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How to get the optimum out of a PCB factory – 7 important tips from our Factory Management

by Jack Kei, Managing Director, China

NCAB Group has a strong presence at our factories. This to ensure our production is geared towards producing the best possible quality PCBs. The task is extensive and many faceted, includes being present in the factories, having dedicated NCAB focused teams among factory staff and carrying out regular audits and other follow-ups.

View from PCb factory | NCAB Group

Our factory management work is many-sided, from the selection of factories to work with, continuous monitoring and evaluation of the quality they deliver, to providing training and handling problems and complaints. Jack Kei, Managing Director NCAB Group China, tells us more about the different parts of that process, and what to think about to get the optimum out of a PCB factory.

1. CHOOSING FACTORIES TO WORK WITH BASED ON MARKET NEEDS
”There are two stages to our factory selection, or sourcing process. The first one involves scanning all available PCB factories in the current market, for example in China there are 1600 factories, as well as a number of other factories in other parts of Asia. We subdivide them into different types, based on the kind of PCBs they manufacture, as well as how their business is developing. This first stage comprises a ten-step evaluation process in all. On the basis of the information we’ve gathered, we draw up a detailed list of the factories that we feel we could work with and feed it into a database, which is then continuously updated by our sourcing team.

”In phase two of the sourcing process, we take into consideration our customers’ future PCB needs. This will give us an indication of what parts of our production capacity we need to adapt or build up. We then check the database of selected factories and draw up a short list of appropriate manufacturers who might be able to help us meet those future requirements. The next step will see our sourcing team carry out detailed evaluations of those factories. The whole process comprises over 20 steps and includes meeting their top management and conducting pre-assessments and on-site visits to evaluate if they meet the standards required to qualify as an NCAB class factory.

“Our evaluation does not only take in the commercial aspects. Our PCB specialists in the sourcing team evaluate quality issues and we also look at the logistics and sustainability side of things. It is when we are focusing on the latter area that we conduct an audit specifically geared to determine how the factory in question works with sustainability. We then identify what may need to be addressed before we can start working with them. For us, sustainability is not just about water emissions and child labour, we have, for example, found faulty emergency showers, fire fighting equipment that has been blocked and unpaid insurance premiums. Obviously these things hardly affect the quality of the board, but can definitely cause problems when it comes to ensuring sustainable deliveries; a fire that is not extinguished quickly, can soon turn into a catastrophe.”

2. FINDING THE RIGHT FACTORY FOR EACH SPECIFIC CASE
“We look for the best factories in each of the areas where we see growth and where our customers have such needs. In the sourcing process, we apply a points system based on a number of criteria, with each factory awarded points according to the criteria it meets. The scoring system we have developed covers all relevant parameters. Thus this approach enables us to zoom in on the best alternatives for each specific case.

“Basically, we look at two main aspects of the factories. First of all we evaluate the factory’s performance, in terms of such factors as quality, capacity, price and last but not least, service. What is their customer support like? How are they structured? What are their objectives? How well do our expectations match? Of course we also have a very strong focus on determining how good they really are at making boards, as this will provide us with some level of understanding as to how they might perform as our partners. To be able to do this, it is vital the factory management team has a detailed knowledge of the industry.

“Secondly, we look at their degree of willingness to cooperate with NCAB. We seek close relationships. That’s why it is important that NCAB and the factory match each other with regard to business strategy. We want them to be on the right track, have the ambition to grow their operations on the international market, as well as build up and improve their management side. When our sourcing team are in the process of assessing potential new partner factories, they get to meet their top management, production management and quality managers. During our preparatory audit, we meet many different teams at the factory, which allows us to build a picture of whether it is a good business or not.”

Sustainability audit in PCB factory | NCAB Group
“We implement more comprehensive audits annually, where we review all aspects of production, culminating in an improvement plan. This covers improvements not only in quality issues, but also in the work environment, technology and logistics.”

 

3. MONITORING, MAINTAINING AND IMPROVING QUALITY
“We take a holistic approach to these issues and strive toward continuous improvements. During the sourcing process, we check production equipment, raw materials and process controls. We also maintain dialogue with the factory staff to monitor their skill and knowledge and compare our findings to the information we’d been provided with.

