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Mike BuetowThe question – actually, it was more of a plea – was to the point: How are fabricators handling first article inspection requirements?

Confusion, the writer pointed out, appeared to be growing throughout the supply chain, as it attempts to sort out just how often FAI needs to be performed.

It’s a fair question. Inspection is time-consuming (and thus expensive) and considered in many quarters to be non-value-added. And that’s not just for manufacturers but also customers, which face both additional evaluations and a data avalanche. That avalanche is the result of the surge in acceptable quality limit (AQL) samples of FAI measurements as supplied to the customer, which then must enter, sort and distribute (as needed) all that data. It is one thing to impose requirements on suppliers, but in the case of AS9100D, those requirements might be backflowing.

From its birth, AS9100 has been a peculiar case. It evolved from the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards. The original document was driven by several major aerospace OEMs that liked the ISO specification but wanted something more specific for their particular needs. Eventually it came under the auspices of SAE, the trade group that now controls and publishes the standard.

Another question is how long the FAI is good for. The spec says two years, but for critical dimensions some customers want it for every lot or even every panel.

“It’s a problem,” one major supplier of PCBs for military and aerospace applications told me. For commercial customers, the vast majority are comfortable with one board. But the standard calls for samples based on lot size, and the military/aerospace contractors naturally expect compliance. That supplier agreed with the head of another, smaller fabricator who indicated the requirements seem to vary with each new surveillance auditor.

Where the inspection takes place could launch a staggering blow to manufacturer margins, especially for smaller shops. A third large fabricator said, “We don’t see incoming inspection as a ‘thing’ at the EMS level anymore. They rely on the fabricators to do it.” If that’s the case, it’s akin to the fox guarding the hen house. Moreover, smaller fabricators will really feel the crush.

One fab executive suggested, tongue in cheek (I think), that FAI is the QA engineers’ revenge. In other words, when Quality personnel were laid off by the hundreds a decade ago, they became ISO registrars. Today, they are walking through shops conducting audits for AS9100D, and dinging them for minor violations when required FAIs are missing.

Ahead of AS9100D’s release, PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY published a series of articles to help users navigate FAI.  The articles, authored by Charles Hill and Karen Ebner of Raytheon, noted FAI is “nothing more than a subset of qualification data,” one that “falls short of what is required for design qualification when the design intent is being verified.”

Asked to elaborate, Ebner said, “Folks thought it was a qualification document, and (they) only test environmental items. They did not understand Qualification is required for all (emphasis hers) design requirements, independent of FAI.”

“We do it all the time,” another engineer at a major aerospace and defense prime told me. “Every new lot, no matter whether there’s been a revision.” He surmised that something must have gone really wrong for government to be pushing so hard for FAI. “It’s a cause and effect. You’d think (the government) would want to take it out because of the cost.”

The issue is bleeding over from A&D requirements to the commercial world, sources say. And again, it’s being pushed down to the fabricators in the form of a self-inspection approval process. As such, some fabricators are creating their own tools and build the tests into the panelization early on to ensure they don’t get missed.

How much inspection is too much? How do you make it work for your supply chain? Does the standard need to change?

There are more questions than answers.

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