Working with Customers: A Consultant's Perspective


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Industry veteran and expert Chrys Shea is in a unique position when it comes to her work for the electronics assembly industry. As president of consulting firm Shea Engineering Services, she helps suppliers test and bring new products to the market, and helps assemblers bring new processes or skills to their assembly lines.

"Most of my projects are joint efforts with suppliers and users or other suppliers," says Shea. "By working in partnership, everyone benefits from the expanded resource base and lower research costs. It's great to gather a group of subject matter experts who all bring their expertise to the table to solve nagging problems or develop the next generation process."

According to Shea, some of these challenges include the adoption of new solutions and technologies, scarcer engineering resources, and the skills gap in the manufacturing engineering community.

"On the supplier side, they have developed some exciting and innovative new products, but the market seems slow to try new technologies. Therefore, some of the new product volumes aren't growing at as fast a pace as they would have in the past," she explains. "On the user side, engineering resources are scarcer than ever. Business is coming back, and a lot of shops are running near capacity, but the staffing levels are not commensurate with the production volumes. I think that's why the enabling technologies are slow to get tested and implemented. There's barely enough engineers to keep up with production demands, never mind trying out new tech.

"In general, we are facing an experience gap in the engineering sector of our industry. We've got seasoned engineers who have been on the job since SMT's boom in the '90s, and now we've seeing some bright young talent coming into the business. But there is a critical shortage of SMT engineers in that 10–20-year experience range. I think the talent shortage contributes to the slowed adoption rate of the new tech."

To address the experience gap, Shea is working together with the Surface Mount Technology Association (SMTA) to offer more free seminars, webinars and basic stencil printing courses so that the newer engineers can experience a faster learning curve.

Working with Customers

Shea works closely with approximately 20% of her customers, from design to assembly. But in her case, product design is not necessarily a circuit board. "It may be a new material, a connector or an IC package," she says. "Not every new idea I test makes it to market, but it is always exciting when I can see one go from concept to customer."

For Shea, the most important attribute for customer service is responsiveness and flexibility.

"That is rooted in my years as a shop floor engineer," she explains. "When a client's line (or their customer's line) is down, helping them fix the problem takes priority."

As Warren Buffett says, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it." The same can be said when you do not meet your customers’ needs. For Shea, the impact can be translated to losing their business, and potentially their colleagues' business, and compromising the reputation that she has worked so very hard to build. "I won't let that happen," she says.

And how does she ensure that customers are satisfied with her work? "With their delight, and willingness to hire me again and recommend my work to colleagues," Shea says. According to her, one of the most important pieces of customer feedback is when her training clients tell her how much their yields went up after she trained the people and assessed their processes.

"I was working with a supplier who needed a beta site for a new solder paste test board, and a user who needed to upgrade his solder paste chemistry. It was a perfect match, and both organizations agreed to work in partnership," she explains. "The project yielded a great deal of insight for the supplier on what was required to make the test board as production-friendly as possible, and for the user who had a data-driven method of identifying the best chemistry for his operation. Both were very happy with the outcome, with the user praising it as 'the best money they ever spent.' We presented the study at SMTA International last fall, where the conference attendees gave it the highest rating, and we won the 'Rich Frieberger Best of Conference' award. That’s a great honor that exceeded everyone’s expectations, including my own!"

That solder paste test board which will be formally introduced at the IPC APEX EXPO trade show later this month.

"We applied everything we learned in those beta runs of the solder paste test board to create a complete suite of tools that make solder paste testing as easy as possible," Shea explains. "The biggest step in taking it from the lab to the line was updating the CAD database, reducing the bare board layer count and integrating a BOM for easy programming. We also created a configurator that calculates sample sizes and BOM cost, designed the stencil and board support tooling, constructed a simple experiment with step-by-step directions, published a soldering reference manual, demonstrated a basic statistical reduction program to analyze the data, and developed a score card. Aculon is including a sample of their NanoClear stencil nanocoating in the package, as well. It is a turnkey kit, with the same documentation as a production PCB and decades' worth of experience built into it.

"Of all the elements of the kit, the key for assemblers is the score card. Every SMT operation is different and subject to varying demands. The kit is designed to be as plug-and-play as possible, but the score card lets the user customize solder paste performance requirements according to their specific needs. Using the kit, an engineer can evaluate up to 22 solder paste characteristics in about four hours of line time. They weigh the importance of each characteristic to their operation and rank the solder pastes' performance relative to each other. The scorecard mathematically calculates overall performance scores to help the engineer determine the best chemistry for their process.

"I will be presenting a paper on how we took the test vehicle from the lab to the line at the APEX conference, and Henkel and Practical Components will be featuring it in their booths on the show floor."

Best Practices

Shea is very involved in solder paste printing, because she says that's a pivotal area where money is made or lost on an SMT line. Having said that, one of the best practices that she sees in printing is the use of nanocoating, engineered solvent for under wiping, and coating-compatible wiper material.

"We call that combo the 'trifecta.' It is extremely effective and very cost efficient. I've done the research, published the numbers and posted the videos. And companies like Rauland-Borg have quantified the process improvements and cost savings they have realized by deploying this 'tech trifecta' on their lines," she explains.

She also stresses on the need to use an SPI (solder paste inspection) machine. "I teach lots of printing classes. I always stress SPI. I tell people if there is only one automated inspection machine they can add to their line this year, it should be an SPI machine. These things not only pay for themselves very quickly, they are a great analytical tool to help engineers test and tune print processes," Shea says.

Overall, Shea is a huge proponent of process control throughout the entire factory. "I was lucky enough to work for a brilliant statistician early in my career, and I quickly became a believer," she concludes.

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