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Greg PapandrewIt’s time for an industry program to train board buyers.

A printed circuit board is unique to every different application or customer, has over one hundred separate required manufacturing processes, and may come from down the street or halfway around the world. In other words, PCB purchasing is a complicated business. The traditional way of board buying can lead to costly mistakes and may expose companies to financial liability.

I am on a mission to fix that.

PCB buying has changed a lot since I started as a salesman in this industry more than 25 years ago. Back then, purchasing departments were larger. Buying was broken down into specific commodities, with buyers assigned to manage only one or, at most, a few of them. Buyers had the time and available resources to be well-versed in their assigned commodities. Many buying teams resided in the very facilities that designed the boards’ products and used the parts.

Before board manufacturing went fully electronic, those who specialized in buying printed circuit boards actually handled the items needed to make them: things like real artwork, known as silvers (today’s Gerber files); drill tapes (today’s drill files); the D-sized prints that covered an entire desk (today’s FAB drawing PDFs). Board buyers knew exactly what they were purchasing and what the finished products would look like.

Today, though, the assembly industry in general views custom-made PCBs as just another commodity. With everything converted to bits of data and the number of purchasing personnel greatly reduced, buyers and program managers may not get the same opportunities to truly understand the products they make, let alone the boards they’re buying. Through no fault of their own, they’ve had to trade in-depth knowledge of specific boards for an “all boards are the same, and price is the only thing that matters” mentality that doesn’t always serve them well.

We may look at, say, an 0402-sized package resistor from a variety of vendors and make the case they are essentially identical and interchangeable (although I would venture to say most component OEMs would argue the opposite). But each substrate is build-to-print, meaning we cannot simply stack up a bunch of 16 x 20" or 18 x 24" panels and plug them into the next future end-product that comes down the line. Components are manufactured in the millions or even billions. Each board design, however, is unique and the volume produced specific to its dedicated SKU. That’s the opposite of a commodity.

Buyers are now responsible for the acquisition of everything from HDI boards to cable assemblies to, sometimes, even the office toilet paper. And most have only on-the-job training, which may not be adequate. They’ve never been given any formal instruction on how to do the board-buying part of their jobs correctly. And that lack of knowledge can end up costing their companies. Take, for example, the differences between an order built to IPC-A-600 standard versus one built to IPC-6012. One sets workmanship guidelines, while the other is a qualification and testing specification.

But let’s say a fabrication drawing for an order is not clear, and I, as a salesman, ask the buyer to clarify how an order should be built. They will frequently say, “Build to Class 2.” I’ll then ask whether that’s to the IPC-A-600 or the IPC-6012 standard. A moment of silence usually follows, and then today’s typical buyer will respond, “Just build commercial.”

The thing is they’re both commercial specs, but IPC-6012 requires more testing and paperwork, meaning its cost is much higher. Buyers should know the difference. Often they do not.

The same lack of understanding often surfaces in orders for military and ITAR PCBs. Many buyers don’t know the detailed specifications required to meet compliance and testing standards for these government-sensitive projects. This kind of ignorance is likely to lead to fines, vendor disqualification, and lost revenue if the product shipped is not suitable for manufacture because it fails to meet quality standards or is missing documentation.

Why would EMS or OEM companies, especially those that tout their ISO certification, not provide corporate training in buying the commodity that is the foundation of their assembly processes and one of their largest expenses? Attaining ISO certification is a sign a company properly controls all its business processes and places a heavy emphasis on correct training procedures. Yet, there is a gaping hole in the system when it comes to training board buyers.

After spending decades steeped in every step of the PCB buying cycle, I’m making a switch. Going forward, I’m using my hard-won expertise to build professional circuit board buyers.

It’s time for a dedicated training program to help companies ensure they’re getting the best PCB price, quality, and delivery. Firms must learn how to better manage current vendors and assess new vendors.

They must learn how to set service expectations for vendors and implement vendor-managed inventory programs that will meet changing production needs without raising costs. If they need a corporate PCB fabrication specification unique to their organization, they must learn how to develop and implement it.  

Owners, buyers, and program managers must learn how to negotiate better terms and put into place rebate programs so vendors can reward their company’s buying and payment performance, and how to leverage one’s annual spend with a few carefully selected vendors to ensure great customer service, while also diversifying the vendor base.

They must gain the confidence to move business from one vendor to another, when necessary, with minimal disruption to production schedules.

Not all board houses are created equal. It’s time for a training program that teaches the most up-to-date information on issues in board buying, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of both offshore and domestic manufacturing sources.

The PCB industry is a $60 billion annual business. There’s far too much money to be made – or lost – to turn a blind eye to the importance of bare boards in the electronics supply chain. For more information on this new workshop and certificate program, please contact me.

Greg Papandrew has more than 25 years’ experience selling PCBs directly for various fabricators and as founder of a leading distributor. He is cofounder of Better Board Buying and will be speaking at PCB West in September; greg@boardbuying.com.

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