Fresh Thinking on the Logistics of Laminate Distribution
Mark Goodwin, COO of Europe and the Americas for Ventec International Group, sits down with Barry Matties to explain his approach to supply chain management, efficient distribution, and maintaining definitive product identity at every stage.
Barry Matties: Mark, I recently visited your plant in Kirchheimbolanden (“KiBo”), Germany and was very impressed with the operation from the point of view of logistics. I also had some very interesting conversations with Frank Lorentz, general manager at the facility. There’s a lot of opportunity for the whole concept of logistics in the operation that you’re running.
Mark Goodwin: In terms of logistics, this is a question of systems for us and links into traceability. There’s the physical movement of material and customer service, of course, but just as important are all of those additional benefits relating to service levels and the ability to provide detailed traceability. We have a lot of ongoing investment in our ERP system. For us, it’s a logistics management system that is all about material control. We are already barcoding all of our materials packaging on the way into our stock and on deliveries to our customers in terms of labeling, and we’re now looking at ways of physically marking the material. We already have the capability to etch a QR code onto copper and read it on a scanner or a mobile phone. And we’re going to have QR selection of material and QR control along the whole process inside Ventec with the potential for customers to use it in their own process and gain the benefits as well.
Everybody thinks the laminate business is straightforward. You have copper-clad plastic, and it gets cut up. What could be simpler? But one piece of copper-clad plastic looks much like another piece of copper-clad plastic; it could be 0.2 millimeters, 0.25, or 0.3 And when you’re handling a lot of materials, things could easily go wrong unless you have systems in place. Our objective is to move this control away from reliance on people, who are fallible, to a computer system-driven approach to ensure accuracy even when operating at a fast pace. Getting system control of material identification is key for this, but then there’s also the wider concept of product substitution and counterfeiting that goes on in the world, and controlling and proving provenance of materials throughout the supply chain into our customers warehouse, and even beyond to their customers; we’re thinking about that, too.
There have been instances where materials and components have proven to have been subject to unauthorized material substitutions or even suspected as counterfeits. With the Certificate of Conformance (C of C) paperwork, and with our records of sales and deliveries, we have full traceability, ensuring our customers can be sure when the material is delivered that it is what they requested, but this is not in anything like real-time. By the time it’s identified, it’s already a problem; we are looking at ways to change that.
Matties: I would also think that, depending on the critical nature of the end product, there has to be a thorough front-end inspection if it’s going into a high-reliability situation, for example, because you can’t have this failing.
Goodwin: Ventec works entirely with its own distribution channel. I’m sure at the point of shipping the material that we’re shipping Ventec material because we don’t have anybody else’s material.
Matties: And that’s one of the advantages of Ventec.
Goodwin: Yes, it is a huge advantage. What happens from there on, either accidentally or deliberately, we can’t control; however, we can trace back today to the point of shipment. I have that level of traceability already, without too much difficulty, but after the event. We know what we delivered, where to, and in what quantity. We need feedback on certain information to confirm this, but we can demonstrate traceability to this point with current paper-based systems. There’s work going on in IPC about material counterfeiting, but we have to be careful with that terminology in the laminate business. What does counterfeiting mean? I’m not convinced people are out there making a Ventec lookalike laminate.
Some PCB shops may say laminates are basically the same and interchange them—using IPC slash sheet numbers, for example—because they don’t have the Ventec or other manufacturers’ material in stock. I am sure this has happened historically in the FR-4 business for years, because in that business, it mostly doesn’t matter, and without using something like an FTIR scan, the OEM could not tell which manufacturers’ material was used. And if you’re dealing with one of the more professional manufacturers of FR-4, frankly speaking, everybody makes a good product.
Most of the differentiation comes down to service, logistics, price, etc. However, in the newer materials, such as IMS for thermal management and our tec-speed, high-speed, low-loss, and high-frequency product ranges, the material is a component in the system. They’re not just a physical carrier of the interconnect anymore; they are a component that delivers critical performance in the end product, and that’s where it’s becoming critical to both avoid and catch any material substitution.
