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Editor’s Note: This column is the first installment of a new series on milaero electronics options for dealing with a changing world.
Historians, with their 20/20 hindsight, often write about the inevitable decline and fall of kingdoms, empires, religions, organizations, governments, and all the other permanent structures we humans build. The Romans had a pretty good thing going (who doesn’t love indoor plumbing and central heating), right up to the morning they looked out the window and saw Visigoths camped on the lawn. Can’t blame the Visigoths. They like indoor plumbing as much as anybody. Except maybe the bath part.
The point being, we get comfortable blundering along, pretty much doing business as usual without putting enough thought and effort into making sure the systems we’ve built and rely on have been adjusted to the world as it is today, not as it was. It’s not exactly a news flash that one of those systems that might need some adjustment is the one that supplied the steady stream of innovative, reliable, and advance military and aerospace electronics here in the West.
Back in the dark ages of the mid-'80s, when I got into printed circuits, most of us still thought, with some justification, that the brightest minds, the greatest resources, and the truly cutting edge innovators resided in NASA, the Pentagon, and those companies that supplied them. With two superpowers vying for supremacy, a steady stream of directly or indirectly government-funded innovations, making last year’s satellite or weapon system obsolete in short order, and the technological keys to the kingdom concentrated in that same group (or at least friendly groups), we were sure the growth industry of the ‘70s (printed circuit fab and assembly) was solid for the foreseeable future. There were at least a couple of fallacies in that rosy view.
First, we’d been coasting on the merits of prior investments even then. Percentage-wise, you can see in Figure 1 that U.S. federal investment in research and development was declining (relative to GDP) and had been for at least 10 years by then.
Second, the traditional kings of the hill were starting to get some far-sighted challengers, willing to take chances and do what it took to join the grown-ups at the big table.
Figure 1: Trends in federal R&D funding. (Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science.)
In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, I had the opportunity to work with some of those newcomers. A small, but dedicated company in Finland, with lots of young, un-jaded engineers had decided they were going to be the world leader in this new-fangled cellular technology. Nobody told them it wasn’t practical, so they went out and did it—at least for a time. They were willing to make mistakes, which their managers accepted, and learn from them; they took long-term business chances and positions that were beyond what was acceptable from a quarterly profits perspective.
During those and following decades, and for a variety of reasons (war expense, political and economic upheaval, etc.), well-intentioned drives towards cost rationalization, etc., pushed us, as a group, in directions that have turned out to be shortsighted, from the perspective of the high-reliability/high-performance/critical technology military-aerospace world.…
Next month: Part 2: The Outsourcing Trend, or “But Everybody’s Doing it”…
Marc Carter has worked in the electronics interconnection industry since 1984 in a variety of roles in fabrication and assembly materials, processes, environmental compliance, and supply chain management activities around the world. He has had the honor and privilege of working with and learning from many of the true giants of this industry. His experience encompasses many years in multiple functions at a major mil-aerospace OEM, field and development work at materials suppliers to the printed circuit industry, including an educational stint as the sole proprietor of a manufacturer’s agency representing multiple high-tech mil-aero material suppliers.