Strategies for Improving PCB Procurement

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The PCB procurement process has certainly changed over the years. Some people are happy buying a board from a website, but for others the demands are different. Russ Adams should know; he’s the sales manager for Prototron Circuits, a PCB fabricator that has been in business for nearly 30 years, with facilities in Redmond, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona. I recently met up with Adams to discuss customers’ evolving requirements, along with his ideas for lowering the total procurement cost.

Barry Matties: Russ, what sorts of demands are customers putting on you these days?

Russ Adams: Primarily, it's time. Time has always been the big demand. We're in the business of selling time. That's really been what we've been all about.

Matties: Do customers require audits of your facility?

Adams: Some do, and some don't. The smaller folks typically do not. The high-reliability folks, yes.

Matties: What are they looking for when they come through?

Adams: They are looking for quality systems. It's interesting.  You would think that they'd want to see shiny floors and that kind of thing, but the smart people will actually go in there and talk to people. We're blessed. We all know what we're doing inside and out.

When a customer comes into our facility, one of the things that they're most impressed with is that they can talk to anybody, at any time, on any line and get an education on what this process is all about. In an audit, if you walk in with a checklist and say, “Yeah, this is the right color,” I don't think you're really learning what the shop's culture is and how reliable they are. You can put together a pretty survey, but go out there and talk to the people face to face; that is where you're going to see what happens when the rubber hits the road.

Matties: How many audits might come through in a year or a month?

Adams: It really depends. Being in the prototype end of things, sometimes they kind of turn a blind eye to that. It's just at the engineering level. It’s when we take the next step with the customer, particularly when they go from being able to purchase with credit cards to where they have to use a purchase order and go through purchasing, that we have to get into their system. Then they come out and actually make a site audit. We have had a couple people look at one shop and qualify both. Everybody's just a little bit different in how they do it. Typically, we don't see a lot of site audits from contract manufacturers. It’s mostly OEMs, and mainly high-reliability type people.

Matties: Does concurrent engineering happen with the designers and the fabricators?

Adams: Yes, it does. We tend to encourage our customers to contact our CAM guys in the shop—our engineering folks working with impedances, materials, and dielectrics. We have been able to save a lot of people a lot of grief by having them get in touch with us prior to doing the design, and then if they're going to have us build the boards, learning what our dielectrics are, where they reside in the stack-up and then going forward with the design. Generally, when that comes in we have zero questions to ask. We just launch and run and deliver the boards.

Matties: So, if a designer is taking on a job, the first thing they should do is talk to the PCB manufacturer?

Adams: I would, particularly if it has controlled impedance or anything out of the ordinary. I would think it is good due diligence to contact the fabricator whom you expect to be building it. You need to build a relationship with your shop. You're not in a situation where you're going to get away with having somebody help you up front and do all of your layout work and then take it down the street and have it built. Two or three times doing that and you're not going to get the same kind of love. If you have established a shop that you're comfortable with and you trust, I would bounce everything off of them before you run it. That's just smart. Your time is valuable. Don't waste it.

Matties: What advice would you give to a circuit board procurement person, whether it's an engineer, or whoever is responsible for the total cost of the boards, to lower the costs?

Adams: The only real complaint I hear out there is that engineers feel they need the purchasing people to listen to them. They may have different agendas. The engineering guys are looking for something that's going to work and that they can get quickly. Typically, they're going to look for somebody who, if they have some questions about it, is going to be able to answer them competently. Technically, purchasing is looking for price.

Matties: How do you bridge that gap?

Adams: We try very hard to let the purchasing people know what kind of value we bring to the table, that by placing their eggs in our basket we aren't going to break them. They may be spending 10–15% more than they might with somebody else, but you can almost look at it like an insurance policy. We have made mistakes in our lives but we always make them right. That's been our guiding principle: Deliver it on time and if we screw up, admit it and fix it.

Matties: The advice then to a company that wants to lower their total cost?

Adams: There's a big difference between price and cost. It's about working with each other. That's it in one sentence: Work with each other. If the engineer says "Oh, I need this in 24 hours," you might question “Do you really? Or do you just want it in there so you pad yourself by a day.” We're a shop that if we say it's going to be there in one day, it's going to be there in one day. You don't have to ask for one day figuring it's going to be two. There's that. There is a little bit of a chasm between the engineering department and the purchasing department, and the larger the company, the bigger the chasm. That's why there are so many engineers out there with credit cards nowadays. It just streamlines everything.

Matties: Anything else that a buyer should know in terms of the relationship with the fabricator?

Adams: Just keep the lines of communication as open as possible. Realize that when we call you up with a question it's not because we're trying to bug you or absolve ourselves of some kind of responsibility or anything. We're trying our best to make the very best board for you the first time out, so hopefully you won't have to revise it and do it again.

Matties: Great. Russ, thank you so much.

Adams: Thanks a lot. Good talking to you. 


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