Peter Bigelow
The electronics industry, like the world, could use a good dose of understanding.

If any word appears to be the ideal candidate for word of the year, it most certainly is tolerance. Almost daily, wherever you are in the world, the sight of people fleeing desperate circumstances hoping for safety in another location, even if temporary, is playing out, with all sides asked to display tolerance. In Europe, North America, the Middle East, as well as Asia, whether because of war, famine, economic opportunity or social unrest, the need for tolerance by all has never been more noble, more in need, and at times, more absent.

When I think of “tolerance,” I think of virtues that are highly commendable but often in very short supply. Finding the patience, understanding, creativity and common ground to actually exhibit tolerance is more easily said than done.

Those same virtues are equally needed by those in our industry who deal day in and day out with the same word – tolerance – but with slightly different pragmatic implications. Yes, the difference between 0.0001 and 0.0002 may not carry the life-or-death implications that tolerance in other aspects of life does, but it still requires the patience of Job, understanding of Confucius and dogged determination of Einstein to, at times, bridge and resolve!

So why is dealing with tolerance so difficult, and why is there so much misunderstanding when the folks who build the product discuss what they believe to be overly tight or otherwise inappropriate tolerances with the designer? Both parties are knowledgeable and committed to achieving success; might that be the problem?

As in life, the issues that place tolerance in the crosshairs of controversy are often so simple, but anything but easy, to fully comprehend. Everyone knows designers can be truly optimistic when thinking about the “what if” of an idea they have for a new product. Equally, everyone knows how pessimistic designers can become when discussing the limits of their supply base and that supply base’s inability to quickly and cost-effectively deliver product on time. Then again, everyone knows how every manufacturer has a zealous sales staff that continually oversells in order to land the “big order,” only to find the manufacturing manager cannot take off their blinders to offer the customer any other color but black. As long as there have been creative customers and “build to print” manufacturers, the ying and yang has taken place that requires all parties to demonstrate tolerance when dealing with their respective tolerances.

Which brings me back to the word tolerance. When I look at the issues most often at the heart of a customer debate regarding one or another note(s) on a print that specify the need or ability to hold a particular tolerance, nine times out of 10 the root cause is a misconception – a misconception on one side or the other that requires simple patience and thorough understanding to bridge.

Patience is essential with all, especially after the same question is asked what seems like a zillion different times and in an equal number of ways. If any question is asked so many times and in so many ways without a satisfactory conclusion, that is a sure-fire indicator everyone involved needs to sit down, pull out the print, and talk.

When intelligent people sit down around a print to talk, there is almost inevitably better understanding. Understanding of why a tolerance is needed to be held. Understanding of why a specific tolerance cannot be held in a particular situation, or with a specified mix of materials or combination of surface finishes – or whether it can ever be held at all! In the end, it’s this thorough understanding by all involved that ultimately leads to agreement as to how much tolerance both parties can offer in order to reach an acceptable middle ground on any of a range of manufacturing tolerances.

Understanding requires not just patience but an open mind when talking, e-mailing or chatting over a print. Regrettably, deadline pressure too often clouds an otherwise open mind and erodes the patience necessary to hold a constructive conversation between those who differ over tolerances.

Which is where our word of the year comes back into play. When discussing why a tolerance cannot be met – or why it must be met when fabricating a circuit board, besides focusing on the specific tolerances in question, all sides need to show tolerance in dealing with each other.

Simply ignoring the person who continually asks the same question, or walking away from the supplier whose brochure does not list a desired specific tolerance, will more often than not result in a missed opportunity for a better understanding of what is possible, what is needed, and why.  More important, understanding what is possible but also economically feasible may be an even bigger benefit that could come from a discussion of tolerances. And with that invaluable understanding it often is far easier to deal with the tolerance (or lack of) for cost overruns that equally take on a life of their own.

When the care and patience to fully understand what the other party, be it designer, fabricator, assembler or end-customer, is in need of, as well as why they are requesting it is not taken, too often the result is a broken relationship. What might otherwise have been a fine customer/supplier relationship is destroyed simply by not exercising tolerance when communicating.

Tolerances require just that: tolerance. In our day-to-day existence, globally supplying creative new designs in a technology-driven industry with mature, tried-and-true capabilities, we all need to understand that like in life, if we don’t show tolerance toward our colleagues, we surely will have a tougher time meeting the ever-tightening tolerances of emerging technologies.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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