Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the November issue of SMT Magazine.
After spending so many years covering this industry, it takes a lot to surprise me. But I was taken aback--and not in a good way--by a presentation at the IPC Executive Summit last month.
I was actually a bit depressed for a couple days, really, as I struggled with the idea that the end might be in sight for the PCB industry.
The implications of this presentation are pretty staggering. I guess I knew it was coming, but I just wasn't ready to hear it. Not now.
The World as We Know It
It seems that every five years or so, a new technology emerges with the potential to eliminate the PCB. Of course, none has actually been able to completely supplant the circuit board, but some have substantially reduced the need for PCBs in specific products--allowing product designers to do more in less space. Smarter silicon and creative packaging strategies have done wonders for the products we buy, but have taken their toll on the PCB.
This revolution in new capabilities and in PCB density has also opened the door to new markets for electronic products. A case in point is the billions of cell phones being produced and sold each year. It's because of the dramatic reduction in cost that the market has grown from a few million to billions sold over the last decade. On the one hand, the PCB requirement per product is being reduced, but on the other, lower costs are causing the market to expand, thereby creating greater demand for PCBs.
And, since the PCB industry continues to grow year-over-year, logic seems to suggest that an expanding market is better for the industry. A growing market more than offsets the shrinking size of the PCB. Right?
Is the End Really in Sight?
The presentation that got my attention was given by Phil Plonski of Prismark Partners. His paper was titled Core Enabling Process Technologies Driving Electronics Innovation. Plonski talked at length about one product: The Apple iPad. The cross-section of the assembled board was very telling. You could see the stacked chips with the PCBs sandwiched in-between.
The good news is that Apple is using millions of PCBs to get the iPad to market and meet demand, albeit smaller and fewer boards than we'd like. The bad news is, to continue to add features and functions, Apple will need to add more silicon and fewer PCBs. It won't be long before they learn how to build the iPad and iPhone without a PCB altogether. That's what the consumer wants: More functionality and reliability at a lower price.
In the case of the iPhone, the bad news is that its capabilities replace the PDA, cell phone, some cameras (still and video), voice recorders, GPS and more. What used to be five different electronic products is now one. What used to require 10 to 20 PCBs and assemblies, in all sizes and shapes, now just needs a couple. The iPad replaces a laptop, a PDA, a television, stereo and more.
It would seem that the PCB is becoming less and less of a critical component and more of a necessary evil (for now) as opposed to a "partner" in the electronic package. We in the industry would like to think we're more important, but it seems that we aren't. Scary.
For the West, the good news is that we don't build a lot of hand-held consumer electronics. The bad news is that smart phones are driving electronics packaging technologies and these new capabilities will find their way into more and more products each year.