Mike Buetow

Fabricators, already under the gun from a shrinking supply base, higher raw material costs, a scarcity of qualified personnel, and margin pressures, face yet another persistent threat: over-certification.

As we noted in November, US Department of Defense spending on PCBs made up about 27% of the $2.03 billion in board sales US fabricators reported for the year 2015 to the Department of Commerce.

It’s unclear what percentage of those boards called out the two primary military specifications, MIL-STD-55110 or MIL-PRF-31032, but it likely was very high. Fabricators have long noted problems with lengthy audit times to get certified to the standards, and even the specifications themselves, which don’t get updated very often.

Coexisting with the two military documents is the IPC-6010 series. As the nomenclature suggests, its controlling authority is IPC. Considered a commercial equivalent to MIL-STD-55110, the IPC-6012 standard is a very close match. And like the mil specs, it also now has a validation program. Only one fabricator has qualified thus far, a large Chinese company called Shengyi Electronics. Auditors for some US defense prime contractors are starting to ask about it, however.

The question is, are multiple certification programs good for the industry? And if not, how should industry respond?

In the wake of its acquisition reform initiative, encapsulated in the famous “Perry memo” from 1994, the US Defense Department decided to cancel scores of military specifications. The decision left many companies scrambling for guidance. In the case of the MIL-STD-2000 soldering standard, the industry quickly, if not always cohesively, developed a replacement. Yet MIL-STD-55110 and MIL-PRF-31032 aren’t going away.

While MIL-STD-55110 or MIL-PRF-31032 remains on most defense program master drawings, the requirement is often waived in favor of IPC-6012. Why? For starters, their similarities. And second, maybe more significantly, the cost. There's no certification to undergo and maintain. In lieu of a QML, fab shops issue a certificate of conformance saying they conform to the PO. As such, IPC-6012 boards tend to be cheaper than their mil standard equivalents, albeit the same from a performance requirement.

In practice, what OEMs require is all over the map. Most call out either the IPC and mil specs, but there's also AS9100 and Nadcap, which has a PCB version. Lockheed and Raytheon often use IPC-6012 but do not require suppliers to be certified. They have an audit system that certifies fabricators meet their processes.

Boeing is altogether another class. It doesn’t require IPC-6012, although the document flows through an ample portion of its drawings. Depending on which site is buying boards, fabricators might build to company specifications, among them BSPS-23-001, AA0115-210 and D900-10400-1. When those specs are invoked, suppliers must submit test coupons, microsections, PPA boards and test specimens to Boeing Labs for approval prior to shipment. The BSPS-23-001 specification in particular is seen as so stringent, most suppliers refuse to bid on the programs.

That’s the rub. The DoD primes are trying to reduce their supply bases. OEMs tend to be understaffed, with perhaps a single person supporting a multitude of programs. Requiring certification might keep certain suppliers from trying to get on an OEM QML, but if OEMs aren’t looking to add suppliers in the first place, what’s the point?

J-STD-001 is the assembly equivalent to IPC-6012. Thanks to the cancelation of MIL-STD-001, life is way more streamlined on the assembly side. It’s J-STD-001 or J-STD-001ES (the space addendum). There aren’t a rash of competing standards and competing certification programs.

There's no need for two certification programs. And given the emphasis on supplier reduction coupled with the requirement for CoCs for high-rel product, there may not even be a need for one. Board fabricators are in the awkward position of having multiple standards, which adds cost but with no improvement in quality.
It’s to the point they aren’t even sure who the master is they are serving.

In a perfect world, IPC-6102 would replace the military specs, and the certification program would be cancelled. Customer auditors and quality assurance personnel would do their respective jobs, which is to walk the plant, check the books, and inspect incoming product. The expense of undergoing certification would be eliminated. The industry should push for this.

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