A Conversation with Gene Weiner

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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.


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