Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are the heart and soul of many electronic devices, but the complexity of PCB design, procurement, and manufacturing processes creates many opportunities for failure issues. In addition, organizational silos that exist between design engineering, manufacturing engineering, and procurement can exacerbate these risks.
“I saw this problem early in my career,” said Leigh Gawne, head of Cliva, a bill of material management software acquired by Altium, an electronics design system firm, in 2015. Gawne explained:
From the vantage point of design engineering, I saw difficulties keeping track of circuit boards that had been designed once they entered manufacturing and procurement processes. Often, components had to be changed because of manufacturability issues, or the fact that the component was not readily obtainable from a vendor, or because of some other issue. Unfortunately, from the design engineer's perspective, this new information was often buried in project files, spreadsheets, etc., that were kept by different departments. There was no way to keep all of this information in a central place that everyone could access, and the process of manually seeking out this information took time and caused eleventh hour delays.
Getting hit with delays when PCB manufacturers are constantly being challenged to get new products to market quicker——poses risks and presents design engineers and the overall supply chain with unique challenges.
“When a design engineer makes a decision concerning component choices, he or she looks at it from the technical standpoints of form, fit and function, and could also look at it from the standpoints of component availability and pricing,” said Gawne, “But there is also important information that is known in other areas of the supply chain that could aid these decisions, For example, how readily available is the component and from what distribution points? Or, if the component is not readily available, are there substitute components that could be used?”
Gawne says that adding a bill of materials management tool to the IT toolbox can help organizations address or mitigate many of these issues.
He explained a little of what Altium Vault product does. “What we wanted to do was to create a single data repository of PCB information that all departments within the company could contribute to and use,” said Gawne, of the tool his company makes. “With a tool like this, a design engineer could issue a preliminary Bill of Material (BOM) that everyone could review. In turn, when necessary component alterations based upon what was learned in procurement or manufacturing occurred, individuals in those disciplines could update the data base so the frontend departments like design engineering could stay current.”
The net result is collaboration on PCB design and builds between design engineering, manufacturing engineering and procurement. With everyone on the same page, it gets easier to track variations of products, new product releases, and product life cycles. From the design engineer’s standpoint, he or she gets this information that flows back from procurement and manufacturing in a format that readily integrates with the computer aided design (CAD) tools that he/she uses for design.
“The goals are to have information flow back as well as forward,” said Gawne. “This ensures that products get out of the gate right and that all of the boxes are checked by everyone engaged in the process.”
Gawne acknowledges that the current version of the company’s design tool is expressly intended for design and manufacturing engineers. However, there is an opportunity for procurement to enter in as well, although it does not address the entire supply chain.
“There are other processes that come later in the supply chain that we likely will address in the future but for now we want to concentrate on getting the interface between design and manufacturing engineering right,” he added.
For the many companies that still labor with manual handoffs between design and manufacturing engineering that can cause risk to on-time deliveries and supply chain performance, what does Gawne suggest?
“First, start with a process where you can immediately see the value of using a tool like this,” he said. “Many organizations, because they have struggled so long with handoffs between design and manufacturing engineering, have developed their own homegrown processes over the years, so there is bound to be some resistance if you try to cover too much.
“Next, the tool should easy to use and easy to incorporate in your business processes. If you end up creating more business processes and complications, you need to take a step back and revise your approach.”