Peter Bigelow
The chain continues to take bites out of PCB fabricators.

For a number of years now I have quietly been grousing in frustration how, as a fabricator of printed circuit boards, our segment of the supply chain is at the very bottom of that chain. Being at the bottom has few advantages and many disadvantages as everyone seemingly is looking down at you assuming that what you do and how you do it is simple, easy and cheap. But recently I had a revelation that this long-held belief is not so.  

We fabricators are not at the bottom of the supply chain! No, we have progressed to the unenviable position of being square in the middle of the supply chain. Like savory meat stuck between two pieces of tough bread and smothered in every type of condiment possible, fabricators are now being squeezed and smothered – squeezed in more ways than just between cost and price, and smothered by less tasteful things than over-applied garnish.

The sandwich I am referring to has on one side the OEM end-customer and their EMS companies, which must deliver product that meets customer expectations, and on the other board designers and material suppliers who, in order to appeal to the OEM, create individual board and assembly designs and incorporate the latest components and materials suppliers can conjure up. In the middle, then, are the PCB fabricators that have to manufacture the chassis that incorporates the creative designs and unique materials in a way that enables the other side of the sandwich to assemble and deliver working product. We are indeed the meaty part of the sandwich: intended to have lean ingredients but so over-garnished with condiments that serious heartburn is inevitable.

The middle of the supply chain is not necessarily a bad place. If all sides are communicating, sharing and open to collaborative compromise so the end-product is better, then the middle can be an exciting place. The problem is that, more often than not, communication is decidedly one-way, with each side demanding from the middle things contradictory to what the other side is equally adamant about. When neither side is willing to listen or compromise, those demands begin to smother the success of a project, much like too much mustard can ruin even the best slice of meat.

So while the fabricator could arguably be considered to be in the catbird seat, square in the middle of the supply chain, in fact we are not considered to be in such a lofty position. After all, the catbird seat is a place of envy, a valued power position. Regrettably fabricators are undervalued by the supply chain, although fabricators more often than not make the difference between a product’s success or failure. Put differently, rarely do consumers buy a sandwich because of the bread and garnish; it’s what’s in the middle that defines a sandwich.

In the supply chain that defining ingredient is technology transfer – and that is what fabricators of all sizes, regardless of location, do all day every day. More than any other aspect of electronics manufacturing, fabrication is where the rubber meets the road insofar as meshing design, materials and desired results. While some may view other aspects of the design and manufacturing of electronics to be in the all-powerful pivot position, few, if any other links in the supply chain truly merge such disparate manufacturing paradigms in one component.

For example, material manufacturers research in great detail what end-applications need what properties. They equally consider the specific manufacturing process where their material is introduced. Rarely, if ever, however, do those companies look at the holistic manufacturing process – and if they do, it is from the theoretical, textbook aspect. Fabrication, however, is anything but theoretical or textbook. Considering the myriad equipment across the world, most are designed to produce technology long obsolete by companies, many of which are out of business, working side-by side with new state-of-the-art machines, and it is impossible to assume that any two fabricators will approach manufacturing process quite the same way. And if fabricators have variations in process, it’s nothing compared to assembly. Mixing and matching components with different dwell temperatures running on an array of materials, the number of through passes to achieve end-product success can add many more thermo shock cycles than anyone could “theoretically” have imagined.

Another example is how OEMs continue to audit and question how boards are fabricated. They are of the opinion that boards that appear on the surface identical should always be processed the same way. Unfortunately, while that might have been the case a couple of decades back, between the advanced application demands requiring a fabricating mix of disparate laminate materials and the environmentally driven changes in plating chemistries and surface finish options, those halcyon, simplistic days are long over. It is far more common to find very different products being manufactured next to each other, each while looking similar, requiring very different processing methods to ensure a quality outcome. Those different processing methods are inevitably to harmonize the variability that the materials, design and overall manufacturability require, and making the necessary adjustments is more often than not done at the fabrication stage of manufacturing. So there really are no two jobs exactly the same, and the flat, theoretical approach to looking at any one segment of electronics manufacturing is not applicable in today’s environment.

When the OEM has questions as to how to make a design more robust, an assembler has questions about how to get better yield, or a designer is considering what the most cost-effective combination of laminate and surface finish is, they almost inevitably ask the fabricator. And being in the middle of that sandwich causes both sides to squeeze the middle. However, instead of squeezing, each may find that they save money by opening a dialog and utilizing the value fabricators add more collaboratively and ultimately more wisely.

Until either the designers and materials suppliers reach out and are speaking more often and in greater detail with the OEM and EMS companies – which in turn are equally reaching out throughout the supply chain – fabricators will continue to be where the rubber meets the road in enabling design, materials, end-results and the ability to provide that highly manufacturable circuit. Now if we could just figure how to best leverage that position as a valued and salable asset, then fabricators will have really moved up the chain.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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