As someone who has been on the PCB (Printed Circuit Board, or Raw Circuit Card) side of things for most of my career, there has always been that underlying and unsaid feeling: that the assembly guys just don’t understand the complexities of raw card fabrication. I believe that some of us “board guys, have always had the thought that the contract manufacturers tend to buy from the cheapest source, without consideration of capabilities.

Well, I am here to say: this is just simply not true!

Some would say that I have gone over to the dark side by joining the contract manufacturing world, but to be honest; it has been a great eye-opening experience for me to say the least. Yes, cost is always at play. Why else would we be in business, but setting cost aside? There are many other factors to consider when choosing (trusting) the PCB supply source. Some of these “other factors,” are: technology, lead-time, capabilities (not to be confused with technology), quality, financial stability, reputation, etc…

Since we all live in a world of “customer specific designs” the buildup of any raw card (PCB) can consist of anything from a simple through-hole multilayer – all the way up to complex Blind/Buried/Mixed Material HDI (High Density Interconnect). Not to mention, this includes also tossing in a Rigidflex construction and/or a Hybrid build such as cavities, coins, embedded passives, etc… Unfortunately, this is only one aspect for your contract manufacturer (CM) to consider. So how can we trust the contract manufacturer – after all, aren’t they the experts in the assembly side, not the PCB side?

As a Contract Manufacturer for example, we must consider whether a chosen supplier can meet, for example, lead-time. This is only one critical aspect for the success of the program/project. As we all know, the PCB / PCBA (Printed Circuit Board Assembly) tends to always be the last item to get purchased and therefore, the entire project inevitably rests on getting this part of the process done quickly.

Intelligent Manufacturing Solutions (IMS) works in a completely different realm of the build cycle world from the bigger mainstream guys, whereas we focus only on the rapid prototype, side of the business.

This means that IMS is always thinking fast build. We must therefore quote in hours, not days and we must purchase and build the full turnkey assembly within days, not weeks.

So, what does this mean for the PCB buy for IMS? It means our choices in supply source can be dramatically limited.

Thus, our decision as a contract manufacturer becomes a careful balance with our customers of:

How fast?

How much?

What is the technology level?

Who do we have that is capable?

The key word is capable! When you build your reputation on being on-time, 100% of the time – having a capable/reliable source is critical.

Knowing that “not all suppliers are the same,” is something that both the customer and supplier must be cognizant of during the decision process, which happens at the quoting phase. This choice may become a joint decision between the customer and CM or left solely upon the contract manufacturer. Some OEM/ODM may decide to make the decision of the PCB supplier before choosing a contract manufacturer. For a contract manufacturer, this can potentially create some issues, since there is no history with the potential supplier being presented. Point being, when choosing the right supply source for the PCB supply, be careful to not shove a supplier down on to the CM.

One of the most important items in the forefront from any contract manufacturers perspective, comes down to what type of build are we looking at. By this I mean: are the units being used for a bench top test/system check only, are they being used for NPI (New Product Introduction), are they actual qualification units required to lock down the process, or are they production units? Therefore, keeping this key factor (type of build) in mind; will help to guide not only choosing the right assembly house, but it also will dictate the cost/time factor to help the CM to choose the right supplier for the build.

So, lets circle back to my original question posed at the beginning; “Should you trust your Contract Manufacturer with the PCB Buy Decision?” I believe today’s answer unequivocally is, “Yes you should.”

However, I would add a few probing qualification questions to the process:

  • How many suppliers does the contract manufacturer use (3, 5 or 10)?
  • How long of a relationship do they have with each –
    • Can they document performance of each -?
  • How many PO’s have been placed & what is the acceptance level?
  • What value does each supplier bring to the process – is it speed, cost, mil-std-requirements, technology, capabilities etc.…

So, to conclude, I am not telling you to micromanage your contract manufacturing companies, nor am I telling you to dictate who they use.

Just be aware when you go into this process with whomever you choose, this is not a one size fits all scenario.

Be aware of the company that promises it all, from proto levels to high volumes. Prototype & volume are not the same factories; they vary greatly. Think Cruise Ship and Speed Boat.

Trust your supplier but keep your eyes open and make sure things are transparent. Trust is built through time and performance!

At Intelligent Manufacturing Solutions, being a Rapid Prototype Focused Facility; IMS places 1000’s of PO’s and buys more than $1 million UDS in raw cards. We do this with only a few key suppliers based on the cost/time factor, technology level and capabilities. We have a very good success rate with those that we use and have built trust in…

Jim Barry, Director of Business Development @ Intelligent Manufacturing Solutions.