The way in which products are developed and manufactured is a key element of the global supply chain. In terms of printed circuit boards (PCBs), we have migrated to an environment where virtually all PCB manufacturing is going off shore. The main contributor to this migration is cost.
The vast majority of product development companies have readily embraced the OEM mantra of “If it costs less money to manufacture PCBs off-shore, then this is the path that we should continue to pursue.” However, it must be kept in mind that there is a difference between price and cost or, to put it more precisely, the best price is not always the best cost.
In terms of “costs” to the industry, the move to offshore manufacturing of PCBs has led to a very serious crisis. U.S. prototyping suppliers are vanishing at an alarming rate. And this phenomenon impacts all parties that are involved in the product development process from board designers to material suppliers, from board fabricators to chip providers and packaging companies. Essentially, the disappearance of U.S.-based prototyping facilities is getting uncomfortably close to what happened to passenger pigeons in the early 20th century. For those prototyping companies that remain, their level of business operations is often too low to maintain the engineering expertise required to properly support design teams.
Further, turning instantly to offshore manufacturing may seem the best way to cut prices but it is not the best way to cut costs. For example, the cost of running an engineering development team is about $2-million per week. Getting a prototype built offshore almost never takes less than three weeks. By the time you get the prototype from an offshore manufacturer, you have incurred almost $4-million in extra non-reoccurring engineering (NRE) costs as opposed to building the same prototype at a U.S. fabricator in less than a week.
In truth, with the advent of the plethora of electronic devices upon which we all rely and use, consumers have been lulled into something of a passive state in terms of hardware design. It's not sexy, it doesn't let me do all the cool and wonderful things I want to do with my latest acquired smartphone or tablet. However, I anticipate that, to stay on top of the latest features and functions, I will likely be acquiring a new phone or tablet sometime within the next 12 to18 months. That hardware shift is driven by the wonderful software programs and applications that enable me to keep pace with the rest of the world, or at least with the rest of my family and friends. And, if one of the programs on my “smart” device doesn't function as it should, quite often I will be able to download a fix that will keep my device and me current.
In contrast to software design, hardware design is not all that forgiving. We can't simply make some code changes and send our customers a patch to correct a design flaw. We have to replace the whole assembly to correct it or provide an upgraded product.
Designing new hardware or revising existing hardware is not an easy task. Hardware is not nearly as malleable as software, it is not possible to upgrade hardware via a new software download, “tweaks” to one part of a hardware design can affect other parts of the design in an unforeseen manner and changes to existing hardware designs are rarely, if ever, inexpensive.
In some ways, the crisis surrounding prototyping efforts is due in part to the fact that we have become spoiled and somewhat unaware. Stated more directly, it's our own engineering and manufacturing practices that have led us to the precipice. As amazing as it may seem, there are a vast number of hardware development companies that still consider two or three respins of a board to be acceptable from both the technological and the business operations levels.
Even more frightening, there are still companies who think that malfunctioning hardware is something that can be fixed when a product starts to misbehave. This is the “shutting the barn door after the horse is gone” attempt at engineering. Very simply and directly put, post product hardware fixes do not exist and have not existed for many years. Think of it in these terms—jumper wires on PCBs are pretty much prehistoric technology.
First, when products are not prototyped in the U.S. before being sent off shore for volume manufacturing, we lose traceability of any problems that may arise. More importantly, we don't always know where in the equation the problems begin. For example, some years back all the FPGA manufacturers decided to use third-party chip carriers. These carriers were never “vetted” from a technological standpoint so their functionality, or lack thereof, remained unhidden until we started seeing product malfunctions. The interesting thing about these malfunctions is that they were random in nature. They didn't occur all the time, so they were difficult to trace and diagnose. And, unfortunately, that diagnostic process led to the same conclusion for all the companies building products that had these third-party chip carriers in them. They had to start from ground zero. And, not surprisingly, the affects these poorly designed chip carriers caused were devastating:
- Product market windows were missed
- Companies had to eat huge amounts of NRE costs
- Some companies even went out of business
Could the foregoing problems have been caught in time if prototyping in the U.S. was part of the dynamic? Quite likely, yes. And, while the prototyping market may seem like a small aspect of the overall hardware development process, it is a very critical one. Prototyping is where front-end engineering happens. It lets you verify the functionality and reliability of your product before you go into the full-up production mode. It lets you know if there are problems, and where problems exist, you can resolve them before you go into volume production.
For many products such as high-speed digital products, prototyping is still the best way we have to “shake the bugs” out of complex designs. Regardless of where electronic products are produced in volume, prototyping of products close to home will continue as a “must have” to ensure that a product will work as promised and as designed. Further, prototyping is still the best mechanism we have for creating future iterations of well-functioning, next-generation designs.
If your product is prototyped in the U.S., your in-house engineering department can work closely with the U.S. based prototype production facility to ensure that any problems can be readily addressed and eliminated. Essentially, your engineering department and the personnel in the prototype facility become part of the team that ensures the success of your manufacturability operations.
Because of the move to offshore manufacturing, U.S. prototyping companies are finding it difficult to stay in business. They are not getting enough prototyping projects to remain profitable and the really talented people who have been the mainstays in terms of manufacturing expertise at these prototyping facilities are leaving the industry in droves.
It would be easy for product development companies to say that the financial health of U.S. prototyping facilities is not their concern. But, in truth, it is very much their concern. Without U.S.-based prototyping capabilities, critical product functionality issues may be missed, manufacturing activities may impact all of those entities that are part of the team that make up the PCB market sector, and the entire sector may see profits rapidly erode and never recover.
As an industry, we need to make sure that all companies involved in hardware development and production work together in a more collaborative, team-like manner. Near the top of the list of priorities is to ensure that prototype suppliers remain viable members of the hardware development process. And, the other members of the team need to come together to make sure that this viability is maintained for both current and future product development efforts. This can be done by providing enough volume at the prototype shops so that their skills can be kept where they need to be. One way to do this is to allow a small portion of the production volume to remain with the prototype shops. Another way is to select prototype suppliers on the basis of their value to the engineering effort instead of by lowest price.