We have to think about this topic and how to give people confidence. One thing you can be confident about with Ventec is if you talk to Ventec in Europe, it’s connected back to manufacturing sites in Asia with nobody in between; they’re all Ventec people. It’s a secure pipeline to market; if mistakes happen after that, it’s mostly down to process or human error. When one piece of laminate looks very much like another piece of laminate, you need to have solutions in place to help differentiate and ensure correct selection. This could be a human-readable inkjet marking at its simplest, but I am more interested in a computer-readable solution that is less easy to implement and much harder to remove than ink, so a robust, system-readable solution.
My plan is to give the customer a way of checking the physical material when they pick the stock from their inventory with computer verification, potentially including a feedback loop to our lot number database as it goes into and through their process. By removing the reliance on a paper trail, we remove reliance on operator accuracy. And for laminate, I already have a small-scale solution, which we are working to scale up.
We’re taking it one step at a time. We can do it on copper-clad material, and even unclad laminate. However, prepreg is another challenge, and the result on laminate is readable on a mobile phone, so it can be quickly checked in the field without any special equipment and is small enough not to take up too much real estate, which is a cost, of course.
Matties: That’s important.
Goodwin: Right, it needs to be small enough not to consume space and big enough to read it reliably with a simple mobile phone app. That was the challenge I gave my people, and we’re pretty much there. The next step is to get all our sheets from our manufacturing facility in Suzhou marked this way so that we have physical traceability of each piece of material coming into the service centers, not just the paper-based system. Then, we cut that material into panels and will implement a process to mark each one in a timescale that still allows us to deliver in the 24–48 hours that our customers request. It has to be linked to our ERP and automated to ensure accuracy and efficiency. We also have to have enough bandwidth because you can’t have a delivery bottleneck in a quick turn environment.
The scale-up is something we’re looking at quite closely at the moment, and we have some CAPEX budget for it in 2020. By 2021, maybe we’ll have it cracked on all laminates, or at least on the high-end products, which is where it’s most critical. Again, it’s simple enough to do in your laminate manufacturing facility. But the biggest part of the industry, at least in the Western world, is supplied via complex supply chains by distributors of one sort or another, whether they’re like Ventec—which is vertically integrated—or third-party distribution channels. You have to get joined up control through each of those steps.
Matties: Exactly. Going back to logistics, is the focus on bringing material in, identifying it, marking it, and distributing it with those marks? The passion Frank has for systems thinking, organization, and efficiency is impressive. You must have already noticed an increase in your bottom line because of the way that he has retooled the system.
Goodwin: Frank is a superstar. I’m glad we brought somebody in from outside the industry. We’re holding less inventory and moving it faster. We know what inventory we’re moving, we’re packaging it better, and it’s arriving at our customers in better shape and faster. Add in the physical traceability we are working on, and it’s really something of value to the customers; they can potentially use it in their own processes as well.
Matties: That’s what I’m emphasizing; Frank doesn’t know anything about laminates.
Goodwin: And he doesn’t need to, but he is learning rapidly anyway; he is a smart guy. But what he really needs to know is how to organize the facility workflow to drive efficiency and accuracy. That it’s the right product, in the right quantity, and at the right time, with full traceability. He’s a logistics expert. We have a company full of laminate experts, so putting the two together is very powerful.
Matties: Beyond his logistics expertise, he’s also a cultural expert because the culture of what’s going on in your organization that he’s brought this logistics thinking is contagious. Frank is fostering communication on a daily basis with five-minute stand-up meetings each morning, and people are talking about how to make things better. They’re bringing ideas because he has fostered an environment that welcomes ideas from the team and implements them on a systems level.
Goodwin: Ventec’s business has always been in that direction, but we must make it more so. The people doing the job day in and day out usually have the best ideas. You have to give them a forum where they feel comfortable sharing those ideas with their colleagues. I don’t even use the word managers because I don’t feel like managing people, I like working together with intelligent, motivated colleagues.
Matties: His analogy was more like every team has a coach, or every orchestra has a conductor.
Goodwin: That’s how I see my job as well. We need to bring this resource from there to do this job and have it go all the way through Ventec. If you talk to Jason Chung, he’ll say, “I’m the CEO, but that doesn’t matter. I am a good colleague to all these great people around me. Together, we drive improvement; that’s Ventec’s culture.
Matties: What drives a business is the systems from start to finish; every one of those processes has to be interconnected and move smoothly without bottlenecks, all the way down to the methodology of shipping. Frank is organizing the truckloads to make sure that it’s the most efficient use of shipping.
