Nolan’s Notes: Light at the End of the Tunnel

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SMT-Cover250-0922.jpgDeveloping one issue of SMT007 Magazine can take two to four months of planning, research, content gathering, editing, and production. Under normal conditions (are they ever normal?), the stories we identify at the start of the planning process remain accurate and timely when the magazine is published. We move fast in this industry, but sometimes, just like the rest of our industry, things evolve.

Supply chain challenges, though, look to be here for the long haul. So, the questions we asked centered on how EMS companies should adapt their processes and equipment. It feels as if the component sourcing teams at EMS providers are as overworked and stressed-out as the emergency room nurses were in our hospitals one to two years ago. Look at the similarities: constantly changing situations, facilities clogged with more work/patients than the staff can handle, shortages of critical supplies, new pressures from unexpected places, and each new pressure point causing cascading issues throughout the entire operation. In both cases, workers have expressed that it feels like a long, dark tunnel—or the bottom of a well.

st_patricks_well_350.jpgTherefore, we chose the photo from the bottom of Pozzo di San Patrizio, in Orvieto, Italy, for our cover. This well was built between 1527 and 1537, as requested by Pope Clement VII, who took refuge there while Rome was sacked in 1527. To reach water, the well had to be dug 53 meters (174 feet) down. Faced with a huge challenge, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, the well’s mastermind, delivered a disruptive and innovative solution. He wrapped the perimeter of all 53 meters with two corkscrew ramps arranged in a double helix. These ramps—tunnels, really—allowed mules to haul water from the bottom of the well to the surface, guaranteeing a reliable source for water. While the climb to the top, to the light, could seem arduous, it was made possible because of the thought and practice behind its development. What is to be learned from this architectural feat?

When we look at component sourcing, it seems that not all the components are easing back into distribution at the same rate. Every EMS company spokesperson I’ve talked to recently seems to have stories of customer jobs with high part counts ready to go, except for a single missing critical component. Inventory is simply sitting idle, tying up company funds as they wait for the critical part—one that used to be sourced as easily as the common passives. While many parts are becoming easier and more reliable to source, there are still enough reclusive key parts to extend the headaches for procurement. This is the climb through the proverbial well.

That might be changing little by little, making it easier on the procurement teams. Just recently, we’ve heard that supply chain pressures seem to be improving. Truthfully, we have been dealing with supply chain pressures since 2019, but it was the spike in 2020 due to COVID ramifications, that sent us reeling. So, it’s big news to hear that supply is improving somewhat. At the top of our well, it is important to remember that when we emerge from our supply chain “tunnel,” we’re not back where we started; it’s a different landscape.

For instance, buyers are increasingly making use of new tools to track part availability. In fact, I believe that software assistance for procurement is an emerging and disruptive sector. While there have been players in this space for a while, new players with new approaches are emerging. Think about it: Tracking parts availability and sending alerts to the team when action is needed is exactly the kind of work that computers do best. Why shouldn’t the purchasing team benefit from as much automation as the CAM department or the manufacturing floor?

Our September issues examines this wider set of challenges. Managing suppliers takes extra work and attention right now, but there are methods and solutions available. Are you taking advantage of as many as you should? How are you managing your sourcing? Do you see it as a tunnel? A well? A chance to engineer a new, disruptive process?

To help answer these questions, we sought out experts to share their findings. We have three fresh-off-the-boat interviews: Shawn DuBravac, chief economist at IPC; Chris Lentz and Joe Garcia at Emerald EMS; and the team at Epoch, including CEO Foad Ghalili. These conversations provide insight into what’s underway, what’s pressuring our supply chain, how EMS companies and the industry are adapting, mitigating risk, and finding ways to thrive under the new conditions.

To augment the interviews, we have perspective from military specialist, Axiom, where Michael Schindele discusses the challenge to finding military parts, which often adds a whole new set of challenges, and how his company has used innovative methods to overcome their specific challenges.

As ever, our columnists weigh in on key topics, including Michael Ford on machine intelligence; Bob Wettermann on how to open a trace on a PCB surface; Chris Ellis on overcoming today’s SMT challenges; Ron Lasky on teaching basic SMT skills; and a link to a column by Zac Elliott of Siemens about the manufacturing metaverse.

Finally, I want to recognize the recent work to help government representatives across North America and Europe better understand how the pieces of the electronics hardware industry fit together in a robust and resilient supply chain. Legislation in the U.S. and European Union intends to build that foundation that will carry this industry forward. This tunnel is a bit longer and more strategic. I’ve been told to expect a 10-year process. But we’re in motion and that’s a good thing.

This column originally appears in the September 2022 issue of SMT007 Magazine.


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