Quest for Reliability: Put Your Operators in the Driver’s Seat

There are countless ways to optimize equipment and material to increase the quality and reliability of electronics. Millions of dollars are spent every year on measurement equipment to look at solder joint quality, part placement, solder paste application, and basically every possible measurable aspect of an assembly.

One part of the process that should receive an equal amount of time and attention is staffing and training, which is this month’s topic. What a coincidence! Operator proficiency in larger contract manufacturers is most often an internal function with certified trainers overseeing classes of employees on a regular basis. From my experience, the most common type of training is IPC J-STD-001 Requirements for Soldered Electrical and Electronic Assemblies and IPC-A-610, Acceptability of Electronic Assemblies. The J-STD-001 is how you build, and IPC-A-610 is what it should look like after the product has been built.

As part of my job, I have been either a CIT or CIS for both J-STD-001 and IPC-A-610 for pretty much the last 15+ years. That is a big requirement when I am tasked with putting my hands elbow deep in your process for evaluation and optimization. Most often, the teacher is a Certified IPC Trainer (CIT) and, if they pass, the students will be a Certified IPC Specialist (CIS) with the skills to build and inspect electronic assemblies.

There are other levels of certification available to include a new certification, Certified Standards Expert (CSE), which is specific to a single standard. This makes you an “expert” on a particular standard and can give you the ability to make final referee calls. There is also the Master IPC Trainer (MIT), which is the top of the training food chain. They are the ones who certify the trainers that train the specialist.

J-STD-001 and IPC-A-610 courses do not encompass every aspect of building or inspecting electronic assemblies, but they cover most topics. If need be, you can certify inspectors to look at bare boards, wire harnesses, rework and repair, and/or design, among others. No matter the size of the CM, it is imperative to have properly trained operators on the floor doing the work and inspecting it to make sure it meets whatever acceptance criteria are called out on the drawing.

Just as important as having training done to some standard like the IPC is having the operators trained to look at your specific assembly and knowing where to start looking when something is out of control. This goes back to another column I wrote some time ago talking about tribal knowledge. In lieu of a copy/paste situation, the CliffsNotes version is the industry is constantly losing more experienced employees who have been part of the build since its inception. With age comes experience, and often, that experience includes time on the equipment used to build your product. You can’t teach experience, but you sure can write it down for others to learn from.

Assembly process equipment is often like driving a 1974 Buick Regal (which is not a random choice, by the way; that was my first car). By that, I mean it would make certain noises that I only learned the root cause of after driving it for many months ( in the off chance I heard it between Mötley Crüe songs). I knew that one certain sound meant I was low on oil. Another sound meant my tire with the constant slow leak needed a few pounds of air.

In the same way, an experienced operator knows that when they see a bad solder joint or some other anomaly, they need to look at reflow profile, belt speed, or some other parameter. That is the type of thing that IPC (or any other industry body) cannot teach. That is the definition of tribal knowledge, and it’s being lost all the time.

My point is that beyond the structured training sessions, there needs to be internal “lessons learned” training specific to your facility and equipment. Many times, this type of knowledge can play as big of a role in your product’s reliability—that, and a 1974 Buick Regal that, while reliable, requires a lot of attention to stay that way. Just like an assembly line! Whew, that was certainly a drive to connect those dots.

Staffing is the second part of this month’s topic, and having never been in the position to directly hire anyone, what I have to offer should be taken with a grain of salt. What I can say from personal experience is you don’t need to hire anyone who automatically has every skill you are looking for. I was a drywall finisher for five years before being hired at Foresite. I started as a bench tech in the chemistry lab in a time before autosamplers, which afforded a lot of time for reading up on both the electronics assembly process and at the root cause of the failures we were testing.

Even back in the early 2000s, we had a few pretty good microscopes to go along with some experienced engineers who would take time from their busy schedules to teach me a thing or two here and there when time allowed. Sure, I had the luxury of time that others might not have, but the point is to hire people with a desire to learn more about what they are doing and why, beyond just being their job. There are no bad car puns or musical memories from the 1980s here—just a recommendation to hire people who are naturally inquisitive whenever possible.

