In today’s hyper-connected world, it’s hard to think about product innovation without thinking about electronics. Whether you’re talking about autonomous cars, electric vehicles, implantable medical devices, or the internet of things (IoT), electronics are indispensable to the development of a growing number of new and next-generation products.
Electronics are at the core of leading-edge products in telecommunications, consumer electronics, computing, and industrial equipment, as well as critical-use automotive, aerospace, medical, and power generation applications. Not only do they power all kinds of devices—these multi-functional dynamos also play vital roles in sensing, processing, storing, and transmitting information, as well as connecting devices, machines, and networks.
For electronics that we depend on in our daily lives, and, even more important, for electronics that are essential to critical applications (medical, automotive, and aerospace, for example), it’s imperative that they be manufactured with rigorous compliance to the highest quality standards. For OEMs who put quality at the top of their list (and you know who you are), it’s essential that you connect with contract manufacturers, suppliers, and job shops that have built quality control into every aspect of their operations.
But how do you know if your prospective supplier is getting it right when it comes to quality?
Quality certifications are a good first indicator of a supplier’s quality management system, especially if the company holds an ISO/TS 16949 certification for automotive manufacturing, an ISO 13485 certification for design and manufacture of medical devices, or an AS9100 certification for aerospace manufacturing.
“When people see these types of certifications (ISO), they have a comfort to know that we have controlled processes, we have procedures in place, and we’ve covered all aspects of the manufacturing process,” an engineer at an electronics contract manufacturing company in the Midwest told D2P. “They know we are repeatable and everything’s in control.”
Other important indicators include the supplier’s engineering strength, customer support, and capabilities in design for manufacturability (DFM) and design for test (DFT). One West Coast contract manufacturer, for example, does its manufacturing and testing in the same building as its design, allowing test engineers and design engineers to interact with each other to make sure, in real time, that the designs can be manufactured without problems.
To boost their quality management, printed circuit board (PCB) assembly companies deploy inspection technologies ranging from automated optical inspection (AOI) to high-magnification imaging, including state-of-the-art profile measurement microscopes that use 3D laser scanning. They offer testing methods from fixtureless, flying probe testing to in-circuit and functional testing. And many have implemented manufacturing execution systems (MES) software programs that enhance process control, traceability, and collection of data used in quality analytics.
An engineering manager at the same electronics contract manufacturing company told D2P that his company runs a paperless factory, thanks to an MES software platform that enables process control, traceability, and data collection for quality analytics. The software gives the firm “full traceability and accountability for everything,” he said.
The director of manufacturing support at the company said that the software also benefits the firm’s quality control during non-automated operations, such as mechanical assemblies of panels and box builds.
“When you get into mechanical assembly and box build, we start taking out the automation and adding in human beings,” he said. But the [MES] software is forced routing. It gives people the instructions, but they can’t skip steps—they have to follow the process. They have to go from A to B to C. They can’t skip B and move to C unless they’ve done them all. So, it helps error-proof the processes that human beings do, which are mechanical, panel box-build type assemblies.”
To most observers, the most recognizable companies in the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) supply chain are the electronics contract manufacturers (ECMs) that design, manufacture, and test electronic components, printed circuit boards, and assemblies for OEMs. But other contract manufacturers and suppliers, such as sheet metal fabricators, also play an important role in the creation of fully completed electronic products and assemblies. These are the companies that provide the metal cutting, punching, bending, and welding processes to build the boxes and enclosures needed to protect printed circuit board assemblies and wiring harnesses from the elements.
As one executive at a sheet metal fabrication company on the West Coast told D2P, most of the products that ECMs manufacture—such as PCBs, wiring harnesses, and assemblies—go on the inside of the finished product. But his company, and other sheet metal fabrication firms like his, “build what’s on the outside—box builds, enclosures, chassis, up to full mechanical assemblies.”
For companies that “build what’s on the outside,” quality is just as important as it is for those that build what’s on the inside. The sheet metal exec who spoke with D2P said that his firm uses a laser inspection machine that performs automated first-article and in-process inspections, generating statistical process control (SPC) reports that are emailed to customers.
“The inspection machine has reduced our first-article inspection time, while increasing the accuracy of the inspection by eliminating human error,” he said. “What might have taken hours in the past will now take minutes to complete,” he said.