Archive for May, 2007

May29th

The inability of certain adhesives to withstand long-term exposure to heat is becoming something of a hot topic for manufacturers and reliability practitioners alike

The inability of certain adhesives to withstand long-term exposure to heat is becoming something of a hot topic for manufacturers and reliability practitioners alike. And even though there are plenty of adhesives available with guaranteed long-term performance within specified bounds, the temptation is always there to “save a few pennies” by specifying a lower-cost compound.

I have to admit that this has been something of a pet bugbear of mine ever since specifying an office full of low-cost PCs some years ago which proceeded to fall over one by one as the so-called thermal adhesive attaching the coolers to the CPUs dried out, cracked and failed, leaving the unprotected processors to fry the motherboards.

Fortunately, I spotted the source of the problem after two failures, and the remaining units were saved from disaster by nothing more sophisticated than fitting metal clips to hold the CPU coolers in place.

However, recent discussions with both EMS providers and with test labs have revealed that the problem remains, and it is not necessarily the fault of the adhesives manufacturers. All too often, it seems, the bean counters are having the final say on the bill of materials. And just a small change in specifications to save money can have catastrophic effects on the end product.

The phenomenon is not new. An RF designer friend first brought it to my attention in the early 1990s when he was initially baffled why his perfectly functioning prototypes always seemed to turn into inferior production units. That was until he compared the manufacturing bill of materials with the original design and found that a high proportion of the components had been replaced with lower cost “functional equivalents”.

Why such practices should continue is baffling - particularly when you consider the potential costs of an inferior substitute failing.

Take, for example, this week’s news from Australia, where Sharp has just recalled a batch of up to 2500 LCD televisions after discovering a weakness in the double-sided adhesive tape used to affix a small square of conductive rubber used as an internal electromagnetic screen.

Sharp’s own ongoing internal testing programme identified the tape as a potential weak link after continued thermal aging, leading to fears that the screen might fall off and create a high-voltage short to the TV frame. So the company decided to recall the TVs - at a cost reported to be in excess of AU $1.5 million.
This comment was originally published in the Electronicstalk Newsletter

May22nd

European Union legislation is seldom anything less than contentious

European Union legislation is seldom anything less than contentious. And while current and impending directives such as RoHS, WEEE and REACH certainly fall into this category, beneath the contention there is generally industry agreement on the necessity for the legislation.

But legislation that has a direct impact on the public is a different matter. And so when earlier this month the European Commission dropped its insistence that the UK finally severed its attachment to the Imperial system of weights and measures, the news was reported prominently around the world.

There are those who contend that the metric system and its siblings among the SI units are altogether too French for their tastes. Indeed, the mere ordering of SI (for Systeme International) rather than IS (for International System) adds weight to this argument.

This is not, of course, a purely English or British phenomenon. But it can certainly be correlated with the English-speaking world.

The USA, it seems, will never embrace metric weights and measures. And, just to make life even more confusing, there remain those anomalies that seem only to be there to confuse, such as the US gallon and that most confusing of differences - the mil, which any British engineer of a certain age would call a thou (both being one thousandth of an inch).

Canada, with its Anglo-French heritage, should logically be a flag waver for metric measures. But the election of the Mulroney government in 1984 slowed, and ultimately stalled, metrication in Canada.

If you really do want to find English-speaking people at home with metric measures, you need to travel to the Southern Hemisphere. And while there are still a few anomalies, like pints of beer in Western Australia and marker posts on golf courses set 137 metres from the green in New Zealand, here the legislation has been accepted, and the populace universally thinks in metric terms.

The reason is simple. Australia and New Zealand are isolated from the rest of the English speaking world, and are realistic in their stature. Their trading partners think in metric terms, and so it makes perfect sense to follow the local custom.

Conversely, the politics that dictated the UK should abandon Imperial measures were not flawed because they meddled with deep seated traditions. They were flawed because they ignored the influence of Anglo-US trade.

International standardisation is a wonderful thing. It facilitates trade, and trade is the greatest single contributor to international peace. However, blindly enforcing standardisation will never work if that standardisation is counter-productive to business.

We in the electronics industry are classic Metric Martyrs. There is the subversive level of soft and hard metric pitches for connectors (1.27mm versus 1mm). And then there are certain measures that simply do not sound at all right in their metric guises. When was the last time you specified a 483mm rack, for example?
This comment was originally published in the Electronicstalk Newsletter

May15th

“We Baby Boomers are turning out to be a generation of technical duffers”

Earlier this year (Electronicstalk Newsletter 303, 30th January 2007) I wrote about a survey conducted by online payment specialist PayPal and its contention that we Baby Boomers were turning out to be a generation of technical duffers. The company had even set up an online quiz at www.whatisyourtq.com so that we could all prove to ourselves how little we knew about the user end of modern technology.

Now, however, from the other side of the Atlantic comes a survey that illustrates a beneficial side-effect of this phenomenon.

According to research carries out by market research organisation Stars for Kidz - www.StarsforKidz.com - the technical illiteracy of the older generation is having a beneficial effect on the literacy of the pre-teen generation.

