|Performance testing is where rigors encountered during field usage are duplicated. Here Senior Technician Gregg Knopf gives a newly assembled signal system tougher treatment than provided by a user. |
Selecting an electronics contract manufacturer (CM) traditionally has involved a search overseas for the right company, often in China or elsewhere in the Far East, and an opportunity to enjoy savings in manufacturing costs once the CM had proven capable of providing the necessary quality and consistency of electronic products. But that scenario is rapidly changing as increasing labor and shipping costs are rendering the use of Far East CMs less attractive and a "Made in USA" approach is resonating positively in all sectors of the global economy.
Of course, many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) returning to the US have grown accustomed to the profitability possible by means of offshore production and are not considering a return to in-house manufacturing in the US. They would rather not deal with the overhead and capital equipment investments needed for electronics assembly. Many electronics manufacturers are remaining lean by working with CMs on an as-needed basis. Such an arrangement provides considerable savings by sharing a CM's overhead and equipment amortization equitably among its customers. If working with a CM makes sense, the following considerations should be reviewed as part of establishing a successful relationship with a CM based in the US.
Signing An NDA
Working with a new CM places intellectual property (IP) at risk, whenever another company is allowed to share one company's product and technology secrets. This is most easily solved at the outset of a business relationship by having all parties sign a protective nondisclosure agreement (NDA) upfront - before serious talks begin-to help establish the trust needed for a successful relationship with a new CM. Such NDA forms are available on the Internet, and may also be available for download from the vendor's website. In addition, NDAs prepared by lawyers can cover all the scenarios and circumstances that are not adequately treated by stock forms.
|The centerpiece of IMET’s equipment inventory is the high-throughput, fully automated line that takes charge by automatically loading bare boards at the receiving end and unloading the finished assembled boards at the other end — all without human intervention. SMT Leader Tim Wilkinson supervises.|
Given the rapid evolution of electronics technology, experience in manufacturing of specific sectors of electronic industries, such as medical or military electronics, can be invaluable for a CM. Selecting a CM with little or no engineering or production experience in an area of interest can usually only lead to problems. At the very least, some time will be required for a CM without proper experience to become sufficiently knowledgeable about a particular area. Any CMs being considered for a particular area of interest should be qualified by providing publicly available information about pertinent jobs completed in that area of interest.
A well-written letter of introduction from a CM can be quite helpful in learning about that CM, but it is only a starting point. Attached to the letter should be a brochure and equipment list from the CM, with model numbers, manufacturers' names, and specifications that may be pertinent to a particular production job. The CM's website can also be revealing, since it often provides useful details on a company's history and philosophy. If clients are mentioned on the site, it would be wise to consult with them for references. A CM's social media blogs can also be helpful for providing updates, current events, and accomplishments of interest.
Take a tour.
CMs under serious consideration should be prescreened through a tour of each of their plants. This will be well worth the serious amounts of time and travel involved, since it presents the opportunity of observing actual manufacturing conditions. It provides a chance to see the actual product and test equipment that will be used for a particular job. And if special equipment is needed for a particular task, will a CM be willing to make the necessary investment and have it operational at the time the job will be needed? A visit to a CM also provides the opportunity to assess the firm's quality-control (QC) equipment, since this equipment will play an important role in ensuring defect-free manufactured assemblies. A plant tour also provides a chance to meet a CM's executives and engineers who will be responsible for a particular job, and to judge confidence levels in these personnel who may very well become partners for a particular production job or series of jobs.
Be specific in expectations.
In the process of searching for a CM, once the candidates have been narrowed to a final three or less, they should each receive a request for quote (RFQ) containing a Gerber file and a bill of materials (BOM) for the job. These items, plus a circuit schematic diagram, if available, are required for preparation of an accurate electronics assembly quote. For quotes involving engineering design and development, additional details will be needed. To avoid misunderstandings, an RFQ should clearly state job requirements and deadlines. Candidates for a job should know when the RFQs should be returned and how soon after a purchase order (PO) is issued that they can expect delivery.
Keeping a relationship going.
Companies working as CMs typically do not seek "one-and-done" relationships. Rather, the hope is for a long-lasting relationship that is built on trust and confidence. Such a relationship is not often built on the basis of low price alone. Instead, that relationship develops as a CM fulfills a client's expectations for meeting and exceeding performance, consistency, and reliability levels job after job, with pricing that is fair and reasonable.
As an example, Innovative Manufacturing for Electronic Technology (IMET) Corp. provides all-inclusive or a la carte product development solutions to transform new product concepts into reality. The firm offers a full range of services, including contract manufacturing, PCB assembly, product development, and electronics engineering. IMET leverages an in-house staff of seven engineers to help clients design and produce their products with a focus on marketability.
IMET is a service provider to companies that employ electronics devices in their proprietary products. The company serves a variety of industries, including consumer, military, aerospace, and industrial electronics products. When the appearance of a product is important, IMET can even call upon the assistance of an award-winning industrial design affiliate. In some cases, when product development may be handled by an OEM, production services may be contracted to IMET for printed circuit board assembly, prototyping, or specialized engineering skills that may not be available in-house at the OEM.
IMET Corp. was founded in 2000, in a rented garage. The company has undergone three major expansions and has enjoyed 400-percent growth during the height of the recent recession. Now operating in a company-owned 15,000-square-foot facility in Southampton, PA, IMET has 28 employees and boasts the latest automated assembly machinery to achieve placement speeds to 10,500 components per hour. The resulting quality and economies account for so many clients returning from offshore manufacturing. IMET was recently was named 2014 Manufacturer of The Year by The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Contact: IMET Corporation, 505 Keystone Road, Unit E, Southampton, PA 18966 866-537-2386 or 267-288-5330 fax: 267-288-5493 Web: http://www.imetcorporation.com