Goodwin: Eighteen months ago in KiBo, we used a consolidated transport provider. The shipments went in and out of a hub, and sometimes, we had damaged pallets from the numerous handling steps. We’re shipping right over Europe now with point-to-point transport, at a lower cost than we had when we were going through a centralized, consolidated hub. But you have to know what’s possible, how to access it, and how to negotiate the right price. You also have to ensure the carriers understand and respect that they carry the reputation of our business in their hands with every delivery.
In some cases, we can’t do that shipping every day, so we’ve gone to the customers. For example, we have a very good customer in Barcelona, and we have agreed to ship to them twice per week, but it’s now point-to-point shipment. The customer knows when the shipments will leave and when they will arrive and can plan with confidence. We know what the pallets look like when they go out the door. By the way, we photograph every pallet that goes out of our place, and the photograph is indexed with the delivery note number, so we know how it left us and have a visual record, and not using transport hubs reduces handling and opportunity for any damage associated with it.
Matties: Frank also reduced the time and improved quality. An example may be prepreg. If you don’t ship on a Friday, it ships on a Monday; previously, it could sit in a container somewhere.
Goodwin: We had no control over that. It is controlled by driving hours legislation over the weekend, but Frank changed it and got control.
Matties: But when you ship on a Monday, it’s there in the allotted time and under a controlled circumstance. You’re also using insulated and cooling packing, which is brilliant.
Goodwin: We’re distribution people as well as laminators, and my life has always been at the back end of the laminate factory, cutting, packaging, and shipping materials. We think we know about logistics, but it has moved so far since companies like Amazon and eBay drove solutions for smaller, more frequent deliveries. This means there are so many more solutions available to you now.
You need somebody who has played around in those environments. Frank has a background in electronics distribution and the print media market, which has the same kinds of concepts; he came with a completely different perspective on logistics than I had and said, “We can do much better than this.” I said, “If you can do much better than this at a cost that our customers can accept, fill your boots, my friend, and get on with it.”
Matties: Your German facility has this thinking, but how do you take that into your other facilities?
Goodwin: We’re restructuring our organization now. Mels Wolters also comes from outside of the industry, and he’s currently the operations manager in the U.K. office, where we have 1,500–1,600 order lines a month. We have 24–72 hours to deliver them, and it is very high mix; there are many small quantities as well, so it’s sink or swim, and he swims. Mels is working closely with Frank, and I’m moving him up into a group operational role encompassing all of the business units, including the U.K., the U.S., and Germany. I want him to work with me and the team of general managers from all our business units, to bring what we’re doing with our system development and our packaging and all other aspects to a standardized level across all of Ventec’s overseas business units, rolling out and sharing best practice.
Will that be completely uniform? No, but it will be uniform to a point, with local flavor, because each of our markets is slightly different. And we’re not going to make one size fit all. Up to a point, we want to get as much standardization as we can; after a point, we’ll customize for a region, or right down to a customer.
Matties: We met Luisa Schemmel from your customer service team in Germany, and she is brilliant, too.
Goodwin: She’s a fantastic lady; we’re very pleased with her. When we started with Luisa a couple of years ago, she was focused on “doing what management told her to do.” I said, “No, it’s your job to tell me what you want to do, and I’ll tell you whether I see a problem or not.” Mostly, I don’t see problems, and where I do see a problem, I don’t say “no.” Instead, I say, “Be aware of this, and then work it out.” I told the guys in KiBo that it’s their business unit to run. In the end, I carry the responsibility for the job being done well, but if I surround myself with good people, I’m doing a good job. The biggest part of my job is getting good people and valuing them. Successful outcomes result from sharing the experience with all of the team.
For example, you’ve seen our U.K. operation. Good people run that business unit without me having to be there to make every decision for them. The same is true in KiBo and increasingly in the U.S. as well. We want a caliber of person at all levels that engages with the business, so what I want to do now is lift them up through the business with personal development, to do the more interesting jobs. I have a very good factory guy in Kibo, and we’ve already sent him to China to learn about materials and lamination, he is destined for a custome- facing quality or technical role. I want to find good people, whatever their background. But finding people with PCB experience who are available and developing and retaining them to keep the business moving forward is tough right now in the West.
