Bridging the Customer-Supplier Gap


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For the February issue of Design007 Magazine, we interviewed Nolan Johnson of Sunstone Circuits, and Dan Beaulieu of DB Management—our regular columnist—on the topics of knowing your customers, the challenges in dealing with customers, and providing excellent customer satisfaction.

Johnson has been with Sunstone for about 12 years. His background is in computer science and then in capital equipment and display technologies, as well as EDA tools and PCB manufacturing. Currently, he is a project marketing manager at Sunstone. He’s also on special assignment to their in-house sales team and doing some special projects around that.

Beaulieu, meanwhile, has been in the consulting business for 20 years, and in the PCB industry for over 30 years. He works with PCB companies and contract manufacturers, helping them with their strategies, and sales and marketing, primarily for growth.

Patty Goldman: One of the things we hear in our ongoing expert meetings is that there is not enough communication between the different parts of the supply chain—the supplier and customer. There is a lack of communication; working together is not what it should be.

Beaulieu: It’s very interesting because what’s going on lately is that even my customer’s customers are starting to come to me. I’ve had a few calls where a long-time buyer at Draper Labs, which is one of the highest technology buyers in the country, told me he has such a problem with board shops. And I told him it’s because he doesn’t communicate with them as well as he should. Going back to the old days when our customers, the Martin-Mariettas and the Raytheons, used to literally move into a board shop and work side-by-side with us on products that “no one” could build. And that’s kind of gone by the wayside as we get into the no-touch stuff, which I picture as a kind of counter communication, if you will. And it’s not the fault of the people that offer the no-touch service, it’s kind of the fault of the corporations.

This is the way I envision it: it’s almost like down in the basement of one of the large companies are designers and engineers who don’t want to go upstairs to the traditional buying channels and go through all the bureaucracy of buying boards. So, they simply whip out their credit cards and buy boards online or use design services online. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But what happens is as that board is elevated and goes upstairs to the traditional buying systems, the people who end up building the boards, the more traditional board shops, have not gone through the development phase with the customer. That’s where the communication breaks down.

That’s an aspect I’m working on a lot right now. When you start dealing with companies that are literally building products that the world has never seen, including circuit boards with technology that the world has never seen, it’s time that somebody talks to somebody.

Johnson: Well, this gets to be kind of fun because I do live and breathe in the area that Dan is calling the no-touch. We tended to find that this area is where the prototypers are doing their work, and Dan touches on something that’s particularly important. If you’re a prototyper, you’re looking for a shop that can get you your prototype in a couple of days, quickly, in small quantities, and can be nimble and make changes alongside you to keep your esign team moving forward until you get your prototype ready to go and to optimize it for production. Then once you’ve optimized it for production, maybe you’ve taken it from a 4-layer prototype down to a 2-layer prototype where you changed the dimensions or cleaned up the DFM warnings and you are ready to go into production and get some good deals out of your overseas production shop or your major production shop in the U.S.

Once you’re there, it does change and there’s information that we have established as the prototype partner that needs to be transferred over to the production shop to keep everything flowing properly. That’s something that we see with our customers on a regular basis. We see it from the other way. We start handing things off, moving things over, trying to help the customers get their designs moved over into production and have things fall down on their face for the first couple of runs while they’re getting up and going. So Dan’s point is exactly right. How do we get that key step from helping with the prototype, all that knowledge we’ve built up because we’re spinning that board with the customer and then getting it over into production where it can stay put and be stable with high yield and high profit for a long time for this customer?

That’s a key thought. We’ve been working to develop some relationships with some production houses in order to be able to create a communication channel to do that. It’s interesting from our perspective that it’s difficult to get the attention of the production houses to do that. We’re in a place where we’re working with a lot of prototypers on a lot of different levels. Everything from the breakers that Dan mentioned, and down to university teams, individual entrepreneurs, and hobbyists and makers. Many of these projects are turning into production products at some level, maybe small, maybe huge, but that transfer over into production is an area where we’re struggling to get that information passed over consistently and heard. I think there’s some room for some protocols around that.

To read the full version of this article which originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.

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