While playing board games, I like to reflect on pivotal moments where it seems any player’s position could fluctuate rapidly. Especially in games with asymmetrical distribution of resources and skills, utilizing organizational methods such as decision trees can help objectify the course of players’ actions and illuminate how victories were solidified. These strategies can also be applied to circuit board manufacturing.
Manufacturing is experiencing a great state of flux, and COVID-19 has underscored the drawbacks of global supply chains. Manufacturing operates on extremely tight timeframes, and delays can have cascading effects on processes. Budgetary concerns will always be a factor, but there is significant value in maintaining target deadlines.
Efforts are underway to reshoring semiconductor manufacturing, but the time it takes to design, build, furnish, and staff a foundry means these efforts will not bear fruit for several years. Stateside printed circuit board manufacturing possesses numerous advantages over traditional global fabrication and assembly chains, and some of the reasons are outlined below.
U.S. Printed Circuit Board Manufacturing: Sidestep Increased Shipping Times and Costs
“Time is money” holds great importance to supply chain manufacturers. While planning out a development cycle, it’s not enough to only consider the time a process takes. Instead, a more realistic outlook is that manufacturing rarely occurs inside a vacuum at the early stages of development. A board undergoing various fabrication and assembly work will have to spend time waiting its turn in the respective queues. Working with international suppliers adds a length of time due to shipping, which carries a cost-benefit structure dependent on the different air or sea transportation modes.
Printed circuit board manufacturing is a highly iterative design process with multiple revisions as the board passes between engineers, layout designers, machine operators, quality assurance, test engineers, programmers, and many more. Therefore it is more reasonable to consider that a single design will likely encompass multiple lead time cycles. The time lost to overseas shipping becomes even more considerable in the long run, taken as a sum of individual lead times.
Overseas mid-volume and larger production runs are also facing a squeeze; shipping bottlenecks at US ports have created a further consideration between time-cost tradeoffs. Although some signs point to the current shipping container backup subsiding shortly, sea freight issues persist and have only been partially alleviated with offshore ports reducing the number of containers per trip. With air freight shipping costs at a present rate somewhere around 10-15x that of ship transport, all but the smallest of production runs become far less economically feasible to offshore.
Domestic PCB Manufacturing’s Communication Edge
PCB design and manufacturing is a hugely collaborative process that can span months and even years depending on the size and complexity of the board. As with any manufacturing industry, communication reigns supreme. Some advantages to dealing with a local (or at least national) printed circuit board manufacturing facility:
- Time zone proximity: While email is still the standard for communication, complex and nonstandard designs may necessitate a more present form of conversation so all parties may come to a fuller understanding of the information being conveyed. The internet has made the world small enough that a video chat with international facilities is a technological simplicity, but the lack of overlapping work hours could be difficult. A continental U.S.-based printed circuit board manufacturing facility and client are, at worst, three hours apart from each other, easing the potential for communication by increasing working hour overlap.
- On-site meetings: There is something to be said for speaking face-to-face with a team and walking through a facility, especially when entering into mid-scale production and up. When large volumes and dollar amounts are on the line, clients can find the human touch of a local facility grounding and reassuring. International manufacturing sites can also provide meetings, but distance and shifting government pandemic responses can prove challenging (if not presently insurmountable).
- ECO turnaround time: Some information, by nature, is more time-sensitive than others. An engineering change order on a prototype board, such as a package update to the BOM due to cost or market availability, caught before the board goes past a fabrication point-of-no-return can save considerable time on rework or a repeat job. ECOs at some level are unavoidable with the number of moving parts and people involved in printed circuit board manufacturing, but the faster the response time between client and manufacturer, the greater the flexibility in handling these changes.
VSE Can Allay Your Printed Circuit Board Manufacturing Concerns
Printed circuit board manufacturing and design is an industry rife with the rigors of multiple engineering disciplines. Where better to start than a PCB contract manager with an on-staff engineering team to support your project through every step of design? At VSE, we hang our hats on building electronics for customers by engineers. We collaborate with top-flight fabrication shops to produce a bare board that meets your design’s mechanical and electrical demands before populating the board with our in-house assembly facility. With a vast array of manual and autonomous quality control measures, VSE takes the performance of your board just as seriously as you do.