With the current shortage of qualified and certified military PCB suppliers, finding one has become more challenging than ever. We once had over 1,500 PCB companies in the U.S., with perhaps one-third of them being mil spec (military specification) qualified, but with about 500 now, there are just a handful.
The trend toward consolidation over the past few years has only added to the shortage of qualified military PCB vendors. TTM’s buying spree over the past 10 years reduced at least 10 military PCB suppliers, by my count, down to one, causing a severe problem for those military board users who are required by law to have at least three qualified vendors bidding on their contracts. This situation makes it more important to choose, develop, and nurture a solid relationship with your military PCB fabricator, or rather, at least three of them.
To help you with that partnership, here are five guidelines you should consider when developing a bilateral relationship with your military PCB supplier.
Follow all the traditional rules for creating a good partnership, most of which boil down treating your PCB partner as you want to be respected.
Use all the mil spec qualified PCB suppliers on the qualified manufacturers list (QML) on the DLA website. We have heard several mil-aero companies say that there are no longer enough qualified suppliers, yet we hear from many suppliers who are on the QML, but who are not being used. Check out all the companies on the listing and investigate the ones you have not been using. And since qualifications are product specific, some of your military PCB suppliers may not be qualified for all products. Encourage them to get qualified on all the board types you need. Extend your partnership with them by offering to help them attain their MIL-PRF-31032 and AS9100 for all technologies and board types. Give them a reason to do this. Be open about it and show them the added business they could be enjoying with these wider qualifications.
Help and support the military suppliers you have already through the following tips.
Share Your Technology Roadmap
Make sure they are up to date on the technology you need today and in the future. Share your technology roadmap with them and urge them to develop their own based on your needs. As true partners do, plan your future together.
Make Sure They Are Financially Sound
In these very competitive times, you must nurture smaller companies if you hope that they will be around to serve you tomorrow. They are not only competing with offshore competition for some of their business but also with big companies that want to buy or bury the smaller shops with which they compete. The road to this conclusion is getting shorter all the time, and if you want to avoid a situation that is already causing you headaches, you must step in to help and nurture your smaller PCB partners.
In addition, there are specific things you can do to help your partners, such as offering:
- To prepay and stock hard-to-find and expensive laminates: These materials are expensive, and making these vendors act as your bank—waiting months and sometimes years to get their money back—is unhealthy and unfair.
- Progress payments: This is a legitimate way to help your vendors. There are already government set process pay points you can use when doing this.
- Fast pay terms: There is no good reason that a company with $10 million a year in sales has to wait 90–120 days before getting paid. That’s just not right. And please don’t offer this only if they will give you a discount. Their margins are already paper-thin. If you want to be a true partner, you will not contribute to the further deterioration of those slim margins.
Create technology teams by inviting your PCB vendor partners to collaborate. Seek their participation and advice. Share your plans with them and understand their plans as well. Make sure they are on the right track to handle your future PCB requirements. Have them work with your engineers and designers, advising them on the best ways to design the boards, the best materials to call out, and the best design parameters to make the PCBs as manufacturable and economical to build. This will help both companies.
Consider all the work you do to develop and nurture your partnership with your PCB vendors as an investment in the future. Investing in a partnership with your PCB vendors will be the best investment you can make for your future and for your country’s defense as well. Otherwise, you’ll end up dealing with a PCB monopoly that will limit your own transactional leverage with that one vendor, which is not a healthy situation. Or you’ll be reduced to having your country’s Trident or Tomahawk guidance system PCBs built oversees, and nobody wants that.