Your assembly floor managers and line operators are the first and last line that steer your reliability numbers. (I knew I could get one more in there.)

This column originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of SMT007 Magazine.

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2020

Quest for Reliability: Put Your Operators in the Driver’s Seat

12-15-2020

There are countless ways to optimize equipment and material to increase the quality and reliability of electronics. One part of the process that should receive an equal amount of time and attention is staffing and training, which is this month’s topic. Eric Camden examines the impact of operator proficiency and hiring people who are naturally inquisitive.

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Quest for Reliability: What’s Lurking in the Shadows?

10-05-2020

This month, Eric Camden focuses on contamination relocation—a term he mostly uses when testing a PCBA that has gone through some sort of localized cleaning process after a manual or selective soldering operation. He also highlights localized cleaning that is performed correctly and incorrectly and the impact on cleanliness and reliability.

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Quest for Reliability: Reliability Starts at the Bottom

09-02-2020

It is much cheaper to perform product-specific reliability testing before the product goes into the field. Eric Camden shares some testing recommendations based on failure analysis, as well as lessons learned from a few of our customers over the years using case studies and data on failed units.

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Quest for Reliability: Correlating COVID-19 With Reliability?

06-01-2020

I submit this month’s column from my secure bunker while safely—and smartly, if I may say so myself—practicing social distancing. The word quarantine is more “popular” than ever in that I hear it upward of 4,562 times per day. Before COVID-19, the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard the word “quarantine” was the cages in the receiving area for non-conforming products or similar spaces for built hardware that doesn’t pass some sort of inline test.

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Quest for Reliability: New Solder, Same Old Testing

05-20-2020

Solder is inarguably one of the required building blocks for electronic assemblies and, apart from a few exotics, every assembly in the world has it. When it comes to meeting the lead-free requirement, opinions and historical reliability data are not taken into consideration. Eric Camden explores testing and reliability related to solder.

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Quest for Reliability: Improving Reliability for Free

04-14-2020

Eric Camden has seen more than a few factories make the move to use more and more automation that has indeed improved production numbers but has done very little to address cleanliness and reliability. In this column, he offers up a few easy steps you can take to reduce risks.

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Quest for Reliability: Big Trouble Comes in Tiny Packages

02-03-2020

When it comes to making consumers happy and electronic assemblers miserable, nothing achieves both quite like miniaturization. With our ever-increasing demands to house a full-size movie theater with surround sound and limitless digital storage in the palm of our hands, the only way for CMs to respond is with miniaturization (and cursing—lots of cursing). In this installment, I’ll revisit the history of shrinking packaging and lessons learned.

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Quest for Reliability: Sunshine and Circuit Boards

01-02-2020

IPC APEX EXPO may be over, but this column by Eric Camden serves as a great introduction to IPC standards. If you've been thinking about getting involved with manufacturing and assembly standards but weren't sure how to go about it, this column is a must-read for you.

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2019

Quest for Reliability: Voices Carry

12-06-2019

The title of Eric Camden’s column this month is “Voices Carry,” so not only is it a great chance to revisit the wonderfully written, top-10 hit song by ‘Til Tuesday/Aimee Mann, but it is also a good opportunity to share the voices of modern electronics and electronic assembly processes.

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Quest for Reliability: Old Dogs, New Tricks

12-02-2019

I hear two phrases way too often on a production floor: “We have always done it this way,” and its first cousin, “We have been building this board for 20 years and never had a problem.” Inevitably, these phrases are always uttered by a “seasoned” engineer in the industry that probably should know better. Don’t get me wrong, these phrases are going a long way in my effort to send two kids to college, but they aren’t very helpful regarding reliability. Times change, and technology changes even faster, and if you don’t keep up, you will be left behind. This means focusing on emerging technologies and the associated risk that may be unique to that package.

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Quest for Reliability: Artificial Reliability Over Intelligence

11-26-2019

As the industry begins to shift from standard design tools to artificial intelligence (AI), reliability might be overlooked in an effort to build “smarter.” Over the last few years, the desire to manufacture anything and everything for less has included removing humans from as many positions as possible. There are a couple of viewpoints, and I can see positives in both.

