In selecting a contract electronics manufacturer, there are five key processes that should be in place. These processes are critical to the reliability of the PCB assemblies they produce and critical to the reputation of your end product.
The key processes are:
Quality systems: It should go without saying that every electronics manufacturer should have an over-arching quality management system in place, and most do. However, not all quality systems are the same. Some companies pay lip service to the quality philosophy, seeing it as a cost burden to the business. Some will offer to turn off the quality processes, like documentation, to reduce the cost. If that is an option, you know you are entering risk territory. By contrast, others have so deeply embedded quality into their processes that it is just the normal way of doing things – every project is at the highest possible standard. Ask for a presentation on the elements that make up a manufacturer’s quality system, then compare the rigour and passion of each company.
First article inspection: Most manufacturers will inspect the first board of a production run to check everything is correct before proceeding with the rest. What sets good manufacturers apart is the ease with which this critical step can be accomplished and integrated with the automated optical inspection processes that follow. If first article inspection is a laborious and difficult process, the chances are that problems may slip through. Ask how this process is undertaken and seek assurance that there will be no issues with your full production run.
IPC inspection: IPC-A-610E is the gold standard for acceptability of electronic assemblies and should be a prerequisite for selecting a quality contract manufacturer. It sets out a range of key tolerances and process that must be adhered to. Check that your manufacturer adheres to this standard and ask what level they operate at as a standard. Some high-reliability devices require Class 3 which involves both finer tolerances and an extra inspection process, to verify each device meets the requirements of that level. Not everyone can do Class 3 so if this is required, make sure you check it out.
Traceability: Traceability is critical to troubleshooting product designs and, in the worst case, product recalls. It’s not enough to order quality parts; you have to be able to prove where components came from and where they go. Some products will require production part approval processes and other controls. A good manufacturer will have the systems in place to manage all aspects of traceability. Ask how these systems work.
Regulatory compliance: For many products, compliance with government regulations requires keeping a record of key testing and inspection steps undertaken in the manufacturing process. Even if not required under law, it is a good manufacturing practice that can help with troubleshooting. Ask what records are kept and ensure your contract manufacturer conducts all the test necessary to support your regulatory obligations.
This post would not be complete without an acknowledgement that all of the above business processes are entirely dependent on the people managing them. While staff training could be considered a process, having engaged and conscientious people can’t be taught. The culture of an organisation is critically important.
Similarly, continual improvement is a process that permeates quality systems. Companies that take this aspect of quality to heart will have highly innovative breakthroughs in their manufacturing processes. It will be easy to see if this is the case as they usually showcase them on their website. If such innovations are not apparent, query this aspect of the company more closely.
Before selecting a contract manufacturer, ask them to explain how they implement the above processes and meet the managers responsible. In the course of these meetings, you will be able to gauge the culture of the organisation and come to the right decision.
Once you have selected your contract manager, make sure you have your camp in order by downloading our 29 point manufacturing checklist to make sure you supply all the necessary information to ensure a seamless manufacturing experience.