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Pete Starkey interviews Keith Bryant, chairman of the European division of the Surface Mount Technology Association (SMTA), about his view on the outlook of the industry, including growth in the European electronics manufacturing industry as well as the need for young engineers.
Pete Starkey: Hello, Keith. Could you please share your career background?
Keith Bryant: I joined the SMART Group about 18 years ago. I was on the Technical Committee for quite a few years and then became chairman for about five years. That task became increasingly tougher because the U.K. industry shrank dramatically during that time. To give you an idea, we went from about 360 companies who claimed the capability to manufacture PCBs down to about 10, and the assembly industry went the same way. It was very hard to maintain a strong membership and difficult for us to exist as a U.K. association.
About four years ago, we decided that we needed a bigger footprint in Europe, so we started talking to SMTA in the U.S. about setting up SMTA Europe. It’s a simpler organization than SMART Group in that it doesn’t have a separate management committee—only a technical committee that organizes events, which we’ve done for over two years now. We hold a very successful harsh environments conference in Amsterdam as well as webinars and workshops. Membership has grown month-on-month, and we’re now organizing an advanced electronics conference to be held at two venues in Eastern Europe.
Starkey: Looking at the European electronics manufacturing industry from your perspective, what’s the most significant change you’ve seen in the past few years?
Bryant: I’ve seen a lot of growth lately. We had been dwindling but, especially within Eastern Europe now, but a lot of manufacturing is moving in and expanding—not just the larger global multinationals who had been there for a while. And smaller companies from Europe are setting up manufacturing in Eastern Europe rather than going to Asia and using third-party manufacturers. That has also led to a strengthening in the “traditional” home of European electronics. We see a lot of growth in Germany—especially with automotive—and stronger companies are setting up new product introduction (NPI) in Europe because they have the skilled engineers and the history. They have all of the things that they need to do things very quickly and very efficiently.
Starkey: Those are encouraging words. What challenges are your European SMTA members currently facing?
Bryant: They’re having to become more and more competitive and efficient, reduce waste, and doing all things that they can to improve yield, reduce downtime. Industry 4.0 and smart factories are also shaping the future. We see what I describe as “the blurring of the edges” between semiconductor and traditional electronics assembly. People are becoming involved with direct die-mounting onto boards, wire-bonding, etc. Again, these are new technologies, and with everything becoming smaller and smaller, we have challenges with heat dissipation using thermal vias; direct-contact, silver-filled epoxy; and all of these things. It’s one of the things I love about our industry; there are always new challenges to face.
Starkey: I certainly agree with you. Looking to the future, how do you think the European electronics manufacturing industry is going to change in the next two-to-three years?
Bryant: Again, Industry 4.0 is going to drive us. Efficiency is going to come through from Tier 1s to 4s. People are going to need to spend more money on higher-level inspection equipment—all of the things they’ll need to do to achieve the desired results. I was also reminiscing with a few people last week about how we used to talk about “world-class manufacturing companies” when we were younger. Someone turned around and said, “Everybody has to be a world-class company today.” That’s a sobering thought. We used to say, “We don’t have to be as good as the big companies,” but now, everybody has to be.
Starkey: Or else we’re not going to be here in a few years’ time; that’s the reality. What’s your area of greatest concern currently?
Bryant: I’m worried about finding enough people to fill the jobs. I know we’re increasing the technology, and we have robotics, etc., but we still need skilled engineers. I’m very pleased when I see programs like at the Manufacturing Technology Centre near Birmingham, where they have a lot of engineering apprenticeships. In Europe, we went through many years where people weren’t offering or doing apprenticeships. Engineering became something that people didn’t want to do after they had attended a college or university. With the exception of a few countries—like Estonia and Romania—there’s not going to be enough engineers in five to eight years if the industry grows and recovers further. Although we’re addressing it, we will still have a missing gap—there’s going to be a time where the new people aren’t up to speed, and many industry veterans retire.
Starkey: I think that organizations like SMTA can make a big contribution in helping people to develop the knowledge, but you still need the employers and institutions to give these people the facility to learn the skills.
Bryant: Exactly, and that’s the biggest concern I have. Something may happen to the global financial situation, which changes the map dramatically, and there’s nothing we can do about that. But if we assume that things are going to carry on as they are, then electronics manufacturing is going to grow in Europe, and we need the people to feed that engine.
Starkey: Keith, many thanks for sharing your knowledge, thoughts, and observations with us.
Bryant: Thank you.