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Built for speed: think cost is king? When it comes to quickturn work, designers value reliability and relationships over the almighty dollar.

Although the email was accolade-laden, one quote stood out: "I was quite impressed ... the lab managers called me after 9 p.m. to obtain clarification on a board issue. This is the first time I've straightened out a fast-turn PCB order from the middle of a shopping-mall food court."

Sound familiar? It should. That's because, designers say, the good quickturn fabricator acts as an extension of his own business. Looking to shed light on the designer-fabricator relationship, PCD&M spoke with a handful of representatives from each side.

We found that--contrary to prevailing opinion--designers are fiercely loyal to their suppliers, and yet fabricators can be shy about sharing ways to improve the manufacturability of their design. The recommendations:

Source small. Designers value solid working relationships--and results--over almost everything else. Mike Kidd is a senior electrical designer at Indesign (indesign-llc.com), an electronics design firm. Indesign uses two shops for PCBs up to four layers, and two for PCBs over four layers (one is the same shop). He says that when designers find a shop they can rely on "they [become] part of your company." Kelly Dack, a senior PCB designer at IGT (igt.com), agrees. IGT uses two shops for each class of board: low-cost double-sided; simple four-layer; and complex six-to-eight-layer processor boards. National Instruments (ni.com) keeps two shops on its AVL and has two other shops that handle unique products such as in-line cable boards or rigid-flex, says Michelle Worthington, senior PCB design analyst. "You need to [narrow] the number in order to develop the relationships and get comfortable with the reliability and quality of the shop." Shops PCD&M spoke with say most designers seek quotes from one to three shops per job.

Cut the paperwork. For the most part designers forego detailed plant surveys or audits. Ron Huston, president of Advanced Circuits (4pcb.com), says customer surveys are rare. "We add over 200 new customers a month and only about three ask." Most try to address the simple equation of whether the shop can make what the designer needs. In some instances, audits are tied to certain managers; when they change, so does the survey. And repeatedly using the same shops reduces the need for audits. Smaller companies typically skip the process altogether. IGT asks whether a quoting matrix is used and if test samples and TDRs are sent. Indesign doesn't need them because it doesn't stray from its longtime vendors.

Get the quote out. Kidd calls this "absolutely critical. A lot of times I'm changing the holes and size on the fly. I need the layers, thickness, how many days turn. [Purchasing] may not see the urgency."

Offer pricing options. Cost isn't king, at least not for quickturn jobs. Designers eschew fancy models in favor of the going rates. "One of the big problems," Worthington explains, "has been that any of the cost models prior to 2000 would be totally inapplicable." National baselines fresh quotes against recent orders. Likewise, IGT tracks past orders (quantities, turn time, price paid) for comparisons. "Sometimes you go with the lowest bidder to 'feel them out' but in most cases it is good business to [work] with a vendor with which you have a solid business relationship," Dack says.

That said, designers like to know their pricing options. Yet when it comes to quoting matrices, fabricators vary. Irlandus Circuits (irlandus.co.uk) uses a formal costing system that runs on a database, making it easy to track quoting activity. However, as Joint Managing Director Roy Adair says, "This can often be superfluous for small quantities ... what really counts is, can you make the board, how many production panels are required and, if the number is very small, what is the lowest total order value you can/want to go with?"

Many fabricators are leery of publishing their quoting matrices, perhaps due to fears that competitors would use them to underbid. Dack thinks more shops are opening up; he hypothesizes that fabricators are awakening to the idea that providing them is a form of customer service, Sierra Proto Express (sierraprotoexpress.com) and Advanced Circuits are examples of companies that put their quote matrices on the Web. Customers can enter the PCB size and get the price matrix, which factors in lead times and technology levels. "Designers are really good at what I call the 'what if' scenario," Huston says. "Now they can do that interactively and get pricing feedback instantly online. We've already given them the ability to negotiate with themselves." Yet Ken Bahl, president of Sierra Proto Express, warns against overreliance on such matrices. "Because of huge variation of process for high-tech, specialized boards, pricing is complex. Some manufacturers include engineering services and test in their prices, some don't.

"The best [aid] would be a cost model created for different processes--simple and complex--[for] use as a basis to negotiate price." No such model exists, Bahl says.

Designers' advice to labs: Don't overwhelm us with price data points. Says Dack, "One shop used to break out photo-tooling charges; cost per board, etc. We don't need all that. I'd much rather get a lot price, with tooling and test included."

