All About Flex: Embracing the Mess
Marketing in the world of printed circuits is an important discipline, but I have learned it is better to be prepared with a nimble reaction than to expect the marketing department to consistently be successful in predicting the future. The path to the goal is often achieved much more quickly by making an early decision followed by a course correction rather than waiting for all the information. Several related factoids characterize the markets for flexible circuits and flexible heaters:
- We live in a world of “time based competition.” Being faster to market can be more profitable than being better.
- Customers’ needs many times don’t fit within the supplier’s existing/proven/Six-Sigma capabilities.
- Technology and markets move quickly, rewarding suppliers that respond rapidly.
- Customers give suppliers money to figure things out.
The myriad of electronic applications drive flexible circuit product configurations and constructions spanning broad engineering imaginations. Circuits that require controlled impedance push trace widths down, and copper thicknesses increasingly thinner, with .0007” copper a common specification. These applications also tend to drive film substrates thicker to increase separation distance between signals and ground planes. Circuitry intended to carry heavy current pushes copper the opposite direction, sometimes involving metal thicknesses in excess of .010”. These circuits tend to stretch the definition of the word flexible
Product configuration selections can also involve adding copper layers to make multilayer structures, plating multiple surface treatments for solder pads vs. switch contact regions, attaching selective stiffeners for mechanical and component support, and orientation of copper grain to properly orient circuit traces in applications requiring dynamic flexing. Requirements for optimizing component attachment create an additional complexity dimension as nesting circuits for material usage competes with assembly panelization requirements. These seemingly endless permutations of “want to have” vs. “need to have” requirements can drive mushrooming product features, untested manufacturing processes, and unique routing sequences. It can tax the creativity of the best product and applications engineers. What a mess!
But it is a wonderful mess. Complexity makes sourcing parts overseas, across multiple time zones and language barriers, a very risky proposition. The world of flexible circuit manufacturing involves custom engineered parts with unique performance requirements. Every application is different. The kiss of death on most any part number is when someone states the circuit is a “no brainer.” When I hear this, it is generally time to get material ready for a restart. In an attempt to deal with the mess, the manufacturer is tempted to “standardize” their offering, often defined by comfortable or existing manufacturing capabilities. Isn’t the solution to stop building the oddball parts? Or define a niche product offering so resources can be focused? Maybe, but the business world is littered with companies that have disappeared because they were too restrictive in their willingness to change. Attempting to put in systems or procedures to deal with the complexity is noble, and existing procedures always deserve challenge, but new rules and procedures should be considered as part of a continuous improvement project rather than an end state. Change takes us out of our comfort zone, it is difficult…and often it is absolutely necessary.
Determining when engineering resources should be invested in a new application is certainly a tightrope walk. But stretching capabilities, investing in capital, and being aggressive are often requirements to staying relevant. And engineers can be pretty ingenious. Often the investment is more a clever technique rather than a new technology. Embrace the mess is a message requiring serious consideration. What does that mean? How can this be done? There are some basic principles.
First, management needs to communicate the business plan. Let employees know where you are going and how you expect them to get there. This needs to be done at a 10,000-foot level; it cannot be overly prescriptive. Goals for on-time delivery, scrap reduction, targeted customers, etc., are examples. Historical performance data helps provide context. The management message should indicate a general direction, but the specifics of execution will change as situations evolve. The best decisions are usually made by those employees closest to the problem—but only if they understand what the company is trying to accomplish and the direction the organization has targeted.
Second, empower employees with decision-making responsibility. Obviously, all employees cannot be allowed to make all decisions, but a freedom scale does provide good guidance. This message and direction needs to be discussed as part of communicating the business plan. The various levels of decision-making freedom are:
- Freedom Level 5: Act—routine reporting only
- Freedom Level 4: Act, but advise at once
- Freedom Level 3: Make recommendation and take resulting action
- Freedom Level 2: Ask what to do
- Freedom Level 1: Wait to be told
Different decisions will result in alternative levels of decision-making freedom, but good employees should be encouraged to operate at freedom level 3 at a minimum. With experience and demonstrated prowess, employees climb the ladder.
Third, support and celebrate. This is probably the most difficult. It is entirely possible that incorrect decisions will occur and culture can be crushed if reasonable decisions are second guessed with the benefit of hindsight. Empowerment cannot exist if aggressive decision making is negatively reinforced when early decisions prove inaccurate. For a culture of empowerment to be effective, management needs to support unexpected outcomes. The most important question is, “What was the available information when the decision was made?” Successes need to be sought out, communicated, and celebrated. This helps build a corporate culture that encourages rapid response. Trusting people to understand when they need additional time, or a supervisor’s concurrence, needs to be supported by both words and actions.
Fast-paced change is a fact of life and it’s not going to slow down. Empowerment helps decisions occur by those individuals closest to the problem. Decentralized decision-making helps ensure issues can be addressed promptly. It’s the blocking and tackling that usually wins the game, not the Hail Mary pass. In the printed circuit business world this means several things. Turn quotes quickly. Have back-up staff in place when people are out of office. Don’t leave work with unanswered messages. Keep the ball in the customer’s court. Inform customers about the status of their project. Respond when there is a problem. Embrace the mess…it can be the key to survival.
Dave Becker is vice president of sales and marketing at All Flex Flexible Circuits LLC.