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Michigan-based EMS firm Saline Lectronics counts the military and aerospace industries among its key markets. The company provides PCB assembly, SMT, testing and inspection, and electromechanical box build services, and is certified to AS9100 and ITAR registered to guarantee customers that their products are manufactured with the most rigorous quality standards.
For this month’s issue of SMT Magazine, Davina McDonnell, director of marketing, discusses the latest technology and business trends driving the military and aerospace industries, the challenges in these markets—including supply chain issues such as obsolete parts and counterfeit components—and their strategies to stay ahead of the competition.
Las Marias: From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges when it comes to electronics assembly for the military and aerospace markets?
Davina McDonnell: The biggest challenge for many of our military/aerospace clients is making sure that we can get the required material in-house within a timely fashion. A lot of the custom components on these type of PCB assemblies have long lead times, which can make it difficult for us to deliver completed units within a timely fashion. With many of our clients, we encourage them to quote the project as soon as possible—that way we can give them an accurate picture of what to expect for lead time.
Las Marias: What new demands/requirements are your customers putting on you?
McDonnell: For critical applications, our military and aerospace customers need full transparency—they need to know everything that happens to their product during the manufacturing process from the very beginning to final packaging. With a lot of these products, we have to fully validate the manufacturing process and thoroughly document through PPAPs or other manufacturing controls that all of the requirements for that product have been met and followed. We need to ensure that we have full traceability of the supply chain, and the manufacturing process (including testing results).
Las Marias: What does Saline Lectronics do differently to address these challenges or requirements?
McDonnell: Beyond meeting the basic requirements to build these types of products, such as ITAR registration and AS9100 certification, we also have a full team of engineers, including electrical, mechanical, test and quality engineers, who work to establish clear product realization processes (PRPs) for each specific project and customer. These PRPs will include all the customer’s requirements for a build and detail exactly what needs to be done at every step of the project.
For traceability, we utilize Cogiscan’s Track, Trace and Control system to provide full traceability of the circuit board assembly. With this system, we offer traceability to the reference designator. We also perform any ESS testing in-house and work closely with our customers to guarantee that we’re following their requirements perfectly. Additionally, we offer conformal coating and potting in-house, which is atypical for other EMS providers of our scale.
Las Marias: Given the long period for developing wins in military/aerospace electronics contracting, how does Saline Lectronics balance that strategic business development effort in military/aerospace with more immediate opportunities in non-military markets you serve like commercial, medical and telematics?
McDonnell: While the sales cycle for aerospace/defense may be longer than other product lines, in general, it’s not that much longer than other customer types. It takes a lot of trust and certainty to contract out the manufacturing of a circuit board assembly, which typically leads to a longer sales cycle.
In general, we see a sales cycle of about more than six months—which can vary depending on customer and project—to land a production order. Our sales team does an excellent job of keeping our customer base diverse. They intentionally target customers in a wide variety of industries to keep up our diversification spread.
Las Marias: Component obsolescence continues to be a problem in military/aerospace markets. How do you ensure the availability of obsolete parts?
McDonnell: Without control over the product’s design, we’re often at the whim of what’s available in “broker land” to locate obsolete components. Luckily, many of our military/aerospace customers know about the obsolete components and engage in a last time buy, and provide those components to us for the actual build. If that’s not an option, we only work with certified brokers who can provide complete counterfeit testing to source any obsolete components. This is usually performed in conjunction with our customer. Any components from a broker that are needed for a military/aerospace application pass rigorous testing and approval from the customer before we procure them.
Las Marias: Counterfeit components are also a growing problem in military/aerospace supply chains. What are the things Saline Lectronics is doing to help mitigate the risk of receiving or installing a counterfeit part?
McDonnell: Saline Lectronics recognizes the risk associated with counterfeit parts and has the standard policy of always using franchised distributors unless directed by and approved by our customers. When an independent distributor is used, we are very selective! We take the following into consideration: Is this distributor a member of the Independent Distributors of Electronics Association (IDEA)? And do they have a certified quality management system? The distributor gets bonus points if they have the capabilities to properly process components such as IDEA-ICE-3000 certified inspectors, in-house X-ray and testing capability, marking testing, decapsulation; and if needed, third party facilities to provide further testing. We also perform rigorous inspections to parts that come in from independent distribution channels.
Las Marias: How do you ensure the security and reliability of your supply chain?
McDonnell: Not only do we validate our supplier’s certifications when we first initialize a relationship, but we also recheck them on a recurring basis through our supplier database system. We’re always monitoring our supplier delivery and quality performance. This helps us mitigate any minor issues from turning into major ones. Lastly, for risk mitigation we do our best to eliminate redundancy where possible within our supply chain.
Las Marias: What about cybersecurity? What strategy have you got in place to address this issue?
McDonnell: Our IT infrastructure has several safeguards to protect both on the periphery of our networks and within. These are under regular review by our IT Department in line with current standards that are appropriate for our business. We take data handling very seriously and have restrictive measures of control placed on different data categories particularly those pertaining to military/defense/aerospace information.
In addition, we have regular training for our staff regarding IT security awareness to ensure that all in our company remain vigilant to cybersecurity threats.