How to avoid damaged metalwork from entering your supply chain

Whether the parts are bent, scratched, or showing signs of imperfection, metalwork issues can cause all kinds of headaches for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and electronic manufacturing services (EMS) providers alike.

The cost of scrapping such items can quickly mount up. And, as they are often bespoke, it’s uncommon that extra parts are ordered "just in case".

Depending on raw material availability, complexity and the final specification, receiving replacement items to cover damaged parts can take several weeks - eating away at precious manufacturing lead times.

Thankfully, there are a number of steps both OEMs and EMS providers can take to avoid some of the more common issues that result in poor quality metalwork entering their supply chain.

Let’s take a look at some of these now.

Supplier approval process and capabilities

If you are experiencing frequent issues with incoming goods, it’s worth checking if these are confined to one or two metalwork suppliers or if they are emanating from multiple suppliers across the supply chain. If the majority of your problems are coming from a single supplier, then you clearly need to address the specific issues with them.

However, if your problems are spread across a number of your suppliers, then you may have to look a little closer to home first. How effective is your supplier approval process? Are the suppliers you are using capable of producing consistent products or have they been stretched outside of their comfort zone to deliver an order at a set price? Do you have a documented metalwork strategy in place? Are your suppliers aware of your cosmetic guidelines and have they signed up to achieve these?

If suppliers are unclear on your policy and are not aware of what quality standards will pass or fail at goods inwards inspection, then there is a risk that reject rates will remain high. 

Feedback loop

If your approval process is robust and the suppliers are capable but are currently failing to deliver what you need, discussions will be required to restate your requirements and expectations. Regular business reviews should be held, regardless of whether there is a current performance issue, as they provide a platform for both parties to meet and update one another on current requirements and plans for the future.

Any quality issues you are experiencing should be recorded and reported back in real time. There should be no surprises; issues should not be left to build up just because the next scheduled meeting is not due for a few more weeks. To help support this feedback, it is imperative your logistics team have systems in place to report back quality issues to the commodity manager so they can monitor trends and address any problems directly.   

Handling, packaging and transportation

The majority of quality issues associated with metalwork typically occur due to poor handling, packaging or the way it is transported. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all, and some parts are more susceptible to damage than others. If you are seeing the same issues occurring with a particular item repeatedly, it’s well worth discussing alternative handling and packaging methods with your supplier.

In general, sheet metal parts should be wrapped in paper first and then with a layer of bubble wrap. Without the first layer of paper, there is a risk the bubble wrap leaves an impression mark, which can lead to cosmetic rejections if the surface has been painted, anodised or powder coated. To protect sheet metal items further, you may want to investigate separating each part by a foam insert or divider of some kind.

With larger fabricated items, like electrical enclosures or cabinets, you may need to develop a more bespoke solution. Shrink wrap and corner protectors are often used but, while they may seem adequate for new units leaving the factory for the first time, this kind of packaging can introduce quality issues at the receiving site. That’s because, to visually inspect the incoming cabinets, the logistics team have to remove the shrink wrap and corner protectors. If the inspector uses a knife to cut through the shrink wrap, they risk scratching the cabinet surface. The plastic corner protectors can also move up and down during transit, sometimes leaving marks where they have rubbed the painted surface. And, of course, once the item has been stripped bare of its original packaging it then remains exposed and at risk during the rest of its time on site.

You may find that custom packaging solutions will, in some cases, be a wise investment in the longer term. For example, replacing shrink wrap and plastic corner protectors with a double walled cardboard box with built in foam protection that easily slots over the unit so it can be lifted on/off could work much better. The unit would remain protected during transit; the incoming logistics team could easily inspect the item without having to use a knife; and, providing no manufacturing issues are found, the product could then remain covered while it was being stored.

Depending on the exact specification and strength of the packaging design, in some cases, custom packaging solutions can also be used as a way of protecting the finished product while en route to the end user.

Machined parts can be delivered from the supplier in a variety of different ways. At one end of the spectrum, you may find the supplier simply delivers them unprotected, loose, in a box or crate. If they have not been made aware what the parts are used on, or you have not specified your requirements, how would they know to do more? At the other end of the scale, the supplier may be using plastic netting or mesh sleeve to transport their parts to you. This particular solution is relatively cost effective, reusable, can be colour coded if required and used to transport a variety of different size and shape parts.

You will probably find that the majority of suppliers of machined parts will protect their goods using a combination of paper and bubble wrap, depending on the size, shape and weight of the item. In many cases, this will suffice but if you are seeing particular parts getting damaged during transport on a regular basis, it’s worth considering the plastic netting option.

Quite often, it is possible to see a significant reduction in poor quality or damaged metalwork by making small changes to the way things are packed and transported. Simple, changes like adding an extra layer of paper before bubble wrap, as mentioned earlier, could be all that is needed to stop the same parts being rejected month in, month out.

Bespoke packaging solutions will require more time to investigate and in the majority of cases more investment. As a result, it’s worth exploring if the packaging can be recycled easily during the process or if it is possible to use the same packaging to protect the final product during shipment to the end customer.

The critical point is to ensure that you are working with the right suppliers, and any quality issues you are seeing are captured and reported back. Having a clearly defined strategy with cosmetic guidelines in place will help educate your suppliers and, as a result, reduce the amount of damaged metalwork entering your supply chain.

Image by Alan Stanton

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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.