How to spot quality within electronics manufacturing service providers

Quality in manufacturing is a big issue. Compromise it and you threaten the viability and profitability of your venture through increased product recalls, returns and customer complaints.

As an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), you need to be sure your electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider makes the grade when it comes to planning, controlling, assuring and improving quality standard.

So what are the signs to look out for when it comes to finding a supplier who has quality at the heart of their operation? Well, in addition to all of the research you will already be conducting, here are seven areas for you to investigate further.

1. ISO credentials

ISO accreditations demonstrate a supplier’s dedication to consistently provide products and services that meet their customer's expectations. There are many ISO accreditations available; a number of which are focussed on a particular industry and some take more time and commitment to achieve than others.

The main one to look out for is ISO 9001, which is an internationally recognised standard for quality management systems (QMS). With over one million companies and organisations across 170 countries having implemented ISO 9001 so far, it’s unlikely the EMS providers you have been looking at don’t have this. However, if for some reason they don’t, at the very least they should be able to demonstrate to you they have a clear path to obtaining it as a way of proving their commitment to quality.

2. Document control

An EMS supplier that takes their quality responsibilities seriously will have a firm grip on document control. They must be able to seamlessly implement Engineering Change Notes (ECNs) that you send to them and securely store multiple versions of revision controlled build data. Their systems should be agile enough for real-time changes to be made - for example, the addition of care points, to avoid unnecessary build delays from occurring. Feedback collected from customers, or through the internal New Product Introduction (NPI) process, should be clearly documented so that improvements can be acted upon in a timely manner.

Without a robust document control system errors are inevitable. For example, out of date drawings could be used, resulting in an older revision product being manufactured. Or perhaps the latest version of software isn’t loaded in time prior to shipment. Where additional levels of traceability are required - for example, the recording of SIM card numbers against serial numbers and test results - the EMS provider must be able demonstrate that duplicate or inaccurate numbers cannot be entered into their system to prevent warranty issues from occurring.

3. Incident management

Understanding the systems used by the EMS supplier to track and manage quality issues will give you peace of mind knowing they are able to respond quickly should an issue arise. The system in place should be all encompassing; with the ability to record quality related incidents and feedback from the incoming supply chain, the internal production environment and external customers.

To ensure issues are addressed in a timely manner the system should have the ability to assign actions to appropriate team members. Where an incident crosses several departments, the system must also be able to seamlessly track and record the change in ownership during the investigation to avoid things stalling or becoming ambiguous in terms of responsibility.

It’s important the system being used to track quality incidents and process improvements is accessible to all staff. Careful consideration will need to be given to shop floor operatives where access to a PC may not always be possible as they are ideally placed to report back on quality issues or identify improvements during build and test stages.

Finally, senior management sponsorship in addressing quality issues and communicating efficiently with customers and suppliers is critical. Look for providers that can demonstrate to you they have "top down" commitment in driving quality improvement throughout their organisation.

4. Component management

Percentages vary slightly from product to product but the majority of the cost and lead-time associated with any electronic assembly is within the material. Supply chain management should therefore be a major focus for quality EMS providers. You can't afford for the supplier to be complacent when it comes to procurement and ongoing supplier management, as quality defects in components have the capacity to cause significant headaches.

Find out what processes are in place to track material back to source should a quality issue arise. Does the provider carry out inspection and test processes in-house to help mitigate you from the rising threat of counterfeit electronic components from entering the supply chain? How do they manage component obsolescence? And finally are there systems in place to notify customers of changes in market conditions or material availability to help minimise disruptions to the supply chain?

5. Performance metrics

It's often said that "what gets measured gets done", so ask the EMS supplier about their quality performance data and how they plan to improve it. Do they practise Six Sigma for example; is it obvious to you when you walk around their factory that they have the necessary controls in place to identify and remove the cause of defects? Each faulty product that has to be sent back to the manufacturer will be a drain on your profitability and could also damage your reputation which you'll want to avoid.

Reviewing yield metrics will demonstrate to you the percentage of products that are manufactured correctly and to specifications the first time around without the need for rework. Ask the supplier how these figures compare to previous months/years and what they are doing to continually improve on these. A responsible, quality-driven supplier will have a documented quality plan in place to support their efforts.

6. Quality team

During your time conducting the site audit, take time to meet the EMS company’s quality management team. In addition to forging relationships for the future this is an effective way for you to build up trust in their quality capabilities. Do they have the skills and credentials you expect and can they demonstrate they have held previous roles with a number of years’ experience? Do they hold the position full time or is it a "shared" role with them juggling other activities throughout the week?

Unless you specifically ask for them beforehand, be cautious of any quality team that is keen to bombard you with stats and graphs on your very first visit. Reputable EMS suppliers will already be displaying updated metrics around their building so if it’s appropriate for you to dig a little deeper while you are there, any data you need shouldn’t be too far away.

7. Escalation route

Although ongoing advances in manufacturing technology and recent initiatives such as Industrie 4.0 continue to drive automation within manufacturing, a number of processes remain manual and therefore require human intervention. Issues can occur from time to time so take time to understand who will be responsible for delivering customer service and how the internal escalation route works.

Quality EMS companies will offer single points of contact to ensure that all communication you have with them is correctly channelled, helping avoid confusion or duplication that can occur when having to deal with multiple contacts. Often this will be through the provision of dedicated Account, or Program Managers, who will be responsible for managing your project throughout the entire manufacturing process.

Quality EMS suppliers will want to establish "peer to peer" relationships with you. It should be important to them to build up relationships with the relevant contacts within your organisation and should any issues occur, both you and they have clarity on who is the most appropriate person to communicate with at that time.

As an OEM, selecting the right EMS provider to deliver your outsourcing strategy can at times seem like a daunting task. At first glance it may appear that there are hundreds of EMS companies out there; all broadly offering the same kind of services and solutions. However as you start to compile a short list tailored around your business objectives, product type, markets and geographical location, it won’t be long before three or four naturally start to stand out.

Delivering a quality service is not a differentiator between EMS companies and it’s certainly not a unique selling proposition. Quality should be ingrained within each person, system and process within the supplier and to see this you won’t need fancy graphs or statistics. Instead, these characteristics should become apparent when you first meet the team responsible for potentially managing your business and the company culture that exists. If you don’t pick up on this during your time with the supplier then perhaps it’s time to revisit your shortlist?

Working through a small number of critical steps before committing to a final partner will help pave the way for fewer returns and satisfied end users in the long-term. This in turn will bring a number of benefits to you, including peace of mind, improved margins and a positive brand reputation in return.

Image by Zeiss Microscopy

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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.