Conversations with... IPC's Sharon Starr


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I recently received a copy of IPC’s new World PCB Production Report and was bowled over by all of the valuable information the report included. I wanted to learn more: How it was developed? Where did the data come from? How accurate is the information? I recently sat down with IPC's Director of Market Research Sharon Starr who coordinated and edited the report to seek answers to those questions.

Dan Beaulieu: Sharon, give us an overview of this report. What was your goal in compiling the report?

Sharon Starr: As the heart of every electronic product, PCBs are important to each link in the supply chain and data about their production is vital throughout the industry. The World PCB Production Report includes estimates of the value of PCB production in every major producing country or region and in nine product types. IPC has published this report annually since 1980 as a service to the electronics industry.

Beaulieu: Does the IPC sell many copies of the report?

Starr: This is one of IPC’s best-selling reports, both in English and Chinese, because it is truly global in its content. 

Beaulieu: What were the logistics of putting the report together and who was involved?

Starr: IPC forms its World PCB Consensus Committee at the end of every year. It is open to anyone, including analysts and researchers at manufacturing companies in the industry who have industry data they can share with the committee. We agree on basic parameters such as product category definitions. Committee members collect data from the industry and from other associations during the first five months of the year and share their aggregate data or estimates with the rest of the team. At a day-long meeting or teleconference in May, the committee discusses the various estimates and sources, and ultimately reach agreement on a set of consensus estimates of PCB production value. I facilitate the data collection and discussion, and write the report.

Beaulieu: This seems like a lot of work. How did you manage to accumulate and sort all of this data?

Starr: It is a lot of work, but it’s a team effort, which makes it efficient as well as thorough. In my role as facilitator, I provide the structure and guidance to keep all the individual efforts on track and ensure that we end up with apples and apples, which makes consensus possible.

Beaulieu: How accurate is the data included?

Starr: I believe this report contains the most accurate estimates of PCB production value available anywhere. That is because of the consensus process we use and the sheer number of sources. As an objective third party trusted by the industry, IPC is in a unique position to collect sensitive data from companies and convene groups of analysts who will contribute their proprietary data to the project. Each consulting group and association serving our industry has its own estimates of PCB production value based on data they have collected. Each one has different sources and methodologies, which makes each one’s estimates slightly different. Each one also has its own geographic or product-specific specialties. Merging all of these sources through the consensus process produces a very high level of reliability in our estimates.

Beaulieu: How did you manage to get the data from places like Africa?

Starr: Some members of our team have contacts with companies in the region and they collect data from them directly. Hayao Nakahara, president of N.T. Information, actually travels to the region periodically to visit these companies and gather data on site.

Beaulieu: Who would find this report useful and how would they use it?

Starr: It is valuable for anyone who needs to know what kinds of PCBs are being made and in what regions. That includes suppliers to the PCB industry who need this information for their marketing plans, PCB fabricators who want to track global developments in their industry, and EMS companies and OEMs who source PCBs and want to know where their supply chain is concentrated.

Beaulieu: Putting the numbers aside for a moment, what are your expectations for the North American market? 

Starr: For the past decade or more, PCB production in North America has been on the decline, but the PCB market has, in most years, remained stable or continued to grow slowly. With the trend toward specialization and niche marketing among North American PCB manufacturers, and mounting evidence of onshoring, I think the recent decline in production will stop and may even grow a bit over the next few years.

Beaulieu: What is the fastest growing market segment?

Starr: Rigid flex was the fastest growing product category in 2012, but growth in this market tends to be volatile, so it is unclear what we’ll see when we collect 2013 data. Overall, microvia boards seem to be the most consistently fast-growing products because of the growing demand for smart phones, tablets, and ultra-book devices.

Beaulieu: Where do you predict the global market will be (in dollars) in five years, ten years? 

Starr: This is very hard to predict because even though the industry is cyclical, its growth depends heavily on future technology breakthroughs and innovative new products that will drive demand, not to mention economic shocks caused by geopolitical developments. Typically, overall growth in our industry is directionally consistent with economic growth. In times of major new technology development and innovation, the industry has tended to grow faster than the world economy. Based on those historical observations alone, and barring any economic shocks or disruptive technology developments, the global PCB industry could reach between $68 and $72 billion by 2017. Any predictions beyond five years would be pure guesswork.

Beaulieu: Do you have any last thoughts you'd like to share? 

Starr: We work in a very dynamic and exciting industry where research on industry trends is always an adventure and the need for good data is critical.

Beaulieu: Sharon, thanks so much for sharing this information with and, most importantly, thanks to you and your partners for the good work you did in putting this group together. How can people get a copy of the report?

Starr: Sure Dan; no problem. For a copy of the report, or other market research reports available from IPC, visit www.ipc.org/market-research-reports.

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