A Frustrated PCB Customer Speaks Out

dan-6I recently got an e-mail from a good friend of mine. He has been in the industry even longer than I have, and that’s a really long time. He works for one of the most high-end defense and aerospace companies in the world. His company has also used their technology base to branch out and get involved in other high-tech marketplaces such as very sophisticated medical electronics.

He writes, and I quote:

“I hesitate (slightly) to complain but here goes on two fronts.

My company has to use domestic suppliers for a lot of our products and that is getting more difficult all the time. Our technology is getting so sophisticated that we can no longer use domestic suppliers.

Many people still think that PCBs for defense and aerospace products are simple technology with fat lines and thick boards, but that is no longer the case. New defense and aerospace products require higher technology, not to mention the fact that we have also branched out to bio-medical, chip-scale interposers, and a lot of other technologies, albeit in small volumes. All requirements we cannot get here domestically. Or we can get it domestically but not in a reasonable time frame. Nowadays we have 25-micron lines and spaces. Our target is 75-micron laser vias, thin dielectrics, and other small features. Swiss operations have supplied us with interposers and that will increase. We are NOT designing our own components but we are using commercially available fine-pitch devices. BGAs down to .5mm are now common for us, .3 mm pitch more so, and we are approaching much finer design pitches. But that all-important board on which that finer pitch BGA must be mounted will not come from this country… sadly.

What has happened to common sense?  I have tried to treat others as I want to be treated and I know that the board industry is suffering, but for pity’s sake, why do I have to call and ask, “where is my stuff?”. If it were just one board shop, I would say good riddance, and move on.  But, it is almost universal among our supplier base, that late deliveries only get discovered when we ask. Again, what the heck?? With the continued decline of the supplier base, one would think that customer service would get better. So, why not?

One former supplier’s rep was not even allowed to attend daily production meetings so she was rarely informed about part status causing delays in responses. What?? The work that our company now undertakes is not the long lead stuff of the past. We need 5 days turns on 10 layers, we need 20 days on 12 layers with Microvias with buried vias. Our domestic suppliers are happy to quote these requirements, but once we place the order, we almost never get the boards on time…if at all, thus leaving us with loaded pick and place machines and people standing by wasting time and money.

I am a little sad that the industry is where it is. It could improve but I’m not seeing it; and just keeping on the same path is not a long-term proposition for success. Being an optimist, I have some hope with some newly discovered suppliers and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that communications with them will not turn adversarial as they often have with our long-term suppliers adversarial.”

Just to be clear, this friend is part of a very good company, a well-known company, one that all high-tech board shops would be thrilled to count as their customer. He has been in the industry a very long time and is now ready to retire or as he calls it “re-purpose” his life. It’s sad that he will leave with this impression of our industry, an industry he has been an integral part of most of his life.

Please note that much of what he is complaining is the lack of good business practices, like open communications, telling the truth when making a commitment and then sticking to that commitment. Letting him know when a board is going to be late. These are things we have been talking about for years and yet we still have not learned how to do them right.

Personally, I still find myself arguing with some of the companies I work with about these things. I once had an ongoing argument with one of my clients about the importance of on-time delivery. He did not see the importance on delivering his boards on time. He even went so far as to tell me that his customers were not complaining so it wasn’t hurting his business, He was right for a while, the customers did not complain…they just walked away quietly without making a fuss. Apparently, they did complain, but with their feet, not their voice.

And sad to say, my friend and his company are not alone. I hear these kinds of stories of frustration about our board shops all the time. I was once invited to a meeting of designers working for another famous high-tech company building products of the future. Once everyone had been seated and the introductions done, the first question from the design department manager to me was. “Dan, can you tell us why all board shops suck?” Next week we’ll talk about what I told him, because like every other story this one has two sides. It’s only common sense.