EMS/Designer Relationships: Building Communication

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In this interview with contract manufacturing expert John Vaughan and design expert Kelly Dack, they discuss the EMS/designer relationship and the communication that must take place for that to be successful.

Nolan Johnson: In the designer and EMS relationship, what really should happen during job set-up?

Kelly Dack: I can chime in here with one word: communication. It should be communication beforehand, communication during, and perhaps feedback after.

Barry Matties: Kelly, we’ve heard communication for years and years. There are different levels of communication; one note is that most often communication is needed when you’re switching to a new EMS or you’re bringing a new job into an EMS. But if it’s an ongoing relationship, is communication the big issue?

John Vaughan: Obviously, there are a couple of types of relationships in the business. Some are transactional, and some are partnership driven. It begins at the business capture stage. I put a lot of responsibility on people who sell the product for our company, so it needs to be treated as the discovery phase. We tend to do a lot of military-related business. I want to know what the prime contract is, and what the funding looks like out of the DoD. As far as the NDAA is concerned, I want to know where the product is in their life cycle. I want to know their appetite for change. Then you really get into the communication phase. I want to understand the existing supply chain alignments, particularly as it relates to components and any pricing registrations that they may have.

My experience has been that the most successful companies have really strong cross-functional alignments across the program and/or project. To Kelly’s point, the OEM engineers need to be in constant communication and working closely with the design and layout guys who in turn have to be working very closely with the PCB fabricators. Even the EMS guys must define what the aspirations for the product or the program are. I think that the transactional business becomes more difficult when people are primarily shopping price or one-offs. But when you’re building a business and you’re building partnerships, all those things matter a lot on the front end to understand.

Dack: In the context of new design, one of the challenges between both designer and supplier, and why I emphasize communication, is that so often the designers have no idea where the board is going to be built in a production phase. They’re usually tied in with bare board suppliers for prototype supply, and therein may lie a seed of potential problems having to do with capability. Designers are in touch with prototype supplier capability and will tend to design their layouts to achieve that capability. That’s what we do—incorporate design for manufacturability. But when the manufacturability changes—the shift changes from prototype to production—that is where we often have the biggest challenge.

Capabilities change between onshore prototype manufacturing and offshore production manufacturing; they’re different things that designers don’t realize suppliers deal with every day. The problem can be identified as poor DFM caused by missing communication.

Vaughan: I agree 100%, Kelly. That was my point as far as the cross-functional alignment within the organization, within the OEM. Often, those guys are siloed up; as you said, the design guys are doing their thing, the files become complete, and then it’s tossed over the wall in their own organization to the procurement group that really isn’t considering all the items that the designer was considering. They’re defaulting to whoever their supply chain partner happens to be for fab. I think those two parties have to be really well aligned internally in the organization for it to be successful.


Matties: If it’s an ongoing relationship, though, the purchasing agent is going to use the AVL (approved vendor list). Your designer should know where it’s going.

Vaughan: Yes, but even on an AVL there could be very different capabilities within that. Just because there’s three printed circuit board fabricators on the AVL, they don’t have the same equipment set or capabilities, and in many cases, they are using different material suppliers or different processes. There is much variability there. I’ve seen the most success when the design team is lined up with the board fabricator early on, and they’re a part of that team for impedance modeling, stackups, material selection, and all those things. All that should be happening in concert, in my opinion.

Matties: Kelly, you’ve been on the design side, and you’ve probably been in both circumstances where you’ve known the fabricator and where you have not known the fabricator. What’s the contrast between those two?

Dack: The contrast can only be parsed out by examining the different levels of communication. When I say communication, I mean what is communicated through documentation.

Matties: There has been a longtime conversation about communication. What’s going to shift that? Eventually you must communicate once your purchasing agent chooses the vendor and there’s a problem. The vendor stops and they force the communication. What’s going to trigger this to change?

Vaughan: One thing about change that holds some promise is the idea of a portal. Say it’s a design portal, and if you have the capability while you’re designing and the API hooks are there into distribution or the component supply chain where you can visually see the lead times and availability of the components that you’re designing, you have that piece.

If you’re communicating with your printed circuit board fabricator then you can also do concurrent activities in and around material selections, stackups, and capability assessments. If you also have the EMS provider residing in the portal that’s part of this system, then you have really increased visibility by virtue of doing the daily tasks and you’re forced to interface and communicate. I hope that makes sense. I’m sure there’s a couple of you who know what I’m talking about.

Matties: It does, but again, this requires you to know who your provider will be up front. Are you moving that decision point down to the designer and out of the purchasing agent’s hand?

Dack: It’s a chronic problem. This is where the realm of communication—the specs from manufacturing, or engineering, or the industry—come into play. There is a block of information that for years has been sorted out, defined, and published in hopes of getting a lasso around manufacturing capability vs. design. The first point of communication, if we were to bullet list these things, would be design specification and a designer hanging their design on known design specifications and then trying to design around them. We have the industry coming together many times a year trying to refine these specs and update these specs to current manufacturing capabilities. Once a spec is published, the designer should be able to look into these specifications, understand them, and base their design layouts on these known capabilities.

Matties: What is the role of the EMS in all of that?

Vaughan: As an industry, we’ve defined long ago that we needed to overcommunicate, and we haven’t done a great job of that. Our engineers at the EMS company usually interface directly with the OEM’s engineers, and to a lesser degree, with whomever is responsible for the design activity.

I’m not sure on this call we’re going to solve how we make people better communicators. Kelly is spot on. It really is that simple. People who have been doing this for a long time want to build deep relationships. You want to have that, maybe not 24-hour access, but you need to have a point person on each side of that relationship that is driven to pull all the answers together. All the standards in the world aren’t going to define how all these one-off, really custom situations, are managed. In the end, it comes down to people and communication. Try as we may to force computers into that equation to be the workforce, it comes down to people wanting to be a part of the experience, being knowledgeable, and wanting to perform at a higher level in their respective goals.

To read this entire interview, which appeared in the August 2021 issue of SMT007 Magazine, click here.


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