What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been—and It’s a Long Way from Being Over


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harvey_miller2.jpgMiller: Pitch is the problem. As densities go down and the pitch gets smaller there is a bridging problem with solder, so everyone knows solder is the main cause of reliability issues in electronics. I can't quantify it. Werner Engelmaier wrote a lot about that and he wasn't the only one. Then on top of it they throw in this lead-free solder, which had no environmental justification whatsoever. What put it over the top? People blame the European community and environmentalists, but it was really the tin industry and the solder industry—they put it over the top. It was a political thing. Nobody could ever prove that people made fortunes on speculating tin [laughs], so we will never know, right? But I am sure that a lot of money was made that way.

Matties: I know that Joe was a big opponent to the whole thing and was very vocal about it, but it didn't seem to matter.

Miller: Pam Gordon was commissioned to come up with the cost of the transition to lead-free.

Matties: Technology Forecasters?

Miller:  That’s right, and I think she came up with $30 billion and still counting. The military can't use it due to reliability and the little tin whiskers.

Matties: Was that move to lead-free a surprising moment in our history to you?

Miller: It was surprising, because I am not a realist. Everybody who was a realist knew it was going to happen. We kept fighting because we are just really good at fighting losing battles [laughs]. We are going to have the last word when they eliminate all solder.

Matties: And they will.

Miller: The lead-free people made a contribution to that. That is the irony of it. By reducing the reliability of all solder they helped seal its fate.

Matties: When you look to the future, obviously you have a lot to draw on from the past. What advice would you give a manufacturer?

Miller: Be flexible; you just have to be flexible. The industry is full of corpses, isn't it? You see them all over, and not just in this industry. Eastman Kodak is a classic case. They knew that electronic imaging was coming. They even had patents on it, and they even brought out an electronic camera which wasn't based on silver halides. But the thing that really killed it was putting cameras on cellphones. So you don't have to wait for film to develop.

Matties: Kodak had a digital camera, but they were just so locked into the old paradigm.

Miller: It is the old classic case. Everybody gets in a rut—companies get in a rut, people get in a rut, it is natural. It is the first law of Newton's Laws, isn't it? Inertia. Especially when they were making money on all that paper being developed. And all the people in power got in power because they were making money on the old technology, so it is very hard for them to see the threat. They sort of wanted to pretend it was going away, because it was such a threat. People don't want to see threats.

Matties: What do you think about all the automation that is coming to factories?

Miller: The more the better.

Matties: It changes the need for the labor pool.

Miller: Well, it is the old story then. People will do more productive things. Let the machines do the work.

Matties: It also makes a case that you don't need to have a specialized skillset, because that is one of the problems in America. If you look at the machining industry, trying to find a skilled machinist today is virtually impossible, but finding someone that can run a computer that runs the machining is quite easy.

Miller: That is a good point.

Matties: And I think we are going to see a shift in labor, but one thing that is surprising to me is that the process of manufacturing a circuit board hasn’t changed all that much. The high-end or the technological shift has been in the equipment we use to plate a circuit board or to image a circuit board, but the process for building a circuit board has not changed that much.

Miller: No, it hasn't changed that much. Ken Gilleo did a great job on delving into the history at Technograph, but it grew out of other industries. New industries always do. It grew out of graphics and printing and borrowed from a lot of other industries and as needs grew, people came up with solutions. Then it grew into something that will probably become obsolete pretty soon. But that is always the scenario.

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