On the lookout for RF expertise

Unless a manufacturer understands RF, they won’t provide the calibration, testing and tuning that radio and microwave products require. Amplifier Technology’s Simon Taylor explains what to look out for

Manufacturing RF products can be a headache. While there are numerous contract electronics manufacturers offering standard services there are far fewer companies with the skills and facilities to build RF are microwave products successfully.

Unless a manufacturer ‘knows’ and understands RF, they will not be geared to provide the precision, calibration, testing and tuning that ensures radio and microwave products will pass quality tests and perform as planned. If you don’t find the right partner, particularly for small to medium production runs, you are likely to suffer from delayed delivery, rejected units and all the associated commercial and financial difficulties.

One of the big decisions is whether to look overseas or manufacture in the UK. Take into account the quality and complexity of the product and the quantity of items needed in each order. Think also about communication with the manufacturer, supply chain considerations, shipping and delivery times. The UK and USA seem to have a technical lead in RF product design, so if lead times are not long, definitely manufacture close to home.

Who to choose

How can you tell which manufacturer will provide high quality work and ensure that product is delivered on time and passes all acceptance testing?

It is important to glean a deep understanding of how the company operates and how their business is organised, to ensure their services will dovetail with your own research and development and engineering. So what else should you look for in a manufacturing partner?

1 ) Find out exactly which services the potential partner offers from their own premises. Design, manufacturing and testing are three distinct stages in the creation of a finished product, but they are inextricably related. There are huge advantages if each department can communicate easily and collaborate with the others. Ideally, design, manufacturing and test will be co-located.

2) Ask what your partner would be able to offer in terms of prototyping. The step from prototype to production run can be a difficult one, particularly if you are new to manufacturing.

3) Ask how they view your design and specification. While they must be able to work to the specification you supply, an experienced RF manufacturer may also be able to add value at the pre-production stage, for example, by using CAD and design simulation facilities to enhance and refine your design. This value engineering can streamline a product build when it goes into production and help you to supply your product competitively. This increases the profit margin on each unit produced and makes a real difference to the bottom line.

4) Ask what test facilities the manufacturer offers for RF products. RF equipment is super-sensitive and a tiny variation in the position of one element inside a board may change the behaviour of an RF signal. It’s not unusual for a device to pass through ten test benches before it is confirmed ready for operation. Climate and environmental testing should also be considered, to prove that the product is meets the requirements of defence customers, for example.

5) Check the manufacturer’s accreditations. If you sell to Government and defence customers, it is vital that your supply chain meets the exacting standards these customers require: ISO 14001, ISO 9001, investors in people. List X is essential for security markets and CE marking goes without saying.

6) Ask about product documentation. Documentation is often a challenge for smaller manufacturers, who may give it less priority than they should. Good documentation however, is a great help to resellers and customers further down the line, so ensure that your manufacturer can provide complete documentation, written in clear English.

7) A good electronics manufacturer will be aware of the principles of lean manufacturing and how this philosophy feeds back into the design process to reduce the likelihood of a product failing acceptance tests. Choose a manufacturer that has lean manufacturing skills among its senior managers and production team.

8) Are you likely to need bespoke units? While this will not be practical if your product is produced overseas, if you are working with a local producer, it is perfectly possible to create bespoke units for special customer orders. Flexibility of this kind will help you win orders and a manufacturer who can support you in this way will become a real partner, not just a supplier.

9) Ask your manufacturer how many units they like to deliver in one order and how they will react if you need to alter the specification part way through production? Make sure it is possible to accommodate a change to the specification if a customer further down the line needs to change their requirements.

10) Consider the relationship you are entering with your manufacturing partner and how well their services fit with your own. At first, you may only need manufacturing services, but it is prudent to choose a partner who offers design and testing services as well. Ideally your partner will offer all of these services under one roof, so that in the eventuality that you need these related services, you are not faced with the search for yet another business partner.