I ended last week’s column with a group of designers from a high-tech company asking me the ignoble question, “Why do all PCB shops suck?” And, I promised I would not only address that question but also explain why there are two sides to that story.
First, let me say that the designers who asked me the question work for a company that builds innovative products of the future, a fact that is vitally important to this story.
Now I will tell you what I told them.
For the most part board shops are trying to do the best they can with what they have. But the problem lies in the fact that most of our customers are now making a concerted effort to not talk to us. All sorts of barriers have been created to keep board shop representatives, engineers, and quality experts from talking to anyone at your companies:
- You get furious if a CAM person from a board shop asks too many questions about your design. In fact, some designers have been told to never listen to anybody at a board shop, telling these designers that they are in charge and the people at board shops they don’t know anything. Tell them to shut up and build it the way you designed it.
- You have created such a barrier-ridden bureaucracy that it is almost impossible to get through to you to have a decent conversation about your board needs today and in the future.
- You have found middle-men purchasing systems like Exostar which contribute nothing but “gorilla dust” to the vendor−customer relationship, thus making it near impossible for the vendor to talk to the customer.
- In fact, some of the larger companies have created such a barrier-ridden bureaucracy that their own engineers avoid going through the “proper channels” when they need to buy prototypes or proof-of-design boards, preferring instead to use online board buying services and their credit cards to circumvent the clumsy purchasing system completely.
- Part of your purchasing strategy is to “commoditize” the PCBs to the point where you feel comfortable saying that all shops are alike, so you just got the cheapest one thus justifying your decision to use sub-par vendors who probably really do suck.
- You would rather listen to our suppliers who will work with you to spec in something (laminates, for example) without even talking to the PCB fabricator who will have to process boards with that new product, and without knowing or even caring if that product might be impossible to process in a normal board house.
- You play fast and loose with your qualification expectations creating a double standard for the Asian board houses versus the American board houses.
- You subscribe to the theory that board shops, particularly American board shops, are making too much money, so you must beat the ever-loving crap out of them to get prices as close to offshore prices as possible. And then you wonder why they can’t afford to buy that LDI or laser drill that they are going to need to build your boards of the future.
- And in the case of this particular company (remember them?), the one who asked me the question in the first place, you are building products of the future with technology that no one has ever seen before yet you are discouraged from having any communications whatsoever with the people who are going to be building your state-of-the-art PCBs. So that the first time they ever see these requirements is when you send them the quote. Then, you expect those boards quoted in one hour, and please, no questions asked!
Once upon a time companies talked to one another. They worked in partnership: vendors and customers working hand-in-hand to develop processes to build innovative technology boards that had never been built before. Companies like Martin Marietta, Lockheed, Sanders, Raytheon, and others used to send teams of experts into board shops for weeks at a time to work with the board shop’s teams to find ways to build boards out of everything from LMR Kevlar, to copper molybdenum to copper-Invar-copper to Thermount, to go into programs like Tomahawk, Lantern, D-Smack and Trident. And these teams would stick to it until they developed a process and got the boards right. That’s how things got done.
Now our customers won’t even allow sales people to enter their building. Customers won’t even pick up the phone when a vendor calls with a question or an idea, never mind allow that vendor to talk to their technical people.
Some of the top companies in this country, companies building products of tomorrow, have people engineering and designing those products, who have never even been in PCB shop and because of that have no idea how a board is processed.
These are all contributing factors to why board shops suck.
I hope that someday our customers, and yes, our vendors will get it. Someday they will realize that PCBs are much more technologically challenging than they like to believe and that there will be a new-found understanding that a 28-layer blind and buried via printed circuit board is not a commodity. That today’s high-tech circuit boards are very sophisticated and not easy to build, especially in the 72 hours or less you give them to get them built.
It’s only common sense.