By Phil Zarrow

EMSNOW Columnist

Phil Zarrow

Over the 40 years that I have worked in electronic assembly processes, I have seen a lot of “evolutions”.  Besides equipment, materials and procedures, there have been what I will call “geographic progressions”.

In the 1970’s the Great Threat to the North American electronics industry was perceived to be Japan. Having thoroughly embraced the teachings of sensei W.E. Deming, Japan became prominent in automotive, optics and electronics (and they still are, although not nearly as much is actually built in Japan anymore).  Having grown up in the 1950’s and 1960’s when “Made in Japan” was not a ringing endorsement – I look at them now and think “my, how things have changed”.

Next it was South Korea.  I can remember going to a wrecking yard in the mid-1980s to look for bits for some automotive project I was working on and seeing a row of nine Hyundais waiting to be parted out. Only four were actually structurally damaged while the others had been given up for “crapping out” (as we say in the automotive vernacular).  Nowadays, Hyundai has as good a warranty as BMW.  And in the electronics industry we see how effective Korean AOI and SPI manufacturers have been.

With regard to the economics of assembly, do you recall the “Four Asian Tigers” of the late 1990s-early 2000s?  Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong were all bastions of highly educated personnel (and cheap labor – compared to the U.S. and Europe). As the labor rates increased in some of these countries, the “Tiger Cubs” emerged: Malaysia, Thailand as well as the Philippines and, to some extent, Indonesia.  And let us not forget about India.

In his 2005 book, “The World is Flat,” Thomas Friedman foresaw China and India “rising” to industrial prominence.  However, he also opined that India was on a parallel course with China towards becoming the other industrial force to be reckoned with.  In fact, he felt that India had an advantage over China in that English was widely spoken.  So, what happened, Tom? While India is coming along, it has not been as meteoric as China.  There are a number of differences between the two countries with certain disparities working against India – infrastructure for transportation (questionable roads and fun drivers – he with the loudest horn prevails), a class system that persists, and corruption in government (to a greater degree than other places).  I am just an apolitical process guy and just an observer, so I will leave this analysis for others to assess.

Then there is China – and they have come a long way.  I have a distinct memory (while I was with Vitronics Corp.) in the late 1980s of a visit of a delegation from the Chinese firm of “People’s Radio Factory Number 44”.  They had to go through a special U.S. agency (known as “Washington-Beijing”) that both escorted and translated for them.  The five gentlemen all had western style suits and business cards with respectable titles of “President,” Vice President”, Director of Engineering”, “Director of Purchasing”, and “Director of Personnel” (hmmm, I don’t seem to recall a Director of Quality, though….).  One of them was a “ringer” – really a member of the Communist Party who came along to make sure none of the other four decided to defect.  He was easy to spot – he didn’t ask any technical questions.  Those of us who went over there during the 1970s and 1980s have fond (and some not-so-fond) memories of this developing country.  In less than three decades China has come from a “me too” position to one of kicking ass, taking names and taking a hell of a lot of business from the rest of the world.

(To be continued)

Phil Zarrow is President and SMT Process Consultant with ITM Consulting, Springfield, TN, USA  Tel: +1(615) 9985-2107. www.ITMConsulting.com.

He is also a renowned industry curmudgeon.