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In retrospect, the musings of the controversial German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have provided some very accurate foresight had I considered it in the ‘80s as I embarked on a career in military printed circuit manufacturing: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
As anyone who has been in the military circuit board business in the last few decades will attest, it has been both extremely challenging (due to the many obstacles) and wonderfully rewarding (because our collective work supports our country and our war fighters). Along the way there have also been many decisions made by the DoD that have seemed totally misguided, counterproductive to our national security, detrimental to the domestic printed circuit industry, and negatively impacted the overall sustainment of our defense industrial base. The commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) initiative comes immediately to mind.
When I was a young man entering the U.S. printed circuit board industry in 1981, many domestic shops were bustling with activity in support of our nation’s military. While the exact numbers are a little hard to pin down, my personal recollection is that there were north of 2,500 domestic circuit shops and hundreds of them were military approved (to the old Mil-P-55110 specification).
Today, there are barely 200 printed circuit manufacturing facilities in the United States. A review of the current Defense Logistics Agency database and Qualified Manufacturers Listing (QML-31032) reveals that as of August 2014 there were a total of 31 U.S. printed circuit fabricators certified to build military circuitry. For accuracy, it should be noted that Sanmina-SCI, TTM and Viasystems have multiple certified facilities, so the total manufacturing site number is slightly higher.
In the 2005 industry report, Linkages: Manufacturing Trends in Electronics Interconnect Technology, the National Research Council (NRC) determined that U.S. production of PCBs was less than 10% of the world output (whereas it had been more than 40% in the 1980s). Additionally, and for further perspective, according to a 2010 National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) report, Recovering the Domestic Aerospace and Defense Industrial Base, overall, the U.S. PCB industry shrunk by an estimated 74% from 2000–2010.
In terms of revenue, that same NDIA report defines the significant revenue losses in U.S. domestic PCB output as having reduced dramatically from $11 billion in 2000 to less than $4 billion by 2008.
Nietzsche quotes, history and bad news out of the way, there are some real reasons for optimism in the U.S. military and aerospace segments of the PCB industry.
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Editor's Note: This column originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of The PCB Magazine.