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The Unspoken Truth about the Source of PCB Quality Problems

We love our PCB designs.  Our adrenaline pumps when we see that elegant solution creating a great product.  Marketing goes crazy with ideas on how to present it. Sales is pre-selling before the ink is dry. Management rolls the projected sales into the next quarter’s financials.

But wait.

Your China factory gets ahold of the documentation and runs prototypes.  Oops, something is wrong.  Okay, fix it on the fly, customers are waiting. We run more prototypes and again something isn’t right. Rev X3, rev X4, are we not there yet? Customers are losing enthusiasm. Management is screaming, finance takes it out of the quarterly plan.

Or worse, forget the prototypes, get production started!

I have written before about the hazards of rushing to market. Rarely does anyone win, and often the brand is damaged along the way. So why can some companies get to market quickly and others struggle?  The simple answer is they get the early documentation right.

Whether you manufacture printed circuit boards in China, or at your own local facility, everyone up and down the organization just assumes something as mundane (but not simple, mind you) as documentation is handled to perfection, but when one little detail is left off, such as the wrong Gerbers are used, a wrong part is installed, assembly instructions are out of date, you name it, the product does not meet the design goal and the trouble begins. If allowed to get through to the market, you have brand damage.

For all of the years at this, we find documentation detail is now the source of 95% of early stage quality issues and project transfer problems.

This has only really surfaced since most manufacturing processes in electronics are very tightly controlled.  Electronic components are nearly perfect now (there are a few exceptions from lower tier suppliers), PCB manufacturing is highly automated, AOI and ICT is incredible. So, now we can easily trace the root cause back to, guess what and guess who?

The guy who loved the design so much she/he forgot to update the documentation package with the latest brilliance. The board designer who neglected to up-rev a minor change. The buyer who too quickly accepted a part substitution or neglected to update the BOM when a part was quickly substituted. The marketing manager or product line manager who pressed so hard for cost reduction that documentation control procedures were bypassed. Okay I’m done. 

All of these really great, really smart teams members who let their product excitement get out of control confused urgent with important, yielded to the rush syndrome, and left documentation to others. It is far too mundane, so they give the task to the new intern, or they hand it off to an overworked doc control center. As a designer, or buyer, how can you help?

One effective point of control to overcome this tendency is to make certain that your PCB supplier scrubs your documentation and alerts you to any inconsistencies or illogical requirements .

We believe a major tenant of properly handling the details of your requirements is this scrutiny and collaboration with your PCB supplier or CM.  The good ones will pepper you with questions and comments until they are satisfied that the project is buildable and includes nothing that is likely to surprise the designer.

The buck stops with them, they are your last best hope that no documentation errors creep in to the design and maybe just maybe can help you remove this unspoken source of quality problems.

1 comment on “The Unspoken Truth about the Source of PCB Quality Problems

  1. RobA
    July 28, 2016

    Having used quite a few PCB houses, I am on my guard if they do not offer advice or question anything. It usually means they do not encourage their engineers to talk to customers directly. In their own mind this may be justified and it may be more efficient in getting revenue quickly from customers. But to me it means I am not going to get the best quality of boards and there could be problems in manufacturing.

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