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Standard of Excellence: Staying Prepared with Operations

March 8, 2017 

by Dave Olsen

Handling the operations of a PCB company these days is a challenge, to say the least. When I started in 1979, we were building single-sided, double-sided, four-layer multilayers, and the occasional six-layer if you really had your act together. We were using FR-4 materials sprinkled in with an occasional polyimide build.

With an American market that has been shrinking, everyone’s challenge is still to grow sales so that you can pay the bills, invest in your people and equipment, and hopefully make a profit. For ASC, this means building a variety of products; on any given day this can be a 300-panel single-sided job, multilayer, flex, rigid-flex, RF, metal-back, bonded assemblies, blind and buried microvias, hybrids, and the list goes on. Having three different multilayer press cycles for different materials was standard a very short year ago. Today, the company where I work uses over 100 different material combinations and has over 30 different press cycles! Being ITAR, MIL-P-31032, and AS 9100 certified will mean that the quick-turn you are building, which the customer wants now, will also have up to a day’s worth of work on FAIs, cross-sections, bubble diagrams, PPAPs or whatever else. While these combinations and requirements put a stress on your operation, your equipment, and your people, you must do it to have a future in our business!

A new demand that we have seen in recent years, and which can be an inroad to new customers, is what we call our science projects. Its starts with a customer, who at times has a concept that comes your way via print, and you perform a technical assessment (TA) on whether it is something you should even attempt to build. While this happens on only on a few of the things your customer service people are quoting every day, it is happening more frequently. At this stage, many companies say no, no bid it, and say, “We did our job!”

But if a company is smart and wants to keep up with their market demands, they will take on these challenges. To survive in today’s market, you have to try to build anything. Your company must have a can-do attitude where instead of saying they can’t do something, people find a way. They review the prints and start asking, “What if we do this and this and this? We will have to go back to the customer and tell them we can’t do this. Can they live with this?” By opening that dialogue, you have started a new relationship, or strengthened an old one, that is always good for your company. Many science projects work out in the end and you have a new customer and one that appreciates you even more. Some of them do not—and you don’t gain a customer. But you will always learn more about your operation—its strengths and sometimes seemingly glaring weaknesses. What better way can you determine your equipment needs, people deficiencies, and system strengths and weaknesses?

I take these challenges as a good thing. Our industry is moving forward in technologies—our customers are wanting more! For those of us in operations it means our systems have to be in control, our equipment needs to be maintained, and our people cannot make mistakes. Every day requires that you are proactive—updating procedures, developing new procedures, and assuring that your people are doing their jobs as they have been trained to do. Empowering your people through knowledge and having them believe what they are doing is far more critical to our success than anything I do is key.  Along with this, I have been accused of being hyperactive reactive. Everyone scraps boards and every PCB shop has issues but how you react to those issues, problems and challenges defines how successful you are long term. We scrapped the boards…what is the root cause? What are we going to do immediately to fix the problem permanently?

For those of us in operations, we have learned some shared lessons:

  1. Talk to your customers and potential customers. Understand their needs. Help them to understand what you can do together to build their boards to assure long-term reliability.
  2. When it comes to training, systems management, and working the issues, you and your team need to do it every day! Your operators need to do it every day. There are no days off—and it will never be easy.
  3. At ASC, we have asked our vendors to work with us. We don’t have all the answers—and we need to continue to reach out to our suppliers for their expertise and suggestions.
  4. Stretch yourself. Challenge your people, and try something new.

In conclusion, our customers’ needs are changing dramatically—is your company changing to keep up with their needs?