Over the course of the past year, we have profiled many of our senior staff. Some key questions in our profiles were “what is your best tip for customers in manufacturing electronic products?”, “Why should customers choose Circuitwise?”, which is another way of saying “what should customers look for in an electronics manufacturer?” and “what is the most important part of your work”. These questions were designed to draw out useful information for our customers. Each staff member answered from the unique perspective of their role, which varied from customer liaison to production management. In this article, we collate all these tips and summarize our best advice for manufacturers of electronics products, in the words of our staff.
Virtually all products are developed in conjunction with suppliers, ranging from design to components. Contract electronics manufacturers are one of the key suppliers for most medium-sized companies who choose not to manufacture in-house. Finding a contract manufacturer that is the right fit for you is the first key tip from staff.
Circuitwise CEO Serena Ross said: “Choose a contract manufacturer which is well-aligned to your needs and stick to them. Just like a marriage you need to choose someone and make it work.
“The benefit of a long term relationship is that everyone understands each other and work together easily – like you are one company. If you shop around every time you place an order or develop a new product, you will never get the best value. Value is more than the cheapest price."
Ensure your criteria for choosing a manufacturing partner is clearly understood by yourself and them. Factors might include the speed of launch, flexibility, cost etc. Circuitwise is uniquely suited for customers building high-reliability products.
“When we build the right relationship, our customers are ultimately able to out-perform their competition with us as the manufacturing partner. If you are open in the relationship on what you need and what the long-term plan is for your product and company, we can best tailor our solution to meet your needs,” Serena said.
Operations Leader Dimitrije Grasar said determining the right fit is about understanding the product developer’s needs and matching them to the contract manufacturer’s capabilities.
“By empathising with and understanding the product requirements, we can develop a cohesive manufacturing process. We aim to become an extension of your operations, acting as your manufacturing arm, your eyes and ears when it comes to realising your product."
Customer leader Rabin Darshandhari said the most important part of his work is making sure what Circuitwise delivers what its customer is expecting.
“For example, I have a customer in the defence sector that has very demanding expectations. We work closely with them to continually improve our manufacturing processes to meet the unique needs of their industry.
“We want long term partnerships and we always want our customers to feel as though Circuitwise is their manufacturing arm of the business.
Focus on design for manufacture
Chief Technology Officer Sean Ross said it’s important for designers to consider manufacturing early on.
“If the designer doesn't know what kind of surface mount pads best suit the components packages they are using, it doesn’t matter how good the design is – they will have a problem manufacturing it,” Sean said.
“My role involves ensuring new jobs are analyzed properly and integrated into our systems. For example, if a PCB design has an unusual mixture of large and small components, or varying copper thickness, it can lead to uneven heat distribution and potential issues such as tombstoning.
“In this case, we will embed sensors into it and run a sacrificial board through the reflow oven using a program to determine the optimal temperature profile for each zone of the oven,” Sean said.
Customers should also think about optimising the testing time of their products as much as the design of the PCB itself.
“Customers spend a lot of time optimising the design of PCBs, minimising components and size of the boards, in an attempt to shave a few cents of the unit cost of production. Testing of the boards is often an afterthought but it is often the biggest bottleneck and one of the costliest parts of the whole manufacturing process”, Sean said.
“It's important to ensure the design is easily testable with probe points at appropriate circuit nodes and include as much self-testing as possible into the system design. If the testing process is unavoidably long, consider testing on a panel or test multiple products at the same time.”
Dimitrije Grasar said he can sympathise with designers and product owners who are sometimes afraid that manufacturing could restrict their creativity. However, another way of looking at it is that manufacturing can guide what is possible.
“A simple mistake made too often is designing a product around functionality only, then shopping around to see who can build it. This approach can lead to unnecessary and avoidable costs. Optimising your design for manufacture should be a core part of the development process.”
Engagement, feedback and problem solving
Having finalized a design the next step is to translate that into a clear manufacturing plan and to be clear about what your requirements are. Finding a contract manufacturer who is highly engaged, providing feedback and collaborating to solve problems is key.
Supply Chain Lead Rob Bingon said: “Some companies don’t have a clear plan or set of manufacturing requirements. Being disciplined in how you define your requirements will smooth the process.”
Circuitwise has developed an Electronics Manufacturing Checklist that developers can use to ensure they have covered every requirement. Early engagement on the points in the checklist can resolve a lot of potential problems before they arise.
Rob also recommended companies try to get their forecasting as accurate as possible, as far out as you can.
“No longer can we rely on all parts being readily available in-store within a few weeks. With lead times of parts continuing to push over 52 weeks, a solid forecast can help a continuous supply of components when needed.”
In a world of agile development, it's not always possible to lockdown requirements. In this circumstance, it's important to identify a contract manufacturer that is flexible and provides a lot of feedback in early interactions.
