Caveat Lector
Portrait photo of a smiling Mike Buetow
Making Progress

once heard the actor Tom Hanks – probably the first time he’s been referenced in these pages – describe a brain game he plays with friends. The challenge, he explained, is to define a concept in as few words as possible. The example he offered was “time,” which he characterized as “progress.”

Now, it’s easy to find physical and historical examples that disprove Mr. Hanks’ conceptualization.

More than a few readers probably studied physics in high school or college. Einstein’s relativity theory of time, of course, states that time changes depending on your frame of reference, and that the faster you travel the slower time moves.

And the ecologist and author Jared Diamond argues that there’s evidence some populations such as Austronesians began to use metal tools – an obvious improvement over rocks and bare hands – only to later shed them.

Much, much earlier, the Greek philosopher Aristotle surmised that change is distinct from time because change occurs at different rates, whereas time does not.

Where these ideas converge, however, is around the notion that progress means change.

Design engineers today have access to so many materials, final finishes and solder masks (see Nick Koop’s column starting on pg. 26), and components (assuming they are in stock, which is a big assumption right now). There is this sense they sometimes look at all these choices as plug-and-play items, whereas any worthwhile manufacturer will tell them that’s not the case at all.

It’s almost like building with Legos: You could stick your hand in the bucket and attach whatever piece comes out to your creation. But, when you step back and look at the finished product, it probably will not be what you planned.

Too many engineers I come in contact with seem stuck in their ways of doing things. This seems especially true for those working at large companies. Whereas bigger enterprises in theory have more resources to explore new concepts, somewhat paradoxically they often come across as less open to doing so.

When in doubt, these engineers defer to the component data sheet. It might not conform to consensus industry standards; indeed, it probably won’t. But it’s the safe choice, or so they think. Then the design gets held up at fabrication or assembly because the design doesn’t match the master drawing callout to use, say, the relevant IPC standard, and the project grinds unnecessarily to a halt.

To paraphrase a well-worn cliché, man can’t live by data sheet alone. And perhaps the best way to stretch your thinking is to engage others in the same industry but outside your company.

I see companies like Tempo Automation turning the concept of design to assembly on its head. If you can make money building circuit boards in San Francisco, you can do so anywhere.

Then I hear about other manufacturers that haven’t even introduced factory-level software in their plants, instead using manual inputs. What?!? How long will you be able to compete that way? Do you believe workers of tomorrow aspire to repetitive keystroking?

The world is changing and getting younger. Smart companies are leveraging the knowledge of others, and sometimes more than that, to remake the industry in their image. Are you ready for that?

How do you measure progress (change)? Are you making progress? In your career? In your life? And if not, do you plan to start?

Mike Buetow
P.S. See us this month at PCB West at the Santa Clara Convention Center and next month at SMTAI in Minneapolis.