based upon one’s investment. It was just disappointing. One group of executives that we spoke to in the Midwest area said, "Well, if there was a golf tournament, we may have come." So we checked that out and found that the last time the IPC tried to sponsor a golf tournament, it couldn't raise a foursome—unlike the TCPA or HKPCA which seems to have dozens every time they have one. Additionally, one executive in the Midwest said, "Gee, I wish somebody would've told us that the IPC was revitalizing its bare board programs.” This was in the face of months of publicity and a barrage of promotion activity by the IPC, the press, large networks and members of the IPC’s Hall of Fame.
Matties: I did see that in your summary. Is that just somebody not paying attention to what's going on? Because I thought you did a great job at sharing that story.
Weiner: Yes and no. We had one company say, "The IPC should offer an incentive for me to come.” I said “What do you mean?" and he said, "Well, it should either be free or have an incentive." I said, "Do you know what the IPC is? It's made up of member companies and a hired staff that tries to follow the lead of what the board of directors—which is made up of executives from member companies—wants done to benefit its members. They volunteer their time and their dues go to pay for staff and put on events. Now who do you expect to pay for you or give you an incentive to come, have a free lunch, have a dinner and have a program? All these people are volunteering their time out of their own expenses." He got very angry and said, "Well, they should give me an incentive." That was the end of that. He did not come to the Executive Forum but did attend the (free) exhibits.
Matties: Is there perception that the content itself is not valuable?
Weiner: I don't know. For example, IPC and Mike Carano of RBP Chemical Technology put on an excellent program in advanced troubleshooting.
Matties: This is certainly a logical conclusion based on the fact that the program was available for them to review and they still didn't see enough value. To me, what does that say about our industry? Granted that was one person, but I've heard similar comments along these lines.
Weiner: The program was available to review—for months! These same executives did send their workers to the program, but felt, I guess, that it was beneath them to partake and mix in.
In so doing, they missed some tremendous opportunities to learn from the great presentations—such as the one by Dr. Joan Vrtis, who showed how Multek looks at the industry, how it invests in companies with new ideas—not wanting to take control of them, but just to bring them forward and access future technologies.. They missed Brad Bourne of FTG, who showed exactly what his strategy and plan was for growth and overcoming tough times while he doubled the size of the company since he became its president and CEO. We had the president of WKK Distribution, an American, come all the way from China to explain the business conditions and realities of operating in China. The Department of Commerce presented the results of their recent survey of PCB manufacturers along with many valuable charts and statistics that nobody had seen before. People are still poring over them and looking forward to the rest of the report when it's issued, and the interpretation thereof.
I guess that the disappointment goes to the leadership and egos of a number of the smaller companies who currently seem to be “making money” and are in a comfort zone. I also believe it shows a lack of foresight. Nothing is forever. Everything has a beginning and an ending. I believe that the behavior of these individuals will shorten the lives of their companies.
I noted that several major supplier companies were there. The Forum’s panel was composed solely of company presidents and leaders that were willing to answer any and all questions about their business, whether it was Colonial Circuits, IEC, Flexible Interconnect Technology [FIT), IMI or Chemcut. They were all there. They answered all the questions. They didn't dodge. They spoke out. They provided valuable input.
A number of attendees volunteered to be on the committee next time to help enhance the program further and make sure it meets their and the industry’s needs. The view of these successful industry leaders is obviously quite different than those that were “missing.” One of the IPC’s Board of Directors who attended the executive Session even commented on how good it was and later brought printed circuit company executives over to me to chat about how good the meeting was and how he felt it rejuvenated the fabricator’s management programs. That was refreshing.
Matties: Is the 2017 Executive Forum a retooling of a past program, or is it just a continuation of a program that's in place?
Weiner: It was more than a retooling of the Technical Marketing Research Council, which held concurrently both EMS and bare board sessions that joined together later in the day. These were tremendous successes. Since then, the nature of the industry has changed as has the membership of the IPC . It was my thought, along with the thoughts of other members of the Hall of Fame, not to retool but to re-ignite and re-form the concept for executives at senior management levels to bring them up to date as to what was available, and to help them confront the changes happening in the industry on a global basis. For example, we're more integrated vertically in packaging and more changes are coming. I just read this morning where Xiaomi, a major smartphone maker in China, is going to make their own chipsets now. They're going to compete with Qualcomm and others. These are big changes that we have to face.
