It's Only Common Sense: Great Vendors Ask Questions


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Many of my exceptional clients are getting negative feedback from their customers because they ask too many questions. These are questions, mind you, that are focused on making a better product for those customers in the end. These questions are meant to clarify some of the questionable data that the PCB vendors need to clarify, in order to build functional circuit boards for those customers.

Instead of getting impatient with PCB vendors who ask too many questions, our customers should be thanking them. They should be pleased that these vendors are making a conscientious effort to do things right and build them great circuit boards.

At an IPC meeting recently, one of our industry gurus stated that less than 10% of the design data packages PCB shops receive from their customers are complete, and many of those packages contain errors that are serious enough to lead to unusable PCBs. This means that 90% of the time, the customers should be receiving some clarification questions from their vendors. Yes, 90% of the time!

And yet, board shops are continually criticized for asking too many questions. They are chastised for taking much too much time to submit their quotes. And yes, most of the time they lose the order for asking too many questions, and taking too much time. It reminds me of that old adage, “Not enough time to do it right, but plenty of time to do it over.”

What really is disconcerting is that some PCB shops don’t ask any questions; they just make assumptions, hope that they are correct, and then build the boards per the package, knowing in their hearts that the data is incorrect. But heck, they are getting the quote to the customer within a couple of hours, and they did not bother the customer with any of those annoying questions!

This is rampant today, and it is only going to get worse. Many of today’s PCB designers have no idea how a board is built, because they have never set foot in a board shop. In many cases, they have not even spoken with anyone who works in a shop. They simply design the board, despite having only limited knowledge of how that board is going to be built, what processes it will go through, and what kind of testing it will undergo. Instead, they complete the design as quickly as possible and send it to the buyer, so he can place the order with the lowest-cost PCB supplier, likely the one who gets the quote back to him as quickly as possible. And the PCB vendor who does not slow down the process by asking annoying time-consuming questions will get the business.

Think about that for a minute. Scary, isn’t it? Think about it the next time you are on a plane, or in an operating room, or having a pacemaker inserted. Think about who built the boards that are in those pieces of equipment. And then pray hard that by sheer luck, the lowest bidder with the fastest quote was just lucky enough to build the boards the way they should be built to function properly. Because in the end, we may not know whether the boards were built right or wrong until it’s too late.

There is a way to solve this dilemma, and its very simple. Ready for this? Talk to each other, for heaven’s sake. Designers, learn everything you can about how a board is built. Call one of your PCB vendors and make an appointment to visit their shop. Take a tour, talk to people, and find out how boards are built. Then, visit with the inside sales people or whoever is quoting your boards. Talk to the people in CAM and learn what a perfect data package looks like, and then work on providing that perfect package to all your PCB vendors.

Years ago, when OEMs had their own in-house board shops, designers knew how a board was built. They knew what kind of perfect data packages the CAM department needed, and they provided those perfect packages…or else, right?

Now, things have changed. It’s pretty common for an engineer or a PCB designer to come straight from the university to a company and start designing boards without ever having seen a plating line, or a drill room, or a photo department, or an etcher. They have no clear understanding of how a board is built, and thus how a PCB should be designed for maximum efficiency and producibility. It’s time that changes for the better.

So now, I’ll say it once again; if you’re a PCB designer or an engineer or anyone in a company that buys boards, the board shops would love to have you come visit their facility. They would love to show you how a board is built. More importantly, they would love to talk to you and maybe even ask you a few questions.

It’s only common sense.

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