Garry Myatt, Marketing Director at eXception Group discusses how the printed circuit board industry has fared during the downturn and why the sector is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel through diversification.

The global economy for printed circuit board (PCB) manufacture and growth has seen turbulent times across all corners of the globe, and from speaking and sharing with industry colleagues these times appear to come in ten year cycles.

Yes, we have all seen and experienced high areas of growth and unprecedented margins, but in more recent years the economic downturn in consumer electronics and purchasing interest has led to manufacturing being reduced and the need for PCB’s diminishing. This has resulted in OEM’s across multiple market sectors ceasing and cutting back, key R&D programs.

The year 2011 bucked the trend on 2010 with growths seen between 2 percent and 3 percent on Europe and North America and percentages upwards of 8 percent from South East Asia on the global GDP scale.

OEM’s have now stabilised their own core business activities and are looking to further advance either in re-design of existing products or release new developments, that will push the boundaries of technology and increase market share and capital.

It’s refreshing to see that those companies engaging clients from a professional services angle, offering key electronic services such as product design, PCB design, consultancy, supply chain and manufacturing are at the forefront to succeed, taking clients to market and achieving the goals.

The outlook on 2012 is one of a ­similar view from 2011 and PCB fabricators are now starting to re-invest and build in capacity and technology advancement, in anticipation of the new demand. The downside and danger is not understanding your market and not supporting clients with a business model that will  recover the investments made.

Careful consideration needs to be undertaken and a detailed business plan created on what the key drivers will be for a successful PCB solutions sell – be it high density interconnect (HDI), rapid prototyping or new product introduction (NPI) or high-volume, or a service model that supports all three of these?

Understanding the markets, the clients and technology roadmaps of the future of electronics interest is essential to success. Take for example the automotive market, for years the industry has seen PCB manufacturing being commanded by fabricators in Germany and Asia, supporting standard traditional single sided and double sided PCB’s, in high-volumes with strict legislation. Yes the legislation is still there due to safety critical applications, but the technology has evolved to look at alternative manufacturing techniques and materials.

This is driven by improved performing electronic components. One such application is Adaptive Cruise Control that’s similar to conventional cruise control in that it maintains the vehicle’s pre-set speed. However, unlike conventional cruise control, this new system can automatically adjust speed in order to maintain a proper distance between vehicles in the same lane.

Enhanced component technologies such as radar headway sensors, digital signal processors and longitudinal controllers have taken standard PCB technology (manufacturing and materials) to the next level and increased layers are being adopted in addition to the use of microvia’s and signal speed dependent materials.

Another key market that’s traditionally seen as ‘favourable’ to be part of is the Aerospace and Defence sector, due to its credence around commercial and military applications. These include concerns around product reliability, protection of IP and with requirements being of a high mix low-volume nature, it’s been the European and North America fabricators that have commanded the manufacturing space away from Asia.

Manufacturing methodologies and material choices are becoming daily questions being asked by software and hardware engineers of their PCB fabricating partners. Supporting this are the raw material vendors who are evaluating and consistently launching new base laminates and dielectrics to be part of the future and advancing applications being sought.

One such vendor is Rogers Advanced Circuits who has introduced a range of high-performance thermoplastic laminates (XT/RT Duroid) that are regarded as highly reliable and being halogen free and flame retardant, are thermally and chemically robust, with melting points higher than PTFE materials. This makes them well suited to rugged applications including airborne lightning strike protection and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s).

Energy and green technology continues to be a growing market, with oil and gas seeking ever more difficult resources to extract. Wind and wave energy technologies are demanding electronics support along with the maturing of HVDC technology.

Selection of flexible multi-skilled supply partners that can offer the value added support across the product lifecycle is key in alleviating the fears associated with local and offshore manufacture, in this and other sensitive market sectors.

eXception Group