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At PCB West, Editor Nolan Johnson sat down with Chris Nuttall, COO and VP of technology at NCAB Group, to discuss software tools, predictive reports, and the company's recent IPO.
Nolan Johnson: Thanks for being here, Chris. We have a few things to talk about, don’t we?
Chris Nuttall: Yes, we sure do!
Johnson: Where would you like to start?
Nuttall: I think we should start with where we are now—PCB West 2018. It's been quite an interesting day. We've heard a lot about data software tools, thermal management, heat dissipation, and other technology. Overall, the industry seems to be pretty upbeat.
Johnson: I agree. Could you give us a quick overview of NCAB? Then we can come back to how those topics fit with your company.
Nuttall: Sure. We're an integrated PCB producer. Many people misquote us as a broker, but we do a heck of a lot more than that. We do everything except manufacture the boards. We have a very robust sourcing process. We identify best-in-class partners and have a wide product range. With our spending and concentration on long-term partnerships, we're able to deliver first-in-class quality at the lowest total cost. We won't be the cheapest, but we will provide the lowest total cost over the product life cycle and deliver the boards on time to our customers, of course.
Johnson: Is part of your value proposition working with multiple manufacturers?
Nuttall: One of the things we try to avoid is being limited to a sole source. If we look at our preferred supplier list or approved vendor list (AVL), we always aim to have numerous partners who can offer the same technology, but over different volumes or with varying lead times—a prototype shop versus a volume factory. This enables us to fit the product to the right factory. We're not trying to fit the factory to the product, which gives us an advantage in delivering PCBs on time with zero defects, and, as I said, at the lowest total cost.
Johnson: You’re there for the customer through the overall life cycle of a design team's product, which means they could be working with you early, when quantities are small (prototyping, etc.), and then continue into more major volumes and even sun setting.
Nuttall: Absolutely. That's where we add the value. If we get involved before the design is firm, we can start designing it to ensure the layout is optimum for when it goes into volume production. Otherwise, we're designing for prototypes, then trying to re-engineer for volume, which poses multiple challenges. If we get involved at the start, we can hit volume sooner. The transition from prototype to pre-production and volume should be painless. We shouldn't have to re-engineer at every step.
Johnson: It seems that NCAB’s value-add is the preparation to ensure data is standardized in a way that, as a product moves from fabrication to a particular manufacturing phase, the process flows seamlessly. To the customer, it looks like a single source.
Nuttall: Correct. That's how it should look. We get into the details because—to copy the phrase—that's where the devil lies. We make sure that, unlike a broker, we understand the design guidelines. We already understand the capabilities of our factories and offer a set standard of guidance to our customers; we're designing it to fit. As you said, this makes it seamless—one source. We' don’t have to revisit, renegotiate, or re-cost items because we're hitting a handbrake when it's going to revision six in volume. That’s why we're able to work with some of the larger customers and maintain them. We will happily get involved in the design, which is where we add value.
Johnson: This ties back to where we started with this conversation with some of the activity here at the show today.
Nuttall: Yes. For many providers, producers, and manufacturers, they can only get so far into the product life cycle from manufacturing onward. Lots of people offer great service and support and quick quotes, but we offer design guidance and get into the design with the customer, which adds more value. We offer something different to the customer that not everybody does. It was good to see and hear some of the comments about software being developed and how it can be improved to make it easier to offer added value to our customers.
Johnson: Concerning some of these new software tools and solutions on the design side, is this a place where you see NCAB participating?
Nuttall: We have to, to be honest. If we don't, we're going to get left behind. On average, approximately 30% of the data we see has an issue with it. If you look at the traditional process that gets picked up once we've quoted, we've won the order. The clock is ticking because the files are sitting in engineering. Then we have to stop and clarify missing or contradicting information. If we can become a little bit smarter and start covering these issues sooner, we can minimize the impact and improve time to market. If we don't participate, we miss a trick. At the moment, we're evaluating a couple of products. We'll look to make the right decision that fits our needs and those of our customers.
Johnson: Looking down your roadmap, what can customers expect to see from NCAB in the next few months?
Nuttall: You’ll see a greater ability to support higher technology in multiple volumes. This hasn’t been a challenge, but we'd like to have more sources available to us with higher technology. If we look at high-density interconnect (HDI)—such as type three plus HDI—I'm hoping that we'll get to a stage soon with our sourcing projects where we're offering five stage. We have greater layer counts on every layer—every layer interconnect (ELIC)—so that those are on the cards. We also have some exciting sourcing products in the mix that will open doors for us, and that's not even considering some of the technology changes that the factories are seeing. If we look at some of the work our partner factories are doing to achieve finer tracks and gaps—such as using a modified semi-additive process—we're on the cusp of some fascinating changes in the circuit industry. It's a nice place for us to be in at the moment.
Johnson: And NCAB just recently went through an IPO.
Nuttall: We did, earlier this year. It was something we've worked on for some time, and that completed on the NASDAQ in Stockholm. It’s been an interesting process.
Johnson: Has that provided any additional funding to help you accelerate the development of new technology?
Nuttall: No, what we are doing was always on the cards. It has given us more credibility and spotlight, but the activities that we currently have underway were already planned. Over the last 12 months, we've invested resources into strengthening our sourcing team and pursued a more qualified focus. We’re now seeing the fruits of that labor; it's beginning to deliver. For any company that has gone through an IPO, there are certain hoops you have to jump through, but it's given us some good disciplines.