Goodwin: As Frank said, it’s about coaching a team; he was a great hire.
Matties: Related to the changes you’ve been making, people always say, “Go look at your competitors.” But what I look for is who’s doing it the best in any industry; for example, you mentioned Amazon, and they’re one of the best at delivery.
Goodwin: I like to walk through factories in any industry and see what’s going on. I recently saw how they were sorting material in a recycling facility. They built a photographic database of the packaging, can manipulate the pixels so that a computer can recognize each item in the mixed wastestream, and link that to traceability data so that they could use computer systems to effectively control most efficient segregation of mixed waste at the front end of a recycling process. It was very interesting.
There are so many technologies out there now. We have to narrow this down to the ones that have legs for us to take this forward. This is key to the physical product traceability of the material. That inadvertent or deliberate product substitution and counterfeit opportunity could all be taken out with these technologies, if they are integrated practically into our supply chain and logistics processes. Integration is often the challenging part because sometimes, you have to change completely the way you’ve been thinking for years and bring people with you.
Matties: The cool thing is you have Frank, who’s helping people see that anything is possible. And that allows you to bring in new concepts, so that shift becomes much easier. That’s the culture you’re creating. Well done, Mark.
Goodwin: Look at the Autolam concept; that is another different way of thinking. We have all these laminates and prepregs out there and loads of great products for 5G, thermal management, harsh environments, etc. How do you market those products? Why not ask, “What do the automotive companies need?” They have all kinds of applications. It’s going to be a server on wheels by the time it’s done. Even the 5G and signal integrity materials have a place in vehicles. With Autolam, we have a curated set of materials for this sector.
The next one is Aerolam because one of our other big market sectors is aerospace and military, but there will be crossover. Some of the materials that are in the Autolam materials guide will be in the Aerolam materials guide, but there may be different emphasis on the way we present the data and materials. If you’re in aerospace, for example, reliability means something different than in the automotive business. We have to present the data in a way that’s relevant to our customers without them having to filter through all the great things we have to offer. We have to get to the subset that’s relevant to them.
Matties: We talked a lot about that in our experts meeting on standards a few months back.
Goodwin: It links directly to that. We have an automotive set of materials. We developed a set of functionalities that can be built into specifications specifically for automotive applications because we can’t go on specifying by resin chemistry; it’s meaningless in terms of functionality now. If you’re a PCB or OEM company, as long as the material manufacturer is compliant with all the environmental and health and safety legislation, do you care how we make it? Or do you care more about what it does for you and the functionality it delivers in your products? That’s where we need to focus.
Matties: What has the response been?
Goodwin: The response has been, “Who’s going to pick it up and drive it?” Believe me; we understand it’s a big job. Alun Morgan has been involved in this with me, as well. We’re hoping to start the discussion, and from the discussion, who knows what will come. But if we don’t talk about it, we’ll keep doing the same old stuff.
Matties: We started the discussion, and I’ve heard people talking about this.
Goodwin: Let’s see what happens at IPC APEX EXPO when we get to talk to IPC about this. Many people have invested a lot into IPC-4101E, and while we’re not tearing up it up completely, we are tearing up one half that talks about resin chemistry and resin systems. Then, the focus moves to the other half, which is the part already driven by physical and functional things like Tg, Td, MOT, Dk, and Df. Maybe we need to expand this other half and reduce the emphasis on how we put the products together.
Matties: There are so many choices out there, it’s overwhelming, so it’s nice to have a filter.
Goodwin: And it’s not going to get better; it’s only going to get worse. Look at how many different materials we have in our Autolam materials guide. It has turned into a 52-page document, and that’s everything from ultra-thin dielectrics to thermally conducted dielectrics for thermal management, PTFE materials, and hydrocarbon materials for 5G, antennas, etc. These are poles apart, and in the middle, we have one standard 150-Tg FR-4 for ECUs.
Matties: All in one car. It’s such a diverse product grouping. Mark, it’s always great to sit down and chat with you. We’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about you feel like we should include?
Goodwin: It’s all very exciting. And we’re changing our emphasis. We’ll still support our FR-4 customers, but we’re becoming a materials technology company, not only a laminator.
Matties: Thank you, Mark.