The idea was to help people become aware of these changes, to see how the successful companies confronted and overcame these, how they continue to grow, how to make a profit, and the fact that collaboration is needed. That was one of the big things in Joan Vrtis’ presentation, as well as the panelist, Shawn Stone, of IEC. The fact that you have to look at new markets with your technology. This was also the view of Rick Lies of Chemcut, who broadened his product offerings and markets to survive and grow. This goes back to the concept of redefining boundaries in Blue Ocean Strategy published in 2005; such as the famous Canadian circus, which redefined what a circus was and was a huge success with Cirque du Soleil. The concept is still valid!
I believe that we accomplished the goals we established (except for attendance). I hope that the IPC decides to continue its efforts to enhance management training through future PCB Executive Forums.
Matties: Do you think there's a new wave of participation in that there's a new sense of manufacturing might, if you will, that's taking hold in America?
Weiner: I do think there's a new wave of manufacturing and it's different, because it includes software, the all-pervasive Internet of Things. In fact, I jokingly said to Joan Vrtis after her presentation, "How do I get disconnected today?" There are members of the industry and the IPC that are disconnected. Loyalties have receded along with the increase of “hands-off” approaches to purchasing. The result has changed to the cooperative approach of today. There was a time when you'd see companies working one-on-one to solve problems or develop new products, but things are so broad now and so complicated that you do need a cooperative effort up and down the supply chain. This has resulted in the rise of consortia.
Matties: What are your thoughts when you see people like Alex Stepinski creating the new factories of today here in America?
Weiner: First, I believe that he’s an absolute genius and an original thinker. Second, he had the proper support of a captive operation. Third, he's very creative and he knew how to bring different companies together to create a smooth operating facility. He’s fostered cooperation between a number of companies. He innovated and tried new concepts and equipment. He didn't just plug in the best of everything he saw. He changed it, he integrated it.
This is one of the messages I was trying to bring forward: the need for cooperation by the smaller companies to offset the activities of larger ones integrating more fully as they focused on the bigger customers. The remainder must get together. In fact, I have proposed several times the idea of a buyers’ cooperative to help the smaller companies get a better price on some of the materials that they need. That coupled with a consortia to test products can provide a “leg up” on future business opportunities.
We still have a problem with attracting enough young people to our industry. We have to increase our outreach beyond the colleges to high schools. The outreach by NextFlex to such universities as the University of Connecticut is a good example of outreach to college levels. Today we have to “sell” the excitement of our industry to our youth. We have to offer young people the excitement and challenge of creating new things through software and robotics, not just etching a printed circuit board or plating it, but looking at the system approach. You must be able to offer our youth new styles of working such as telecommuting, of which I'm a proponent of—and you certainly are.
I've been thinking about this ever since the meeting as to what worked and what didn't. Patty, you heard in the breakfast meeting when I said there were three types of circuit people: those that you're never going to convince, those that have to be willing to adapt and modify, and those that came. What is still astounding to me is not one single company took up the widely-publicized offer of a year of IPC membership for $300. They would've blown through that in a bar that night easily.
Matties: What does that say about the value offering that IPC is bringing out there even at that price?
Weiner: I think the value offering is great. I think that those who are not members just don't recognize it, won't accept it, or are too self-focused; perhaps they may not be here in the future, where those that attended were the guys that are growing and are already members. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is. For example, someone bragged they had a couple dozen people at the last IMPACT event in Washington. We had 30–35 people, including staff, of course. We used to draw 75 to 100 and more to those events back when it was Capitol Hill Day.
Matties: Those were the days though, when we still had a couple thousand board shops, right?
Weiner: Right, that's why it's so much more important to have the remaining ones cooperate.
