Electronic Design

Finding Your Niche In '06

Predictions are upbeat for the electronics market this year, based on semiconductor consumption forecasts. Targeting a growth rate of 17.5% for 2006, market research firm Semico says key consumption drivers include the torrent of new digital content, shorter technology adoption curves, and a perceived need for quicker hardware upgrades. Semiconductor sales are tracking to hit an impressive $260 billion in 2006.

But with the lion's share of growth coming from Asia, you may be asking yourself how global semiconductor sales translate to design starts and workload for readers of Electronic Design here in North America.

Our own "barometer" poll shows the outlook for design projects trending up nicely. In the last quarter of 2005, 75% of respondents said they're entering 2006 with plenty of work and a feeling of job security. More than half of designers indicated either a steady or an increased number of projects, and 26% are bracing for a possible work overload.

While there has been a definitive uptick in the job market for EEs, 30% of our survey respondents are still concerned about slowdowns or layoffs. The vicissitudes of the EE job market begs the question of what you readers can do to put yourselves in the "in demand" column in 2006 and beyond. The rote answer, of course, is aligning your skills and career path with the much ballyhooed "high-value" engineering jobs. But just where are those jobs to be found?

One company's recent makeover may provide a bellwether case study in how to navigate today's market currents. Endicott Interconnect (EI) is a former IBM group with 40 years of "Big Blue" heritage. Yet it's quickly evolving from a captive sales base (making wiring boards and interconnects for IBM) into a company carving a profitable niche in the open market.

Akin to the "old school" engineers who might have been restructured out of their job after 40 years, IBM jettisoned Endicott in a corporate realignment. The new company must now find opportunities to apply its formative research and manufacturing experience and yet be competitive in the global market.

I recently visited Endicott and spoke with CEO James McNamara and a panel of his key technologists. The company's first new focus is the aerospace and defense markets—satellites and other mission-critical projects—so it quickly got all the requisite certifications for these classified jobs.

Endicott's North American niche is lower-volume, highercomplexity work, maximizing the flexibility of its lines for quick runs of boards with high layer counts. At the same time, Endicott looks to expand manufacturing into low-cost regions for higher-volume assemblies and lower-complexity applications.

The company's engineering and manufacturing support services-help make it a one-stop shop for design and manufacturing, offering a deep understanding of the science behind board fabrication. Endicott also is concentrating on advances in chip packaging technologies, looking ahead to growth opportunities in telecom (high-speed packaging, reliability), medical (reliability, clean signals, longer lifespan), aerospace/defense (weight reduction, radiation exposure, reliability, and long lifespan), and true to its heritage, high-end IT (high-speed packaging, clean signals).

Additionally, the company uses its flexible lines to offer electronic manufacturing services, providing both second-level ( components to boards) and first-level assembly (silicon to substrate). One shining example of this new niche: Endicott has partnered with ENSCO to manufacture Sure Scan, the new high-speed explosive detection system using fixed X-ray sources and detectors that work in-line with baggage-handling systems.

High-value engineering opportunities aren't limited to homeland security and military niches. Get the scoop on other top vertical segments as seen by our guest visionaries, who share their viewpoints in special online columns that accompany this Technology Forecast issue. See page 22 for the authors and introductions of their topics, and then get their perspectives on these growth drivers at elecdesign.com.

The common denominator in all these opportunities is your use of the latest technologies and tools to create leading-edge designs that stand out from the crowded field of commodity products. Hence, we present this annual Technology Forecast issue with the goal of putting you readers on the inside track when it comes to technology trends and greater career growth, and we hope you have a "high-value" year!

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