Ladle on Manufacturing: Making Suppliers Work for You

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Editor’s note: Marc Ladle is our newest columnist and will be writing from the perspective of the PCB equipment supplier, offering info and insights along the way.

It may sound obvious, but there can be some big advantages to gain from spending time with your machine suppliers that you may not be aware of.

Currently, I work for a successful manufacturing equipment supplier in the UK, but before that I worked for three different printed circuit fabricators over a period of 15 years, in quality, production and engineering, making products from single-sided boards to high-density backplanes. The experience I have gained since working as an equipment supplier would have been very useful while I was still an engineer in the factory, making PCBs. It can be quite an isolated existence working in the same factory and seeing similar production problems day after day. One can slowly become desensitised to common faults and often accept them as part of the normal process of production.

The same can be true of equipment. Slowly you get used to its shortcomings and find ways to work around them. Having the opportunity to replace old equipment or an alternative process may allow you to remove the compromises, and with it, reduce scrap levels and operator errors. The key to gaining the greatest benefit is to make sure you understand the full range of possibilities for the new process and how they would benefit production.

Working as part of the installation team for a machine supplier offers the opportunity to be constantly introduced to new machine features and innovations. Just as importantly, when installing machines with new features at customer sites, there is an opportunity to see how successful they are in a production environment. All of this is knowledge slowly accrues into a catalogue that may be useful to future customers.

Buying new manufacturing equipment should be a pleasant experience. You can gain capacity or make a technical improvement or replace an unreliable machine. Just as important, a new machine should make like easier on your operators, and happy operators usually make better product. Your suppliers are there to help you to make the best decisions and to gain the greatest advantage possible for your manufacturing process.

I am often surprised at the lack of effort and attention to detail from companies who are intending to spend considerable amounts of money on a new machine. Time spent on developing a specification prior to placing an order can have a big payback in the long term.

Every company has its own way of doing things. For some, the engineering team develops a detailed specification for the equipment they would like to purchase and this is put out to multiple suppliers for tender, along with full documentation for the commercial terms that will apply to the purchase. At the other end of the scale, a machine inquiry can be a simple phone call: “How much for a new machine?”

Either way, an opportunity may already have been missed. Machine and process development is a constant evolution and I would like to suggest that there is a large potential benefit to fully checking out what the market may have to offer. You may get some of this from machinery exhibitions and shows, but there is no substitute for the level of detail that can be discussed when you meet face to face.

I would always advise customers to be as open as possible about discussing their production problems. I like to look through people’s scrap bins (with their permission of course) to help form an idea of where improvement is most likely to be possible. I can promise you that there can be direct benefits to this that are not dependant on making a purchase. It is a chance for production engineers to discuss issues with someone who may have some outside experience (and fresh perspective), which could bring instant relief.

Make some time to visit the manufacturer at their own factory wherever possible. Often, this will give you access to the people responsible for R&D of products. These are the people who can give you an insight into the new features that may relate to your process. It is also the best opportunity to get an idea of how different manufacturers compare to each other, with regard to personnel and facilities. Seeing the shop floor and machines being assembled will give you plenty of information for comparison of manufacturing standards between suppliers.

When I visit a machine supplier with a customer, if there is time, I try to walk through all the available machinery in manufacturing—the more diverse the equipment, the better the experience. As an example, when looking at wet process equipment, I have shown PCB fabricators machinery for manufacturing LCD screens. The design of the dryer sections was particularly interesting, with air knives angled at 45o to the conveyor, an arrangement that takes up more room but gives a very efficient cut of water from the process surface. The point I am trying to make is that there is a potential to gain knowledge of proven process solutions, which could be very useful in the future.

You should also ask your suppliers to arrange visits to their other customers to see similar processes in operation. An opportunity to see other factories is always a benefit. Often, this will allow you to talk to people at all levels, from operators right through to factory owners, about reliability, maintenance and after sales. Your specialty may not be the same but there may be similar issues and sometimes it is good to have another angle on how to deal with process problems. Just because you have made visits before is no excuse not to look again—in machine design, things can remain stable for years and suddenly change quite quickly.

When all of this is done, both sides should be in a much better position to sit down and discuss the specific process requirements for the machine to be purchased. View the buying process as an opportunity to gather useful information and let your suppliers add some value.

Marc Ladle is director at Viking Test Ltd.


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