Giving quick-turn production the green light

Successful quick-turn production means thinking beyond simple protoyping, to consider a product’s entire lifecycle. General manager UK, Stadium iEMS, Peter Whitley, explains.

As the UK and wider electronic markets emerge from recession, it has become clear that contract electronics manufacturers (CEMs) must have the ability to react quickly to customers’ production demands. Time to market is ever more pressing for new products, while uncertain production forecasts and reduced scheduling periods add pressure on manufacturing operations. CEMs must be agile and work smarter and faster to achieve customer expectations.

Quick-turn production facilities are not new to the electronics industry, but they are playing an increasingly important role in meeting lower volume orders and urgent delivery requirements.

Dedicated facilities

A dedicated quick-turn production area of a CEM operation that runs autonomously from the rest of the manufacturing areas can be the best way to achieve this goal. Facilities managed in this way will provide access to leading electronic assembly equipment and deliver fast turnaround prototyping or low volume production. They bring value to the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) by meeting their demands and scheduling, while ensuring that regular production flow at the CEM is not disrupted by urgent manufacturing requests.

A leading quick-turn facility should incorporate a team of highly skilled personnel including engineers dedicated to fast turnaround quotations, electronic design and test engineers, PCB assembly and box build personnel. It should also feature support staff in purchasing and supply chain management, to organise the flow of materials for the facility and flexible shift patterns to meet challenging deadlines.

Beyond prototyping

Quick-turn production solutions, however, must also go far beyond prototyping or urgent orders. A complete quick-turn solution must be a key link between the CEM’s new product introduction (NPI) and design for manufacture (DFM) culture.

The term ‘manufacturing partner’ is used freely in the industry, but for a true manufacturing partnership, the CEM must be involved throughout the whole product life cycle. It should be able to provide the best manufacturing strategy for each individual stage of the product’s life, from conception to maturity.

There are several elements to consider. Initially, an early design enabling capability will provide expert DFM and design for test (DFT) knowledge. This ensures that the customer’s product is designed with cost, material obsolescence avoidance, test procedures and the product life cycle in mind.

Pre-production support including PCB layout, tooling for box build, fast turnaround prototyping and pre-production runs for field sampling provide a ‘gating’ capability for the OEM. This allows the product to be launched initially in smaller production volumes and when the product is ready for mainstream production, it can be transferred seamlessly by the CEM to the volume production site at the most appropriate global location.

Moving to volume

The value that a CEM can bring to this process from their experience—often from a diverse spread of market sectors—can save the OEM considerable time and money. It can help avoid problems that arise in production simply by being able to foresee any potential technical or manufacturing issues.

Planning the location of volume production is a key factor at this stage. Decisions made will be based on whether the product will be made in the UK or offshore, and the CEM’s expertise is crucial. For a product that begins in pre-production in a UK CEM’s facility but will ultimately be manufactured offshore, there needs to be a seamless manufacturing transfer plan in place to ensure that the preferred supply chain partners and materials are in place. Offshore personnel should be ready to switch on the production with zero, or minimal, disruption to the ongoing supply to the OEM.

Offshore transfer

A dedicated project management team from a CEM that is experienced in offshore transfer is critical to overcome any issues that may arise in the transfer, including the unique time zone, communication, language and culture barriers that may exist when using offshore partners.

For many years now, the trend of mainstream manufacturing has been to move offshore, while the UK has been focused on research and development (R&D). For an OEM, this often means an extended supply chain, working with design houses, software developers, tooling providers, CEMs and box build partners, but alongside more challenging economic climates, there is increased competition and added pressures on cost and time to market. OEMs are now looking to shorten R&D cycles and the time to market of their new products. This in turn challenges CEMs to react quicker and adapt the manufacturing strategy accordingly. Working with a single CEM allows OEMs the flexibility to concentrate on their core competences of product design, sales and marketing.

Procurement expertise

There is, however, a critical element in quick-turn production and NPI activity that has the potential to significantly tip the scales of success one way or another—procurement. For a CEM, managing the supply chain means enabling preferred global suppliers and utilising these relationships. This can be used firstly to gain quick turnaround deliveries on materials and components for quick-turn production requirements, and secondly, to develop supply plans for key components alongside the product manufacturing strategy and life cycle. Many of the leading distributors in the industry are themselves now offering quick-turn services to meet the more urgent requirements of CEMs and OEMs worldwide, so building strong sustainable relationships in the supply chain is key.

In the longer term, CEMs must manage and grow their NPI and quick-turn manufacturing capabilities and ensure the highest skills mix is maintained. We must work towards bridging the skills gap in the electronics industry in the UK, but there should also be a steer towards those design for excellence (DFx) and new product introduction remits that include much wider manufacturing and commercial awareness of a product, including its supply chain and complete product life cycle.

At Stadium’s UK iEMS facility in Hartlepool, a dedicated quick-turn production area has been created, which runs autonomously from the remainder of the main manufacturing area. It provides customers with access to a dedicated engineering and procurement team that aims to provide a complete solution for new product prototyping and low volume production; with the option of transferring production to Stadium’s lower cost offshore facilities, should market coverage or global parallel production be required.