February 9, 2005    Volume 12, No. 3

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Defense Department Hires Science Academy To Assess Vulnerability Of U.S. Circuit Board Industry

The National Academies of Sciences is engaged in a study to help the Defense Department determine if the diminished health of the domestic printed circuit board (PCB) industry is posing a security risk to the country. The study, "Manufacturing Trends in Printed Circuit Technology" is tackling some of the most difficult questions facing the Defense Department as commercial high-tech industries migrate offshore, mainly to China.

According to those involved in the study, committee members are not sure what the United States government can do, if anything, to improve the prospects for the U.S. circuit board industry. They are also not certain if printed circuit boards can be considered a "defense essential" capability that needs to be preserved. Moreover, defining DOD's role in guaranteeing an assured supply of boards is a complicated undertaking, wrought with ideological undertones.

"I'm not sure we have given the committee all of the data we need to paint a picture" of an industry in turmoil, says one printed circuit board industry official in Washington, D.C. "We're in one of these unenviable situations where there has been an uptick in the industry. I'm not sure if we were able to convince them that there are only 400 circuit board shops left in the United States and only 20 that are still capable of making military boards."

Some military technologists and procurement officials are becoming concerned about printed circuit board shortages and the growing dependence on single sources of supply (known as single points of failure). They also are concerned about the lack of investment being made in research and development, both by the federal government and by the industry, which is comprised mostly of independent mom-and-pop type shops.

Others involved in the study say they wonder why the printed circuit board industry should be treated differently from many other high-tech industries that no longer produce much of anything in the United States. Industries like flat panel displays and hard disk drives are considered defense critical technologies, yet little or no production remains in the United States. Government programs to sustain these industries have failed, they say.

The only technology worthy of guaranteeing an "assured" supply is microprocessors, others point out. As a result, DOD and the National Security Agency are funding a "trusted" foundry at IBM dedicated to producing chips for the government.

In many cases, printed circuit boards have become a commodity product and even IBM has spun off its PCB business. IBM does not rid itself of critical or strategic technologies, say those associated with the study. If IBM doesn't think printed circuit boards are essential, then why should DOD?

Moreover, prime contractors can always shop around to find a shop to make a custom-made board for a low-volume military application, say others involved in the panel. Or they can subcontract with another company and provide specs to an overseas firm that does not know the board is headed into a sophisticated military weapon system. There is little need to worry.

But there is more at stake in losing the printed circuit board industry, say others. Once lost, the United States will have a difficult task of trying to reestablish the industry. Boards form the backbone of the electronics industry. If production leaves, there won't be much left of the electronics industry in the United States. Research and development and design know-how will leave with it. Such vulnerability is something that should not be risked. There is also worry that overseas companies could sabotage military electronics by clandestinely placing hard-to-detect defects into boards.

On a grander level, without a vibrant industry, the United States will not generate the wealth -- taxpayer revenue -- needed to support the world's most expensive military enterprise at a time of growing pressure for the federal government to fund entitlement programs for older workers who have not saved enough for retirement.

"We thought there was going to be a groundswell of support" for a new federal R&D initiative aimed at advancing the printed circuit board industry, said one of the study's proponents. "But right now it is not materializing."

The report is scheduled to be completed by June. It was funded by the Defense Logistics Agency (approved by John Christensen, who is in charge of DLA's R&D Enterprise Division), and the Office of Naval Research, which runs one of the government's only PCB R&D facilities in Crane, Ind. (Within the Navy, the effort was spearheaded by Ron Thompson, who recently retired as the branch manager of electronics manufacturing technology at NAVSEA Crane and is now working for SAIC.)

Members Of The Committee Studying Manufacturing Trends in Printed Circuit Technology

  • David Berteau, chair and director of the Washington, D.C. office of Clark & Weinstock;
  • Katharine Frase, vice president of worldwide packaging and test for the IBM Microelectronics Division;
  • Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Charles Henry, creator of the Defense Contract Management Command;
  • Joseph LaDou, director of the International Center for Occupations Medicine at UC San Francisco;
  • Kathy Nargi-Toth, global business director for Technic Inc., of Cranston, R.I.
  • Angelo Ninivaggi, director of legal services for Plexus Corp.;
  • Michael Pecht, founder and director of the CALCE Electronic Products and Systems Center at the University of Maryland;
  • E. Jennings Taylor, founder and CTO of Faraday Technology Inc.;
  • Richard Van Atta, senior research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses;
  • Alfonso Velosa, associate director of market and business strategies at Gartner; and
  • Dennis Wilkie, senior vice president at the Compass Group.

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