Monthly Archives: January 2012

Buying Printed Circuit Boards Should Not Be Difficult!

Do engineering questions drive you crazy? 

Here is a common scenario:  You have a quote for 3 different part numbers and place a purchase order for delivery in 5 days.  A few hours later, you receive the dreaded email listing issues with the designs that need to be cleared up prior to manufacturing.  Then it takes a day or two of emails with your customer or your design engineer and your supplier to resolve the issue.  Then you are informed that your delivery will need to be pushed out for the 2 day delay in answering the questions!  Ugh.  Now the schedule has to be adjusted, the components you are paying a premium to receive in time for the build schedule will be sitting there, and your customer is NOT HAPPY.

This scenario occurs time and time again across a range of suppliers and a range of technology.  Nobody is really surprised, but MOST ARE FRUSTRATED! 

Sadly, at least 90% of designs that go through CAD/CAM and tooling at a PCB fabricator have questions that must be answered to manufacture the PCB properly.    Some are minor and can be answered quickly; others can require a partial or complete redesign of the PCB. 

Chapters could be written on ideas to improve this situation, but for today, I want to offer a few tips to keep in mind when working on a very tight schedule with critical delivery requirements.

  •  Work with your supplier ahead of releasing the PO.  A good supplier will be happy to run a design for manufacturability review to catch any issues prior to the purchase order being released.  This may not catch everything up front, but it will catch the major issues that will cause delivery delays.
  •  When you receive questions from the CAD/CAM tooling group, ask if this includes all questions associated with the design.  Sometimes two different engineers may be working on the same design to meet a quick turn delivery and both may have questions in their portion of the process.  Other times, when the initial issues are encountered, the job is set aside only to find additional issues when work is resumed.  The process can be streamlined by taking all questions to your designer or your end customer at one time.
  •  If the questions are fairly involved, it is always best to try to schedule a conference call between your fabricators tooling group, your designer or end customer and yourself to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.  Email offers a great documentation trail for any changes, but can drag the process out longer than is necessary.  Just make sure someone is responsible for documenting the discussion.
  • Once the questions are answered, follow up with your supplier to confirm that the questions involved in the tooling process have not impacted your delivery schedule.  You do not want to be surprised on the day you are expecting your printed circuit boards!

Printed Circuit Board Sourcing Strategy, are you guilty?

Printed circuit boards are typically the most expensive component and arguable the most important due to their functionality and criticality.  Yet, the typical PCB strategy follows the same structure as sourcing office supplies.  Does that make sense?

A typical PCB sourcing strategy looks like this:

  • Typically treated as a commodity versus a custom component
  • Procurement strategy is often made at a tactical, not a strategic level
  • Many are doing business without a full understanding of capabilities, capacity or financial situation of their suppliers
  • Maintain static strategies in a dynamic market
  • Same strategy is used for domestic and off shore sourcing.  “One size fits all”

Results of the typical PCB sourcing strategy:

Under-optimization of the supply chain due to poor matching of PCB requirements with the suppliers “sweet spot”. 

The fact is, it is extremely rare for a company to have a homogenous technology level across their entire PCB demand.  There may be a few 2-4 layer designs, a few 12 layer designs, a difficult motherboard design, and maybe even a few flexible circuits.

It is also a fact that PCB fabricators have a “sweet spot” that best fits their equipment set, engineering expertise, size and company culture.   Although, very often, looking at their brochure or website will give the impression that they provide a full range of technology:  2 layer to 20 layer, .010” drill to micro via, standard materials to specialty materials, quick turn prototype through volume production.   At the end of the day, nobody wants to turn away business.

The result of not matching your requirements to a suppliers “sweet spot” can be:

  • Increased risk in terms of price stability and performance
  • Increased risk of supply chain disruption
  • Increased overall cost

A few facts

  • Very few organizations have a homogenous group of PCB requirements
  • Only portions of a customer’s  PCB requirements are interesting to a good supplier
  • Only 6.5% of PCB production is in the Americas
  • Asia PCB suppliers do not operate in the same manner as North American based suppliers.

Do you need to revamp your PCB strategy?  Where do you start?

You start with the basics.  First, review your PCB technology and volume requirements.  Your requirements can then be segmented by attributes such as standard technology, HDI, heavy copper, flexible circuits, etc.  Then search to match suppliers to these requirements for both technology and volume.   Ask the tough questions to REALLY understand type of work suppliers excel at.

Next, make sure that you have fully developed your procurement spec.  Does it clearly spell out your requirements?  Are any of your requirements adding unnecessary expense?  All too often, a corrective action implemented for an issue that happened 10 years ago is driving a requirement that increases cost and just isn’t necessary in today’s manufacturing environment.

When the product arrives, are your inspectors fully trained to the IPC A-600 criteria?  Customer and supplier should be inspecting to the very same criteria.

Finally, supplier performance metrics should be in place with a regular review with your suppliers to provide feedback and create a continuous improvement loop.  Don’t just give your suppliers feedback on their performance to you, ask them for their opinion on how you can improve your designs and your procurement process.  You just might be surprised!