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Due diligence when selecting a source for a custom electronic product can be a critical sourcing procedure. Chains are only as good as the weakest link, and the electronic components assembled to create a marketable product need to combine into a robust solution. Fitting a mix of pieces together that have been manufactured by disparate companies into a robust final assembly requires high reliability in each component. But choosing a reliable supplier in the flexible circuit industry can be difficult to mitigate for a number of reasons:
- Tooling Investment. Flexible circuits are custom designed and built for a specific part number. As such, there is a front-end cost and set-up charge needed for the design, panelization and tooling. Sourcing a flexible circuit manufacturer requires an investment, both in tooling and the engineering time to define the product. Switching suppliers requires new set-up charges in addition to time required to get a second supplier qualified and producing.
- Qualification. Products requiring high reliability also have extensive qualification procedures. Getting a flexible circuit supplier qualified can sometimes take months and multiple iterations of product builds. An OEMs might qualify two suppliers at the beginning of a program, but qualification of additional suppliers at a later time can be expensive and time consuming.
- Unique Designs. Materials, designs and processes can be combined in many different ways to create a unique solution. These solutions can often be fulfilled by a select number of fabricators with similar capabilities. The option of switching after the design is qualified is usually limited and involves an element of risk.
Since the strategy of finding the right flexible circuit supplier by trial and error is a poor option, what are good selection criteria for choosing a suppler? How does one ensure that a given flexible circuit fabricator can reliably supply a quality product? Although vetting of technical requirements is certainly important, there are five additional characteristics every reliable supplier should possess:
- Financial Stability: Being profitable doesn’t mean that a company is guaranteed to be a good supplier, but a company with fragile financial footing should be cause for concern. An unprofitable company has a high likelihood for a buyout, reorganization or severe cost cutting measures; all of which can be a problem for the customer. A financially sound company will be making capital investments to maintain and enhance their ability to provide a quality product, on time and at a competitive price. The circuit board world is recognized to be a capital-intensive industry with imaging, plating, etching, optical inspection and assembly all done with automated and expensive equipment.
- Technical Competence: Having a flexible circuit supplier provide design and application support creates an invaluable partner for launching new products or troubleshooting existing designs. This level of customer support usually comes from the applications engineering staff. Ideally these engineers have strong technical knowledge of flexible circuit fabrication and years of experience supporting applications in a variety of markets.
- Scalability: Some circuit fabrication facilities are great at quick turn prototypes but are not equipped to handle higher volume production. Other facilities have the resources for high-volume manufacturing, but struggle at providing prototypes built within compressed time frames. An ideal supplier will be able to handle both: Provide fast turnaround on new designs and prototypes and be able to ramp up quickly to higher volume production.
- Certifications: Every manufacturing facility needs to have sound quality management and planning systems in order to consistently meet customer demands. ISO 9001, AS9100, Mil -PRF -31032 and ISO 13485 are some of the more common general and industry specific certifications regarding quality management systems. Certification usually requires management system conformance to a set of requirements that are considered “ideal” industry practices. Independent, accredited auditors verify compliance. Achieving these certifications usually means a circuit fabricator has a sound management system and has successfully adopted best practices in manufacturing and design support.
- Responsiveness: We live in an electronic world that competes by being fast. The level of customer focus any organization claims should be backed up by evidence of responsiveness. This starts during the initial contact with the fabricator. How quickly do they respond to general requests and request for quotes? How well do they keep customers informed about project status? A company should be able to provide a number of trustworthy references from existing customers.
I won’t claim any of these characteristics can guarantee a supplier will launch a new part number without going through a learning curve. A flex circuit is a custom-designed part and the supplier signs up as a provider of contract engineering. I have often thought of a circuit fabricator as being analogous to a craftsman owning a woodworking business with a shop full of saws, planers, sanders, routers, jigs and fixtures. Given these tools, the right person can build almost anything. Tables, chairs, bedframes or cabinets. The real challenge is finding the shop with the right skill set to understand what is required, then use the tools to create a solution.
Dave Becker is vice president of sales and marketing at All Flex Flexible Circuits LLC.