“When we finally start working with a factory, we continue to monitor things on a daily basis. We have our own staff at the factories; a Production Quality Engineer (PQE), together with one or two Quality Controllers (QCs). They keep a close eye on processes, personnel and results. We take sample checks of each delivery and if we detect any problem that may need addressing, we take the necessary steps immediately. We follow up the specific factory’s manufacturing figures. Based on our findings, we conduct mini audits of those processes that we feel should be improved. The conclusions we draw help us to formulate a list of actions and required activities that we ask the factory to implement. After an agreed period of time we then return to the factory, so that we may follow up their progress on site.

“We also implement more comprehensive audits annually, where we review all aspects of production, culminating in an improvement plan. This covers improvements not only in quality issues, but also in work environment, technology and logistics. This greatly benefits the factories, as it helps them develop their operations. It is positive all round, with our way of working providing positive synergy to both the factories as well as customers.”

4. SECURING THE LOGISTICS SIDE
“Our logistics team ensures that customer deliveries are made on time. We use an application that we have developed ourselves, which enables us to see, real-time, whether the PCB deliveries are in accordance with the agreed and confirmed schedules, with the system alerting us if it detects a risk of a delivery being delayed. If such is the case, we contact our team at the factory and discuss how to best solve it. Real-time monitoring allows us to keep a good check on the logistics. Moreover, it enables us to see the trends over time for the factory, per week or month, and tackle any issues that may arise with them.”

5. SECURING THE SUSTAINABILITY SIDE OF OUR OPERATIONS
”We place the same priority on sustainability as we do on quality. During the sourcing process, the factories have to pass a sustainability audit as part of the qualification process. We have had instances where qualification has been delayed, while the factory completes the required sustainability related measures. The same applies for our existing factories, as they are also subjected to the same sustainability audit, where they have to meet the very same sustainability requirements. Our people are trained and certified in this area and we help the factories (through audits and management and staff training) not only achieve our demands but have a broader impact in these areas. The attention the PCB industry in general pays to sustainability falls well below that of NCAB’s.

Quality check of printed circuit boards | NCAB Group
To ensure the best quality for our customers, we set up a dedicated team from among the factory’s own staff. We train this dedicated team ourselves, an approach that boosts the quality of the final result. This essentially results in us having 20 quality inspectors on-site instead of two.

 

6. CHOOSING AND TRAINING FACTORY PERSONNEL
“Our own quality personnel at the factories have received thorough training in, among other things, IPC standards. This in turn equips them to take on leadership roles at the factories; monitoring, guiding and supporting their employees as part of the journey towards improved performance. To ensure the best quality for our customers, we set up a dedicated team from among the factory’s own staff. We train this dedicated team ourselves, an approach that boosts the quality of the final result. This essentially means we have 20 quality inspectors on-site instead of two who we know are both focused and well versedin our, and our customers’ demands. This is something that we firmly believe helps to increase customer satisfaction and improve logistics/delivery performance. We also follow up our dedicated teams through tests and other means of evaluation. “This also shows how important our overall purchasing power is. Since we are major customers at the factories, they listen to us and
are comfortable with making the necessary efforts to meet our requirements and expectations. At the same time, their factory management is fully aware that through our know-how and quality thinking we can help them develop. ”

7. DEALING WITH ERRORS
“Learning from our mistakes is paramount for us and I can confidently say that within NCAB, we always strive to find the real cause of the problem, to find out why there has been an error and what caused it? We work on two fronts when something within the production process, or our own internal processes, does not go to plan. Firstly, to minimize the effect on the customer through containment actions and also to establish a prompt recovery plan to cover immediate needs. We then work with the factory to identify and remedy the root cause of the problem. The outcome is that the customer minimizes their costs through reduced downtime and reduced problems, while the factory saves costs in the long term by having improved its production. To handle quality problems in the correct manner, it’s vital to have a total grasp of the PCB manufacturing process. We should not get put off by complaints, but see them as an opportunity for improvement. This is also what taking full responsibility for customers is all about.”