Brash move works for Apex
07 April 2008
Las Vegas proved that the electronics manufacturing market has nothing to worry about. Not last week’s Apex exhibition, but the place itself. The senses are bombarded with a relentless assault that no other city on Earth could match, even if it wanted to.
But there can be no mistake – Las Vegas wants to be the brashest and brightest place on the planet. You could argue that wherever you look there is evidence of the demand for electronics in the modern world. Automotive, medical, industrial, aerospace (it looked like the planes were intent on delivering visitors straight to the exhibition door the airport was so close) and even defence on account of the relatively nearby testing grounds during the formative years of the USA’s nuclear programme – something that was celebrated in an exhibition in one of the hotels. And while you might think that it would be consumer electronics that is most evident, it is really the control (industrial) sector that gives Vegas its heartbeat. That quantity of roller coasters, pulsating displays, dancing fountains and so much more are a triumph of imagination and technical expertise. In the same way that people say China is losing some of its interest in the global marketplace on account of its vast and growing home market, you wonder if Las Vegas is almost a complete end market in its own right! A wild exaggeration of course, but it is certainly a city that encapsulates both progress and excess with little distinction between the two. Being honest, as a newcomer to Las Vegas, I was filled with both disgust and delight in fairly even measures. A pleasure to go and a pleasure to leave. Given the early indications of a successful show, the IPC’s decision to move to Las Vegas was vindicated and it has been booked up already for the same time next year. No doubt after 51 weeks my enthusiasm for the city will have returned.
It will be interesting to see if the product offering in Nepcon Shanghai is the same this week as it was in Las Vegas. There are still American manufacturers who myopically refuse to see much further than its own shores, and equally there is the (ever growing) base of Chinese suppliers serving their indigenous market. But what of the bulk of the suppliers, will they demonstrate the same equipment in both places? Logic would say that the high-volume equipment will be on show in China and the high-mix equipment in America. But judging by what I saw in Las Vegas and the emails previewing what will be in Shanghai, it seems that the fare was largely been stuck in air freight in Las Vegas Airport last Thursday ready to arrive in Shanghai for exhibition set-up at the weekend. I am suitably grateful not be one of the tortured souls who is involved in the travelling circus of exhibition build-up and break-down.
But if I was going to have to sum up the trends, as demonstrated at both exhibitions, I would say that it would be flexibility and the development of specific solutions for particular problems that were top of the agenda. The flexibility was seen in virtually every stand. High volume equipment was still in evidence (and still being sold successfully into western manufacturing plants!) but a common key feature of this equipment was that it had to be flexible. Whether it was the speed of changeover on a placement machine, or a common software platform across the manufacturing environment that was responsive to changing production needs, or test solutions that could accommodate batches of ten or ten thousand, the common thread was that they all were designed to react to instantly changing production requirements.
However, what flies in the face of this is the development of new equipment that provides a single process step that falls out with the normal SMT process. The maturing of the surface mount process would logically have made everything the same - there are only so many ways you can put components on a board and solder them. But it seems that this is not the case. Robotic cells are the most obvious example of this, but it was also in evidence in a couple of selective soldering machines I saw, a vapour phase reflow unit, a dedicated onboard programmer, a conformal coater and even a conformal coating thickness measurement device – mainly developed by small engineering-led companies rather than the larger corporations that tend to evolve on a ‘bigger and better’ philosophy.
So to sum up, there was a reassuringly engineering feel about the exhibition, supplemented by a slightly contented feel that has come as a surprise to most of us. Most people expected a cautious start to the year at best, yet several people told me that either January, February or March had been among the best individual months that they had experienced in the last seven years. Nobody is getting carried away, but if you take the mood, bottle it and take a sip of it at the beginning of every month it would prove to be a far better year than almost everyone expected.
And so, dear friends, to Shanghai. Let us hope the mood can successfully span the Pacific intact.
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