Matties: Patty, you covered IMPACT Washington, D.C. last year, and that is a topic I want to touch on here. How many participants did we have last year?
Patty Goldman: Not as many as we should have had.
Weiner: I heard that there were about 35 including IPC staff.
Goldman: I can believe that.
Matties: The point is that, on a percentage basis, we may be equal to the old days. Patty did a great job of covering the IMPACT event in 2016 and if you didn't see that you can look at one of our past issues to read about it. Are you going to IMPACT this year, Gene?
Weiner: I haven't decided. Right now, I'm just focused on getting to SEMICON China in a couple of weeks rather than CPCA. But there is another issue that comes up that's part of all this and nobody's really looked at it. It's the formation of the giants. The giant fabricator. The giant materials and chemicals supplier. The giant OEM. The company that exists by buying everything and just uses their name for the branding. The disappearance of so many independent companies seems to pose a threat in America. Can all this merging be good? For example, in the U.S. today there's only one manufacturer of copper foils suitable for making laminates for printed circuits, and that's owned by a Japanese company. If they go out or it goes under, the U.S. is without foil to make printed circuits, which is the basis for most of the packaging we need for all electronics in this country. You take ICs, electronic packages, organic substrates which uses copper foil, and software and that's it. What happens? Do we go to China to buy all of our circuits?
Matties: Wouldn't this be a topic that we would be covering at IMPACT? When your supply basis is so critical for the foundation of everything and national security, it seems to me that there would be more activity around that.
Weiner: You would think so, but the people that do this in the various committees such as from the Department of Defense, Air Force, and Army are probably looking 30–40 years out. They probably are not even looking at printed circuits. They're looking at electronic systems for the foot soldier and warfare way down the road. That leaves us with the Executive Secretary and the Department of Commerce who fund a “study,” look at it, and say, "Okay, we can get the boards." They don't go down to the components, other than show concern for counterfeit. They don't go down to the electroless copper, the plating solutions and all the foil, which is a super critical material. The best bet would probably be to go through NIST and see if they can get someone to pay attention to the details. If they did and could, it would probably show up in four or five years. You can't get anybody’s attention. It's too small, too irrelevant to their thinking.
Goldman: The supply to our military could get cut off pretty darn fast. The laminate manufacturers are stuck if they can't get copper foil, for one thing. It's already vulnerable because so much is getting sucked up by the lithium ion battery industry now.
Weiner: Roughly 20% of the foil produced in Asia is reported to be converted to that already.
Goldman: The manufacturers of the drums that the electrodeposited foil is made on are Japanese, and they can only make so many in a month or a year. That can barely keep up with the lithium ion battery industry, so no new capacity is going to our industry.
Weiner: There are just so many issues to trace, to write about, to talk about, and to tell your readers about to try to help the fabricators. A lot of it boils down to the growth of the giants, which may fracture and sell off to each other again as they merge and divide. Now with the DuPont-Dow merger, there's a lot of concern as to what's going to happen there. Nobody outside the senior executives at DuPont and Dow and those it affects know today. I'm putting up a reminder in this month's column as to what the plan was, how to merge them, or what they're going to do winding up as three separate public companies that they own.
At the same time, there's going to be a lot of spin off and fallout for what is small stuff to them, which will probably be the off-shoot products used by the printed circuit industry and assembly business. That's all going to fall off and then there's going to be a whole bunch of companies buying and remerging. You know Atotech sold, then DuPont-Dow merges, and Shipley is gone. In fact, whatever happened to the fast-rising stars of Maskless Lithography, eSurface and Rainbow? Where are they today? That was just two years ago. They showed great promise, and where are they?
Matties: It's tough when you see an industry in contraction and that's what we've been in, in America, from a supply line to a fabricator base.
Weiner: Well it's not just a contraction; it's a change in direction in the method of operating. If we look at something like semiconductors, the dollar amounts go down in capital equipment or in production of wafers, but the volume of surface area of wafers increase. That' a squeeze in margin, not a squeeze on the industry.
Matties: Well I'm looking at circuit board factories in particular, because when you look at our industry back in late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was more than 2,000 shops. Here we are 2017...