In a US-wide survey of more than six thousand 8-14 year olds, it transpired that if there was a household chore to be done online, chances were that the child of the household was the one to do it. So much for raking leaves from the garden or taking out the rubbish. The children surveyed were comparison shopping on the net and even completing their families’ tax returns online.

And, sure enough, the main reason given by the children (or by 47% of them) was that their parents were “clueless” online.

It will be interesting to see in a dozen or so years’ time when these kids join the workforce whether their childhood activities will spur them into careers that will address current skills shortages - or more to the point the skills shortages of the day.

It will be even more interesting to observe whether their own children reckon their parents are just as “clueless”.
This comment was originally published in the Electronicstalk Newsletter

May8th

If the decision by top UK electrical retailer Currys to stop selling blank audiocassettes does turn out to be the death knell for the format

If the decision by top UK electrical retailer Currys to stop selling blank audiocassettes does turn out to be the death knell for the format, it is worth reflecting that this has been a medium that has lasted for close on 40 years.

The humble magnetic tape has come in many formats over the years, from open reels used for audio recording and even for computer storage, through audio cassettes and 8-track cartridges to video recordings in all their formats, the basic concept has remained the same - magnetise the particles embedded on the tape and you have a (relatively) secure storage medium that is suitable for both digital and analogue data.

Indeed, in many sectors such as pro-audio and certain data acquisition applications, the tape is still the medium of choice. The videocassette - in all its formats from V2000 and Betamax to the massively dominant VHS and mobile formats like 8mm - has been with us since the late 1970s and has sold countless billions of units worldwide.

And the audiocassette predated that by almost a decade.

In truth, the design of all cassettes has severe mechanical weaknesses. And if you ware starting from scratch with the option of a spinning rigid optical disk or a flexible (and breakable) medium that is forced into a serpentine path past its recording and playback heads, the choice would be a no-brainer.

However, the design has served us well over many years, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it has a few more years or even decades left in it. What chances of Currys being left with egg on its face?

And that leads me rather well to the point where I can reveal that the Electronicstalk Newsletter Editorial you are reading is now part of an ongoing Editor’s Blog. And judging from the feedback we’ve had over the years I expect to be receiving quite a few comments each week. It’s easy to reply - just follow the link below this Editorial on the Electronicstalk homepage.

Finally, here’s some good news for the German speakers among you, and also for anyone who has a marketing responsibility among their duties. The Pro-Talk stable has been expanded again recently with two new launches.

Techniktalk is a German-language site covering a broad spectrum of science and
engineering topics, and can be found at (Link)

Marketingservicestalk covers the latest services, products and developments for marketing managers, and can be found at (Link)
This comment was originally published in the Electronicstalk Newsletter

May1st

Skills shortages and strategies to overcome them are in the news again this week

Skills shortages and strategies to overcome them are in the news again this week, with every sector from power engineering to IT putting its oar in to encourage young people into vocational education.

Earlier this week, the Institution of Engineering and Technology - www.theiet.org -launched an awards programme that will provides access to almost a million pounds worth of scholarships, bursaries and awards for engineering students and professionals. Central to the scheme are the new Ambition Awards, which aim recognise, support and encourage those either studying, or at the start of their careers, within the fields of engineering and technology.

Of course, the UK is not unique in recognising such skills shortages. Industries around the globe are experiencing the same problems, providing a field day for international recruitment consultants and presenting engineering and technology students with travel opportunities that can only add to the attraction of the supposed neglected specialities.

For example, the Australian IT industry, which has not been immune to global market pressures during the new millennium, has gone from contraction, frenzied offshoring and unemployment to a position today where its growth is being hampered by a shortage of skilled labour. And this despite the country’s university system serving as a Mecca for undergraduates from SE Asia.

There is no doubt that the IET’s new programme deserves to succeed, and the institution has been quick to secure financial support from the likes of Thales, IBM, EDF Energy Networks and Areva.

However, lest we forget, we have all been here before. And while we live in a world where all industries are prey to cycles of boom and bust, can we really be surprised if the supply of skilled labour for any given industry goes through similar cycles?

That the skills cycles are out of kilter with the financial cycles is almost inevitable. And all the awards programmes in the world will not change that.
This comment was originally published in the Electronicstalk Newsletter

About the Author

Electronicstalk and this Editor's Blog are edited by Laurence Marchini

Laurence Marchini

Laurence Marchini began his career in the electronics press with the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1980, cutting his teeth on a variety of learned and member publications, ranging from IEE Proceedings to Electronics and Power. He moved on to join the launch team of the innovative weekly Electronics Express in 1986, and became Editor just 18 months later. Sadly, Electronics Express lasted just four and a half years, wound up by the infamous Robert Maxwell. However, Laurence had already jumped ship and joined the world of electronics PR with the agency of the 1990s, Smith and Jones Communications. It seemed Laurence was lost to the world of journalism. But after 11 years we managed to lure him back as launch editor of Electronicstalk. Laurence is married to Sally and has a young son, Alexander.

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