Product Engineering Leader Thein Maung said: “From the very beginning, we can provide feedback on your design to be better suited for manufacturing, identifying potential for problems or defects arising. We do both prototyping and mass production and work to optimise your solution as you make the transition to volume.
“We are also very flexible on timelines; we can cater to small production for minimum viable product rungs, then accelerate if needed. We can then optimise it for production over longer periods,” he said.
Thein also emphasized that because every manufacturing process is subject to variability it is important to have a robust process for dealing with issues as they arise.
“We work closely with the client and our quality team to identify any concerns or potential issues as they arise and improve our procedures.”
When issues arise it is important to focus on solutions rather than the problem.
“With the recent component shortages there have been delays and we have been as open as possible about the challenges involved,” said Customer Leader Lauren Andlovec.
“But rather than just putting the problem on the customer we have been devising solutions to mitigate the impact. For example, where we have had partial deliveries we have been splitting jobs, delivering as much as we can immediately and completing the order later. Our customer trusts that we are doing everything we can to get their product to them as early as we can.
A focus on quality
The best way of dealing with issues is to have a continual improvement system which is fundamental to a quality management system (QMS). A QMS will identify the real root cause of any problem and institute lasting solutions for sustained operational excellence.
Dimitrije Grasar said product developers who care about reliability should look for a contract manufacturer with a quality system, like that at Circuitwise.
“The quality management system at Circuitwise is the most advanced I have seen and permeates every level of the business. The medical devices industry is the main driver behind this but it will become increasingly necessary for all industries, as end-users expect and demand similar levels of safety and quality,” Dimitrije said.
“Component traceability and authorised supply chain management allow a product developer to extend its control of its manufacturer into our company, specifying all the required controls and associated documentation/manufacturing files.”
Quality Manager Soma Hebbar said customers should take the required time to fully understand the compliance requirements before designing their product and make sure it can be easily manufactured.
“If the design is not validated prior to certification, the company can end up with a product that does not comply with quality or regulatory requirements and it may have to be redesigned all-over again. The risk associated with such an exercise is high.”
Soma said a QMS can protect a product developer from the quality issues that can arise from component suppliers and manufacturing.
“All component suppliers assure an acceptable quality level (AQL) on their components,” he said.
“What this means is that a small percentage of components may be faulty, translating to a few boards in a run not working. If a customer tries to assemble a PCB themselves, they will be exposed to this annoying issue and may expend much time and effort in resolving the problem and reworking boards.
“However, Circuitwise guarantees performance on components and manufacturing quality on 100% of the boards it delivers to customers. Circuitwise takes full responsibility for working upstream on warranty claims protecting customers from this issue.”
Another potential component issue, particularly in this time of component shortages, is counterfeit components, poorly controlled storage of moisture-sensitive components, or loss of traceability.
Rob Bingon said when selecting a contract manufacturer, make sure they have systems in place that avoid these potential problems occurring.
“Before using a supplier we evaluate them to check their certifications, what quality management systems they have in place, how they monitor their own suppliers, and how they manage the packaging, storage and tracking of their moisture sensitive and electrostatic-sensitive components,” he said.
“On a yearly basis, we select a few of our existing suppliers and audit them on the same criteria. We are also constantly monitoring supplier performance to see how they are tracking against the targets we set. This is how we know who the best suppliers are.”
A trusted and easy working relationship
One of the intangible elements of a great manufacturing partnership is the development of a trusted, easy relationship, which all of the interviewees expressed in different ways.
Serena Ross said she worked hard on making sure her customers feel the company are approachable.
“I do this by spending time understanding what customers want from us and building a relationship built on trust. Customers know that they can call me at any time.
“Our customers tell us the thing they value most is that we are willing to work with them to ensure the product launch is smooth. We don’t get bogged down with the cost. When we decide to take a customer on we will do everything to make their product successful.”
Lauren Andlovec said: "The most important part of my work is being transparent and as solutions-driven as possible. Our customers have entrusted us to manufacture their product. Being trusted means no surprises and they need the right information at the right time."
Dimitrije Grasar said organizational culture was a key to build a trusted and easy relationship. As operations manager, he is focused on ensuring Circuitwise’s internal processes and culture are continually evolving.
“We want every member of our team to feel the organisational heartbeat and, from a leadership stance, ensure it ticks in sync with our clients’ needs.”
Thein Muang said the most important thing to recognize is that no one person or company can know everything that is needed to create a product.
“If you are uncertain about something, just ask for help. We are more than happy for customers or prospects to reach out to us. With over 70 employees, we can ask around internally and often provide the answer. Even if we don’t know the answer, we have a strong network of partners we can draw on to help solve problems.”