lnterview: Jim Hall and Phil Zarrow

Jim Hall and Phil Zarrow

Keith Bryant interviews Jim Hall and Phil Zarrow about their upcoming book and SMTA Certification Course.

I am joined today by two very good friends of mine and stalwarts of the ITM consulting business, Phil Zarrow and Jim Hall. We’re going to talk a little bit about their hundreds of years of experience in consulting and some of the exciting and interesting things they’ve seen, a new book which they’re about to launch, and maybe a little bit about the SMTA Certification Program, which Jim is very heavily involved in.

Okay, so let’s go back to the first question that we came up with. Hundreds of years of experience in consulting. Obviously, you’ve made a good living out of it for a while, so how’s it going?

Phil Zarrow (PZ): Yeah, I would say, we’re not getting rich and retirement keeps going further over the horizon, but we enjoy it. We’re having fun. It’s nice to have a job you can have fun with for the most part. So yeah, it’s good.

Jim Hall (JH): It’s nice to be able to share 40 years of experience for me.

I’m relatively new into the consulting experience, but I look at it almost as giving something back to the industry.

PZ: Absolutely. It is very self-fulfilling usually. It is that you’ve accomplished something, maybe saved a few jobs, maybe saved a few products, things like that or not. But you’re right, it’s very self-fulfilling.

And a lot of people that I talk to predominantly, I have to say with no disrespect to either of you gentlemen, they’re guys who are a lot younger than us, that are specialists in one key area, but they don’t really understand the process. And even some of the people working in management don’t really grasp the holistic concept of the whole thing and where problems can occur down the line that affects stuff that happens upwards.

PZ: I think we would categorize it as one of the key major problems our industry faces right now. The erosion of talent and probably a lack of replenishment too. You had the recession 2001, did a number and then on top of that then you had 2007, 2008 and we lost a lot of people. In fact, you can see a major gap in ages about roughly between ages 35 and 55 and with that people went out of the industry. They went into real estate, they went into IT, they got hit by a bus, they died of lead poisoning. Who knows? But the fact is there’s a gap and a lot of that was really solid process, knowledge, capabilities, experience. And it’s not being replenished as quickly as it went out. And you’re right, I would say that’s probably one of the biggest problems.

JH: Right, and I feel that our advantage is having been in the industry for 40 years, we have seen the evolution of the things that are standard today that people take for granted. We don’t take them for granted. We saw the struggles to implement no clean, lead free solder and other things. So we understand at a really fundamental level and I think that helped us to help people solve problems and understand what they’re doing.

Yes, we noticed it very much in the early days of lead free. Even as suppliers at the time were struggling to find the good reflow profile, the perfect process and all the rest of the stuff. And some of the customers were getting relatively aggressive about this and I remember a conversation I had with one guy that said we have five minutes experience with these materials. The Romans gave us soldering, they gave us the roads and a lot of other stuff. They actually gave a soldering because the aqueducts had lead in them and they joined the sheets of lead with solder. So that’s how long we had tin lead experience effectively and lead free, we had five minutes to learn it and now thankfully we have a lot more than five minutes experience, but it’s the people who were around when it first came into legislation, who went through the struggles of sorting the processes and everything that really carried the value.

PZ: In one way or the other, if we remember the years leading up to 2005 and the enactment of RoHS, it was like the company of the apocalypse, but for some reason the world didn’t end. We adapted, but that was not without the efforts you’re mentioning of a lot of people and a lot of directed experience and experimentation and stuff. So, we’re not totally clear yet, but we’re always learning. Everybody’s still learning though. It’s kind of fun.

Let’s get another thing that I’m seeing and it’s a change in the industry. A while ago, there used to be the process specialist, who was maybe a technologist or maybe he worked in final inspection or something, but he was the go-to guy for anything that happened in the process because he’d been there for 500 years. He could stick his fingers in the solder paste and say, “Yeah, it’s a bit dry.” We’ve all seen that guy, but they’re the ones that don’t exist anymore.

JH: That’s right.

