Quest for Reliability: These Darn Kids/Back in My Day

This month’s topic is focused on youth, both in terms of humans and technologies. I think these two topics go together since they rely on each other to a large degree. The latter has more than likely shaped or even invented by the former. Regarding reliability and what we have seen here in the failure analysis lab, youth in the industry have played a large role.

In the all too well-known story, company X employs several people that make a nice salary, and everything is going well, but when dollars become scarce, they begin to look where they can save some money to get out of the red and back in the black. One way to do this is to look at the employees making the highest salaries and determine if they can live without that position or hire a younger person with a comparable education to plug in that slot. This can be done in many cases, but that is only on face value.

We’ve seen many times that when you save the salary number, you end up losing more than that in lost experience and tribal knowledge. Tribal knowledge is as important  if not more than any formal education can possibly give you. This type of knowledge is based on years and years of hands-on experience with the exact equipment being used to build a specific assembly, or other product, which is irreplaceable.

For instance, we work with many major CMs around the world, and we see that we end up working with a lot of the same companies within the same divisions but with different engineers. We will work with engineer A on a specific problem, and a few years later, we are working on the exact same issues because the higher salaried engineer was cut to save a few bucks, and when they left, they took all of that experience with them.

If engineer A knew about a specific tweak to a piece of equipment when the results were less than anticipated, the new engineer had no idea where to look for this information because most tribal knowledge isn’t printed in an operator’s manual or reference guide. This is especially true when using older equipment that has developed its own personality over time; and when I say personality, I mean like your old TV with rabbit ears that you had to smack on the side like you were The Fonz to get it working again. Since this month’s topic is the youth in the industry, I will ask the younger readers to use their Google machines and look up rabbit ears and The Fonz.

Now, the new engineer will go through their own learning curve to see what tribal knowledge was missing from their education. It will take time to learn this information. And while the education is in process, there is a real risk of producing product that is questionable in terms of reliability.

Having said all that, emerging technologies can help overcome the loss of tribal knowledge. Saying the words “emerging technologies” in the electronics industry is painting with a very broad brush, but in relation to reliability, I am looking at new equipment and material technology.

New factory initiatives, such as CFX, that connect machines to the business are proving to be invaluable at reducing time to market and lowering cost in some instances by streamlining processes.

Newer monitoring systems on assembly equipment that can email or text a quality group when something is going out of tolerance is a big leg up on needing the experience to see when things are going awry. Wash chemistry companies have new technology that will monitor the percentage of saponifier in a wash tank and inject the right amount to bring it back up to the proper percentage.

This is one of the most important parameters of a wash process because if you are running your wash at a lower concentration, the overall cleanliness will be impacted and increase the risk of electrical leakage or electrochemical migration. Newer monitoring systems certainly won’t solve every issue that can lead to a quarantine situation, but they certainly help reduce the risk.

Emerging technologies in testing and analysis are also a key component when it comes to reliability. There have been many changes in the approach to cleanliness that include rejecting “the way we’ve always done it.” In its place, the industry is accepting that we need to look at better ways to determine how clean is clean enough based on the products being built today with far more advanced and miniaturized component technology.

One company has introduced a real-time SIR tester that uses test coupons built with the final assembly material set to give you an indication of the effect elevated heat and humidity will have on your product. Shameless plug alert, there is also a real-time extraction tool that can measure the conductivity of residue at a specific location. Being able to separate unique soldering processes is important when troubleshooting or monitoring an assembly process.

Tests like these allow the CM to see if the way they are processing the materials is acceptable or if the process needs to be optimized. Also, these tests are most often done off-site and can take a couple of weeks to complete and see the results. Being able to immediately react and adjust assembly parameters will become more commonplace over time, but for now, it is more of a sign of commitment to reliability as part of an overall philosophy of cleanliness. This approach will definitely make your company more attractive to prospective customers.

Young people coming into the industry will bring a different approach to manufacturing than engineer A did, and that is a good thing. It’s like watching the differences between any average middle school child using a computer today and myself using one in 1995. That middle school student has been raised with new technology, and it’s largely second nature to them. Youth in the industry and emerging technologies won’t change the fact we need that tribal knowledge, but from where I sit, it will shorten that learning curve and increase reliability. And Fonzie thinks that is perfectamundo.

Eric Camden is a lead investigator at Foresite Inc.  



Quest for Reliability: These Darn Kids/Back in My Day


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