How can I compare EMS providers and create my shortlist?

Finding the right electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider for your business can be a challenge. According to the latest Reed Electronics Research report, in the UK alone there are reportedly 240 different suppliers. And this figure rises steadily into the thousands when you begin to move into Europe and the rest of the world.

Perhaps this is part of the problem? With so many potential EMS companies to choose from, how do you go about comparing one against the other?

The traditional EMS tier system doesn't really help either. It focuses on revenue figures and, although these can give original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) a sense of scale, you have to ask yourself how relevant they are when comparing suppliers. Does bigger equate to better? And then there are those "buyer guides" tucked away in the back of industry magazines, designed to give OEMs a quick overview of the services and solutions on offer. I'd argue these are flawed too. Most, if not all, are paid directory listings – adverts, essentially – resulting in multiple ticks being placed in multiple boxes.

We understand that trying to compare EMS suppliers and create a shortlist is hard work. Unfortunately, we haven't come up with the ultimate cheat sheet to help you find the perfect partner. But we thought it would be useful to share 15 or so questions we recommend you do ask, in order to start collating meaningful data. Armed with the answers, you should then be able to starting making informed comparisons between those UK EMS providers you are considering partnering with.

1. How long have they been established? More importantly, what have they achieved during this time? Ideally, you're looking for an EMS provider that can demonstrate to you they have a number of years' experience, have evolved their service offering over time and continue to grow.

2. Are they financially stable? Do they belong to a larger group of companies? What impression do you get when looking through company credit reports, like those available from creditsafe?

3. Which markets do they serve? Are they focused on a handful or do they try and cater to all?

4. Have you managed to find images or videos of products similar to your own in terms of size and complexity on their website? If you can't, how confident are you that they will be able to build and test yours?

5. Do they hold all of the quality standards and accreditations you and your customers require? EMS suppliers with a large number of quality standards across multiple sectors don't necessarily offer a better solution than those that focus on one or two.

6. Where are they based? Do they have multiple manufacturing facilities or just one? How important is the location of their manufacturing plant in comparison to your own site? And do they have the flexibility and capacity to grow with you in the future?

7. What does the internal structure look like? Is it clear who would look after your account once a decision to outsource has been made? Do you get the impression your contact would be empowered internally to make things happen on your behalf?

8. What does the escalation route look like should a problem occur? Are the leadership and management teams visible to you? Do they possess the skills required to drive their business and yours forward?

9. How thorough are the supply chain management services on offer? Will you benefit from a truly global supply base or is their offering limited when it comes to material procurement?

10. How are component obsolescence and authenticity issues managed? Do they have the relevant systems, procedures and capital equipment in place to mitigate risks to the supply chain?

11. What range of manufacturing services do they offer? You'll find that the majority of UK EMS providers will offer printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) but do you need a higher level of manufacturing capability, like cabinet or electro-mechanical assembly? Although you may not need these immediately, partnering with an EMS supplier with a breadth of capabilities will allow you to outsource more of your manufacturing in the future to a single supplier.

12. How much support will you need from the EMS supplier's engineering team? Do they offer design for manufacture (DfM) or design for test (DfT) services? Are these important to you?

13. How robust is their New Product Introduction (NPI) process? What level of documentation is provided and how do they communicate build progress back to their customers?

14. Will you need the EMS provider to test your products prior to shipment to you or the end user? If so, what range of test solutions do they offer and how experienced are their test technicians?

15. And finally what level of outbound logistics support are you going to need? If you're outsourcing just the PCBA or a small box build unit then it's unlikely you’ll run into any problems with the majority of UK EMS companies. But if you're looking to outsource large electrical cabinets, or complex electro-mechanical machines, specialist lifting equipment and packaging solutions may be required. Do they have it? 

I'm sure you’ll have your own set of questions and company policy when it comes to supplier approval but hopefully these 15 (plus) questions provide a good starting point. Quite often, EMS companies will list a number of other "differentiators" on their websites but it could be argued that many of these statistics are meaningless without having access to the core data.

While it sounds obvious, having clarity about your outsourcing objectives from day one will help speed up this process greatly. And if you need any help or support in understanding what could be achieved by implementing an outsourcing initiative, you could always take up some of the free and impartial advice on offer.

Image by Chris Lott

Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.