PZ: And probably one of the biggest here is we see the gap in is wave soldering. Ah, remember wave soldering? Well, it hasn’t gone away. It’s still around, but where are all the people that had that specialism and expertise in that area? That’s one of the biggest gaps we see. We see a lot of our business being wave and to a certain degree, selective soldering related, because that’s part of that very predominant gap, among other areas too.

Yeah. As you say, it’s not gone away. I remember the early days of surface mount like you guys. They said, “through hole components are dead, you’re not going to see anything else.” Wave soldering machines are all obsolete now. Everything going to be reflow.

JH: They said wave soldering machines are going away.

PZ: Yeah. And how did that work out for them? Not quite.

One of the things that I want to talk to you about is the… I’m trying to remember the headline, is it “Tales from the Crypt” or something?

PZ: It’s “SMT Assembly Troubleshooting – Tales from the Crypt of Board Talk”, something like that.

Okay. So perhaps for the few people in the world who haven’t seen it or don’t know, maybe you could start by explaining “Board Talk”.

JH: Well, you were the founder Phil. We came from New England or Phil was living in New England at the time and there’s a radio show called Car Talk with two guys, MIT graduates who ran their own, do it yourself, auto repair shop, and they built up this experience. So they had started a radio program and it was live call in. And the thing was these guys love to laugh at themselves. They didn’t take themselves too seriously. They really made auto repair and auto troubleshooting fun. And so, Phil picked up on that and said we could do that for assembly and assembly troubleshooting. And then…

PZ: Yeah, we originally started it as a SMTA. We would do an SMTAI special session to benefit the Charles Hutchins scholarship fund. And people would come in with their technical questions and we usually have a soapbox or some issue we talk about. People would come in with their technical questions, but it’s probably more like stump the chumps but it was a lot of fun. And then a friend of ours with an online magazine came up with the idea of using it as a podcast. And so it started as a podcast and we started doing it. So obviously it’s too esoteric for people to call in questions. So people would write in questions and we would answer them and a five minute discussion and it went really well.

Next thing I know I’m looking over and we’d been doing it for 10 years. Time flies when you’re having a good time. And we said, the transcripts and decided, “Hey, let’s edit this into a book,” and that’s what we did. And part of that also was when I was reading back on some of these, and occasionally the podcasts will be repeated on the air. And one of the things I said, “Wow, it’s still appropriate. That’s still pertinent. It’s like, that’s amazing.” So is either timeless information or incredibly vague, but either way it worked. And yeah, so it’s good. And we think it’s the only book on troubleshooting that’s out there right now. Lots of books on process, process issues, but we think it’s the only one on troubleshooting.

I have to say, I can’t think of another one. So maybe you’re right. I really applaud what you guys have done and I’m sure putting it together in some kind of even slightly cohesive form wasn’t an easy task.

JH: No, but Phil persevered and it is ready to go, ready to hit the printer.

Are you going to be putting it into the SMTA bookstore and the IPC bookstore and places like that as well?

PZ: Yes, we’ve had discussions with both. And I hope they’re chomping at the bid to get it, we’re hoping so.

JH: We just came from the IPC booth and they were sounding very interesting.

Yeah, I mean you guys have a very good reputation for technology and you have as anyone who’s listening to this interview sees a very comfortable, relaxed way of getting points over. I’m sure it will… I’ve seen a lot of the board talks and they’re a good watch and I recommend them to anybody out there. They’re easy to find on the net, so have a look. But I’m sure the book is going to be a good read in the same way.

PZ: We hope it inspires people to hire us for consulting too because we usually get it right, but as we’ll see. You never know.

Is there any plans for any other publications in the future or have you done it now and you can sit back on your laurels and relax?

PZ: Right, yes.

JH: Well, if we keep doing board talk live then in another 10 years we’ll have a sequel.

It’s great in some ways because as you say, some people may be saying, “Oh, some of this stuff’s 10 years old,” but okay, the processes have changed, the components have got smaller, but the problems are still the same.

PZ: That’s right.

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