With the benefit of more than half a century of experience in the printed circuit and electronics interconnection industry, I now enjoy a perspective that is not available to those just entering. I harken to a comment made by legendary Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman, “Old age (growing old) is like climbing a mountain. You climb from ledge to ledge. The higher you get, the more tired and breathless you become, but your views become more extensive.” That perspective is truly a gift, regardless of what one does in life. It certainly has resonated with me (even before I arrived here.)
The young often balk at the knowledge of the “old folks” as foolish and old fashioned. But a couple of timeless Mark Twain quotes come to mind at such times:
“When I was 17, my father was so stupid, I didn't want to be seen with him in public. When I was 24, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in just seven years.” Equally witty and more to the point when it comes to manufacturing: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
I know these things too well because I was young once. A final timeless aphorism: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Enough of my referencing backwoods wisdom. I trust you get the idea.
In my experience, using tribal knowledge was how we managed to pass on our hard-won manufacturing experiences. Our personal scar tissues from trying and failing were how we informed those new to the industry with whom we were working what methods worked and what didn’t. There was little generally available in the way of detailed codified knowledge in the days before my entry into the PCB industry.
The Institute of Printed Circuits (the legacy name for IPC) created its first industry document, “How to Design and Specify Printed Circuits,” in 1957, but what was lacking was detailed information on how to build them. An early attempt was made by a couple of unsung heroes of the industry, Cledo Brunetti and Roger W. Curtis, working for the National Bureau of Standards in the late 1940s. They surveyed the industry after WWII to collect and share what novel and useful printed circuit-related developments had been “born in the forage of war.” The end product came from the U.S. Government Publishing Office a decade earlier than IPC’s first publication in a short book titled “Printed Circuit Techniques,”1 followed by another booklet a year later titled “New Advances in Printed Circuits.”2 These two technical showcases became teaching tools for commercial industries wanting to build products for a nation looking to enjoy the fruits of victory, especially electronic products such as radios and early televisions.
The PCB industry was somewhat spread out, but was largely located on the East Coast and some places in the Midwest. Silicon Valley was just being born and Hewlett-Packard was one of its most important early founding companies and the company needed PCBs to make their products. In the late 1960s, Clyde Coombs, with the approval of his managers at Hewlett-Packard, engaged the most knowledgeable engineers in the early PCB manufacturing industry of the nation to write chapters covering their special experts from design to manufacture and Clyde served as editor for what is today still the bible of the PCB industry: The Printed Circuit Handbook, now in its seventh edition and co-edited with PCB industry icon (and revered I-Connect007 technical editor) Happy Holden.
These valuable books were published and evidently available but not always easy to find. Much knowledge transfer in the industry was accomplished through the diligence and efforts of field engineers of materials and manufacturing equipment and process chemistry product developers who served as the all-important “pollinators” of the PCB industry. They typically visited PCB shops both regionally and nationally, teaching and helping customers succeed with their products, while learning from customer shop process engineers what they found worked well. It is arguable that the PCB industry would have developed much slower without them.
I would be remiss at this point to not mention the importance of competition and the laissez-faire approach to employment at the time where engineers and technicians, in the days before non-compete contracts and NDAs, freely jumped from employer to employer, bringing with them knowledge gained at their last employer, and often being given a healthy pay raise. That said, there were also the behemoths of industry, such as IBM and AT&T, who were vertically integrated and insulated from the general industry, solving problems internally with their highly educated engineering staffs. In such facilities, it appeared that tribal knowledge was relied upon to develop and improve processes, but it was the discipline of codifying the knowledge into process specifications that allowed them to more easily transfer knowledge from one generation of workers to another.
The U.S. has lost a great deal of its tribal knowledge by the transfer of manufacturing to China and elsewhere over the last few decades. There is a great deal of concern in the U.S. today relative to the future of the industry as the older generation of engineers and technicians is “graying out” of the industry. This has not gone unnoticed, fortunately, and IPC, SMTA, and the DoD, along with some higher education providers, are actively supporting efforts to shore up, prime, and refill the pipeline of talent. We hope we are not too late. PCB manufacturing has been a great career for me. The myriad processes and technologies required to make a printed circuit have not greatly changed in intention and purpose, but they are endlessly fascinating and challenging to try and perfect.
In closing, I highly recommend that you take a moment to skim through the two earlier books I’ve cited. I think you will be amazed at how prescient the pioneers of the PCB industry were. There you will find a “genetic link” to nearly all of the processes we use today. We are blessed to be able to follow in their footsteps.
- “Printed Circuit Techniques,” National Bureau of Standards, U.S. Department of Commerce, nvlpubs.nist.gov.
- “New Advances in Printed Circuits,” U.S. Department of Commerce, nvlpubs.nist.gov.
Download your copy of Fjelstad’s book Flexible Circuit Technology, 4th Edition, and watch his in-depth workshop series “Flexible Circuit Technology.”
This column originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Design007 Magazine.