Inside Spirit Circuits


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I was recently treated to a factory tour with Spirit Circuits’ Managing Director Martin Randall, to learn more about their process line and how it has evolved over time. In the discussion following, I learned about Spirit’s involvement in the China market and how they’ve structured their business to handle quick turn prototypes locally and high volume abroad.

Barry Matties: Martin, I know you do some metal backs among other things. Tell me a little about what you’re doing here.

Martin Randall: The metal backs is a special product for us but, to be honest, our USP is small batch quick-turn. This facility is all about small batches delivered on short lead times. Once we walk around you'll see batches of maybe 5–10 panels. You won't see much more than about 25-panel batches as you go through here. In terms of the overall business we've got the UK manufacturing here which represents about one third of our revenue, and we've got volume orders which are coming from China at the moment.

Matties: Is that done with a partner shop?

Randall: No, this is all on a customer/supplier relationship. We have no shared interest or shared capital in any of the companies that we work with in China, but we do have well maintained and long term relationships.

Matties: Do you just interface for your customers to the partner, or do you just connect the partner directly?

Randall: We do the interface. Basically the order comes into Spirit and we take care of it as if we were manufacturing it in the UK. It's really no different for the customer. We take care of the order and obviously the progressing of the order and so on.

Matties: Do you also guarantee the quality of that product?

Spirit2.jpgRandall: We do. In the past we had a system whereby we’d take the first three deliveries of a new part and do our own received inspection here. Over time we’ve got a record of confidence in the suppliers and we now only need to do this on the first part. We've found from our own experience that the repeatable quality is extremely good. If you choose your suppliers correctly, and you work with the suppliers, the repeatable quality is very good. If there's a surprise to be had, it tends to be something that has maybe been lost in translation on the first batch.

If you take the first part and you vet that carefully, making sure that all the normal things like the thickness, size, holes, the colors are correct, then you find that you don't get too surprised on variable quality. We're not a company that chops and changes for a few cents here and a few cents there. We have some long-term relationships with suppliers in China.

Matties: That's what it takes. You really have to understand your suppliers in China. It's a different environment altogether.

Randall: Absolutely. We've had our office with a couple of guys that work for us out there for maybe four or five years now. Prior to setting up an office, the management of Spirit would spend quite a lot of time actually in China doing that job. It's not an arm’s length part of our business. It's a huge part of our business and we dedicate a lot of time to it, to be honest.

Matties: It's not necessarily a typical arrangement for a quick-turn shop to represent the customer’s interest with a fabricator in China, It's more of a hand-off rather than management though, right?

Randall: It's not unusual. I would say we're a little bit different. I think there are a lot of circuit companies in the UK that have a model similar to ours but are not necessarily promoting quick turn and the high turnover of part numbers. It's a little bit different in that respect, but we're not unique in terms of having a UK offering with an offshore volume supply. That's pretty common and we're competing against that.

Matties: So it's not uncommon for the fabricator to basically certify the quality of the product either?

Randall: No. There are obviously the pure brokers there where that doesn't happen and its direct shipment to the end customer. Having said that, with the repeatable business we have now, we have gained the confidence to do direct ships and don't have to handle everything here.

Matties: No reason to slow up the process.

Randall: Absolutely not, and incur the additional carriage and all of that stuff. That's reduced a lot so we only really see the new parts the first time a new part is made, or if we're replacing it with a different supplier for the first time for whatever reason that might be. There's quite a nice continuity between what we do here in the UK in terms of the first prototypes of a particular design. The customer obviously gets the approval, then we might have a slightly larger UK production batch and then the volume will be shipped offshore. We have a lot of customers where we are supplying both UK and offshore manufactured PCBs.

The factory here itself was a PCB manufacturing company long before Spirit came here. We've been here 13 years and we took this over from a company called Southern Circuits, who had been here for nearly 30 years in this facility. It's got a long history of PCB manufacture. What we have here today is totally different from the factory we came into. The reason basically is because, again, this is all about being able to do things quickly. We've had to bring in the right pieces of kit to do the job. When we came here, the sort of volume that was coming out the factory per day is what we're now producing per week.

Matties: Different world.

Spirit4.jpgRandall: A completely different world. So it's all about quick set-ups, quick shutdowns, with not too much process maintenance required. That's been the investment really in terms of what we see today. I'd like to take you through a nice, smooth flow of ‘start of process’ to ‘end of process,’ but it doesn't quite work like that. Where we're standing at the moment as we enter the factory is actually the end of the process. It's the final inspection area where of course everything we produce ultimately ends up for basically a visual/workmanship inspection.

We know at this point that product has been electrically tested and all of the in-process QC checks have taken place. It's a final check against specific customer requirements, final verification of things like hole sizes, PCB thickness, etc. Then once we're happy with that, we generate the documentation, the certificate of conformity and the package labeling and then taken to the packing department.

Matties: What's your typical order size?

Randall: Typically, an average number of panels in a job at the moment would be probably about 10 panels.

Matties: So every panel is being visually inspected?

Randall: Absolutely. Some of the panel counts are slightly higher on the metal-backed boards that we make. We can do that here because we don't have to go through certain processes, i.e., plating. We avoid the through-hole plating process which you don't need to have for the single-sided metal boards, so we've got a bit more capacity and a bit more leeway in terms of how many panels we can process on the metal boards. Typically, on an average day we'll be shipping maybe 25 different orders and that would represent, in terms of the number of production panels, anywhere between about 170 and 200 production panels with lead times from two to five working days. There's not much in the factory here that is on more than about a seven-day lead time. We have a few specials which are longer because of the availability of the material if we've got some special materials, but with the standard metal and standard FR4, where the materials are readily available, a lot of what you'll see is on 2–5 days and some maybe 7–10 days.

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