Don't be provincial. "Back in the Mylar tape days," recalls Huston, "you couldn't find a tube big enough and shipping wasn't that good. Now distance isn't an issue." With today's FTP sites and modems, there's "no value" to staying local for procurement, Worthington says. "We have local shops but have seen no difference in service." Huston and Kidd both point to time-zone differences as an asset that potentially "extends" the working day. "In the global village the only true benefit of 'local' supply is the ability to trim the shipping time. This can sometimes be vital but mostly is not," says Adair.

And for QT work designers see little benefit to using a go-between such as a broker. "I have done that a lot in the past," Worthington says, "and I found it better to go directly to the supplier," citing as reasons superior rapport and communication.

Talk, talk, talk. The most direct path from one point to another is a straight line. Yet we seem intent on ignoring this. Dack outlines his worst-case scenario: "CAM flags a problem with a simple issue regarding removal of unused pads on innerlayers. The supervisor contacts the company rep and asks for an OK to 'reduce the pads' on innerlayers. The rep calls the customer's purchasing agent and explains that the pads are 'too large' on the innerlayers. Arms waving, the purchasing agent heads straight for engineering, shouting, 'The boards are shorting! The boards are shorting!' The project manager heads straight for the layout design area with news that there's some kind of 'screw-up' with the design! And on it goes!" While most designers feel their QT shops keep hurdles to a minimum--which could be why the product turns out right and the relationships last--they are quick to reiterate the need to communicate, especially with their counterparts in CAM.

"When you are two or three times removed, the miscommunication starts. And some labs opt out of that process by nut communicating at all," Dack sighs. Adds Kidd, "A designer can change the way he does a board such as spacings or soldermask openings around the pad. If you and the CAM folks can buddy up, you can help each other out." Or, as Dack sums it: "Get the CAM and designer talking and they can conquer the world."

It doesn't end at CAM, however. Worthington prefers fabricators that let her talk with those involved in impedance testing because "they can explain exactly what they are seeing," whereas a third party might not properly convey key information. "Feedback from a vendor is very important," says Dace He asserts that most vendors deal with manufacturability issues in a vacuum, opting to address errors themselves rather than requesting help from the designer for fear of being labeled "a whiner." What they miss, he says, is that "most designers consider themselves a 'vendor liaison,' one who communicates and incorporates manufacturability into a PCB design. This requires an honest post-mortem report" from a fabricator. And be sure to tell the right person: Too often, when a vendor does mention a problem, it is not communicated directly between the two persons who can directly solve it--the CAM engineer and the layout designer.

Huston agrees. "The bottleneck is at the CAM station. I would guess most companies don't have enough [operators]." Advanced Circuits, he says, has invested in a direct customer hotline. The company also conducts three customer summits each year around the U.S., and flies in customers for brainstorming sessions.

Be realistic. Says Kidd: There can be a big gap between what fabricators say they can do and what they are comfortable with. Fabricators "toot their horn" over smaller hole diameters, but then ask designers to bump them up 0.001" or 0.002". Worthington notes that most boards today require impedance control, and warns that stackup and controls should be determined prior to submitting the RFQ. National's RFQ lists everything from minimum hole sizes to slots (between circuits to create a physical isolation). "All these things create monetary differences between RFQ and the final board price," she says. "Designers forget these and quote too early in the process."

Don't be shy Adair says the question designers don't ask, but should, is, for shops to check a supplied netlist from the customer's CAD system to one ripped from the Gerber. Asking how the shop intends to test is fair game, too, he says. Also, manufacturers say they can usually build faster than their customers require. "The one question not asked enough, is, can I have it tomorrow?" Huston says. Yet all the planning in the world won't prevent the occasional delay. "Some designers don't appreciate that the more complicated designs have to go around the factory several times," Adair says. He once resorted to humor to pacify a longtime customer who had become "belligerent" over the processing time of a particularly demanding board. "1 said, 'I can send you the holes tomorrow.'"

It seems having a sense of humor helps, too.

Ed.: See the online version for tips on shortening leadtimes.

MIKE BUETOW is editor in chief of PCD&M.
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Title Annotation:PCB Negotiating
Author:Buetow, Mike
Publication:Printed Circuit Design & Manufacture
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Words:1711
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