Zentech's Mission-critical Tips for Program Success


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Nolan Johnson and John Vaughan, I-Connect007 columnist and VP of sales and marketing at Zentech Manufacturing, discuss how to make customer programs successful through early communication, complete design packages, and more from a company servicing mission- and life-critical industries, including military, aerospace, and medical.

Nolan Johnson: John, can you start by giving us a brief introduction of Zentech Manufacturing?

John Vaughan: Zentech Manufacturing is an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider located in the Pentagon Region of the U.S. with operations in Baltimore, Maryland, and Fredericksburg, Virginia. Our business is primarily focused on the Department of Defense (DoD) and the military prime defense contractor space. We have approximately 200 employees, and this is our 21st year in business.

Johnson: That’s a pretty significant size and a vibrant market.

Vaughan: We’re about 80% mil/aero now, and the balance would be approximately 20% medical. We also touch a handful of commercial products each year that tend to be in the high-end computing space. So, we do high-complexity manufacturing for highly regulated markets. One thing you’ve likely noticed is that we were early adopters of the IPC validation services programs, and I believe we were one of the first to become IPC-610 Class 3 mission-critical certified and were the first to become IPC J-STD-001 certified with the space addendum. We are also one of only three certified under the new IPC-1791 trusted assembler certification. In short, we support these highly regulated markets with advanced certifications and high-complexity level manufacturing and test. The result is a pretty narrow pool of competitors.

Johnson: What’s the one thing you would want every customer to understand about delivering a data package to your quote team?

Vaughan: Well, I’m old-school, so planning and communication still matter more than anything to me.

Often, if customers are running late against their deadlines, they will feel pressure internally to simply toss a data package over the fence, thinking that it’s complete enough and sufficient to both quote and build. If it’s a highly complex product, there’s a lot of dialogue that’s required. And the earlier the customer can engage us and communicate with us, outline their intentions, and be available for dialogue, the better results the program will have.

They also need to understand that the lead time is primarily a byproduct of the component supply chain. After we have a complete kit of all of the components, our actual build schedule is only anywhere from 2–4 weeks, which is fast when you think about the complexity of the product. The challenge is that the component supply chain lead times have crept up dramatically across all device types, and it’s not unusual for us to run across components that have a year lead-time in today’s environment.

So, if the customer is proactively communicating from the beginning, and the design cycle might take them six months, we can get in front of a lot of issues by working together. If we’re in lockstep with them from the beginning, then we can negate some of those supply issues by pre-buying components, etc. If communication and data packages are incomplete, untimely and sporadic, then we cannot turn back the clock or accelerate the component supply chain appreciably. We can’t control the lead time on the components; that’s a primary challenge that everyone needs to consider. Zentech is one of the few EMS companies that will work with customers to mitigate risks, which is a significant, long-term benefit for everyone involved.

Johnson: With a lot of military, aerospace, and medical work, what are some of the services or assistance Zentech can provide that your customers tend to overlook?

Vaughan: Going back to the schedule compression, a lot of times, shockingly, when customers are developing high-tech products, they don’t give the proper amount of mindshare and planning to the test side of the product design and verification equation. Given the environments we operate in, typically mission or life critical, we prefer to test everything we build. The further along a customer has considered their testing approach and what that methodology looks like, the better.

Also, it’s shocking how many designers of printed circuit boards and assemblies have never been in an assembly operation or a PCB manufacturing environment. A design might look great on the computer, but design for manufacturing (DFM) matters a lot more. Much of our work for our core customers is spent on design for assembly (DFA) analysis or DFM analysis. As a customer, you have this great product, and we’re behind you 100%. We want to help you bring it to market, but the problem arises when it can’t be built the way it’s currently constructed.

Johnson: How often are you involved with the prototype process, or does Zentech become involved as the product moves into production?

Vaughan: It’s a hybrid. We’re a little bit different than a lot of EMS providers and not transactional in nature. We have a customer set that has been developed primarily with military clients. A typical scenario for us is to engage early with the program office as the active requirements have been developed, and then map out an approach and strategy to support the prototype. We also review all of the various material and manufacturing readiness requirements within the DoD. We want to be involved early on a program to ensure that there’s financing allocated in the DoD budget; we don’t want to necessarily engage in one-off R&D or science experiments. We will, on occasion, for the right customer or long-term opportunities. But typically, we prefer involvement in the whole life cycle.

To read the full article, which appeared in the May 2019 issue of SMT007 Magazine, click here.

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