Weiner: That's the effect of mass production and lowered costs.
Matties: That's what I mean. We've seen this contraction.
Weiner: The industry didn't contract. The number of people producing the boards contracted, but not the board production.
Matties: I'm not talking about the board production, but the supply base, because when the number of shops reduces, of course the number of suppliers is going to reduce. It's very difficult for a small guy to come in. We've seen it time and time again when somebody tries to introduce a new drill or a new piece of technology in this sector. First, they try and keep it contained to America because they're afraid that if they go overseas their IP is going to be stolen, which it's a certainly a valid concern. Secondly, it's hard for a fabricator to invest money in new technologies when they're working on such thin volumes and thin margins to begin with.
Weiner: That presents another problem. Let's look at direct imaging, which is the standard of today's and tomorrow's industry. Which system do you support? Do you let one company like Orbotech control the market just to suddenly discover there's an excellent new competitive system that’s substantially less costly? Do you risk the cost of trying it? How does a small shop do it? Again, that was the idea of the cooperative approach. This is one of the things that Brad Bourne discovered. He couldn't do everything as he merged the companies, so he used services like hole-plugging services and hole-filling services.
Then we have IMI, who then bought a used direct imaging system. They find ways of doing it. Brad Bourne found ways to triple his company in tough times. IMI, which is a small company, found ways by buying used equipment, cooperative activities and specializing in high-end product, RF and exotic substrates. Mark Osborne did it by his approach with the military at Colonial Circuits, and being a good military supplier. It's a small company focusing on an area. They find ways if they're good. Without the cooperative approach that Brad Bourne took it would be awfully tough for them to grow and survive. Then you have the guys that dash off and take the money to the bank while it's good. Then when they get squeezed in a couple of years, they'll go out of business. They'll go home with their money, all the people will be out of work and the country may be in trouble. Or the major companies who pick it up, like they do and will. They're going to do it again. Their answer is to build it up, do the volume, merge them, and then bail out again.
But times have changed. You have to go ahead of the curve. You have to change your approach. The guys that don't, individually, are only looking out for themselves. They think they're great. They're number one, they'll take the money and run. If you're concerned about the industry you have to take a different approach. If you're concerned about long-term survival and the building of a company, remember that everything has a beginning and an end. Some ends create a new beginning. Some ends are just an end. We have to evaluate each of these companies and say, "Okay, which is the beginning, which is an end? How do we extend the product life cycle profitably?" That's what we're looking at, because with rapid innovation changes existing product life cycles have shortened Products themselves have shifted to a new product life cycle through an improvement or a change. That's not simple. It's complicated.
Matties: What you're saying right now is probably a key symptom of why so many people aren't joining these Executive Forums. They're in it for themselves; it sounds like that is what you're saying.
Weiner: It's interesting. We all went to the dinner that night and merged the EMS guys and the board guys, and I had a number of the EMS guys say, "Hey, I hear you had a great session. We should do what we used to in past days and have at least one or two hours together in the same room with a common speaker where we can exchange ideas.” This is why I put that in my recommendation. Because it's changed. The supply chain is more interconnected and interdependent than it ever was.
Matties: With regard to the Executive Forum schedule, is this an annual event or when is the date for the next one?
Weiner: It was to be a one-time event to see if we should do an annual event. Now it's up to IPC. If they want to continue it, I'm willing to volunteer. I've got the committee lined up. I've got first-rate speakers up and down there. I'm willing do it if it's automotive, because at the breakfast someone suggested vertical. I said automotive, most people agreed, and we can do that. We can do it first class and we can get different companies involved at senior executive levels, such as officers of Nvidia, Jabil, Analog Devices and Bosch.
Everyone has a reason for it. You don't just schedule your time to fly halfway around the whole world to give a talk unless you expect something back. They would expect an exchange with their supply chain, meet some more of their potential suppliers and see some more of their customers.
Matties: It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds in the coming year. Gene, thank you very much and we'll talk to you soon.
Weiner: Have a great day folks.
Goldman: Thanks, Gene.