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Quest for Reliability: Reliability by the Book

11-04-2019

Having been in electronics for just shy of 20 years, I can say that the next time we work on a Class I failure analysis project, it will pretty much be the first. Class I electronics serve a different purpose in life, and if they fail, it’s normally not a big deal; instead, it’s mainly a minor inconvenience. In this month’s column, I’ll speak to specifications for Class I, II, and III products per IPC definitions as well as the IPC standards process.

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Quest for Reliability: SMTAI 2019 Thoughts

10-16-2019

Before I headed to Rosemont, I was a little skeptical if it would be worth it for me, considering the lack of task groups that had become my SMTAI/IPC APEX EXPO focus. But after three days of sessions (and a somewhat impressive third-place showing at the SMTA trivia night), I was reminded of why I went to SMTAI in the first place: to learn about the newest technology and how to address age-old problems that are ever-evolving in this era of miniaturization.

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Sealing Your Fate

08-16-2019

Coating does not always prevent failures; it is just as important to look at your cleanliness levels just as you would with an assembly that is not bound for coating. If you have a dirty assembly, you might be buying a little time, but ultimately, you've sealed your own fate.

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Quest for Reliability: The F Word

07-19-2019

The word "failure" is as nasty as it gets in our world. It goes against everything we thought we knew. All contract manufacturing facilities strive to build a reliable product, or at least they all should. The problem is too many companies hope they are building reliable products without doing the work required to ensure they are.

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Quest for Reliability: These Darn Kids/Back in My Day

04-24-2019

This month’s topic is focused on youth, both in terms of humans and technologies. I think these two topics go together since they rely on each other to a large degree. The latter has more than likely shaped or even invented by the former.

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How Smart Is Your Factory?

04-03-2019

When you plan a production facility with the mindset that connectivity and optimization will be key aspects of your operation, it will pay dividends in the form of lower production cost, better traceability, and higher reliability.

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The Cost of Quality and the Higher Cost of Failure

03-13-2019

If you are shopping a new product around to multiple contract manufacturers (CMs), and if all other things in two separate CMs are equal including price and delivery times but one offers a more comprehensive ongoing quality monitoring system, why wouldn't you go with that one? You usually pay some type of premium for the CM that has an overall quality monitoring system that goes beyond just ICT or bench level testing. Definitely, most CMs will give you some sort of assurance that the product is working as it leaves the facility, but if one has a mindset that more than basic testing is required to show reliability, you will more than likely have fewer field failures.

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2018

Does Medical Device Reliability Worry You Sick?

12-06-2018

When you are manufacturing high-reliability assemblies related to medical industry, it is critical to take a very close look at the assembly process and all other processes that can influence the end-use reliability—even seemingly unrelated processes, such as post-installation cleaning—as it really could be a matter of life or death.

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Are You Connected to Reliability?

10-30-2018

The need for communication between every operator on the manufacturing floor can be a critical difference between a reliable piece of hardware and one that presents some level of unexpected performance. This column highlights a few things happening in the shop floor, such as as touch-up soldering and third shift issue, not commonly communicated, which can cause performance issues.

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Are Megatrends Putting Your Product at Megarisk?

10-03-2018

It took 38 years for radio to get 50 million users, television made it in 13 years, Internet in four, iPod in three, and Facebook in only two years. What these numbers mean to our industry is the need to create electronics at blazing speeds that we haven’t seen before. But how will it affect reliability? Read on.

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Cleaning a No-clean Flux: The Worst Decision You’ve Ever Made?

09-04-2018

There are a few reasons to choose to clean a no-clean flux, such as when the PCB assembly requires conformal coating, or when probes are required for testing. Other than that, there seems to be no need to clean a no-clean flux. This column tells you more.

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Contamination: The Enemy of Electronics

07-18-2018

Welcome to the first installation of “Quest for Reliability.” The goal behind this column is to use my experience at an independent laboratory for over 18 years to help readers understand PCBA reliability issues, and more importantly, prevent suspect conditions in the first place. The laboratory I work in has served every sector of the electronics industry, from oil and gas equipment designed to function miles below the surface of the earth, to aerospace companies and everywhere in between.

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