As a veteran of the Electronics Industry for over 50 years, Stanley Bentley can easily say that the past 12 months have been the most challenging and interesting of his career. Just a small amount of mathematics will tell you that this is quite a statement since his technical career spanned the Space Program, the development of the Personal Computer, the integration of electronics into the automobile, the Internet, the cellular telephone, a globally connected economy, and so much more.
There is a time-honored tradition of scheduling appointments, taking doughnuts to the receptionist, going over the business statistics with the buyer, showing the latest product offerings, and leaving literature, pen, pad, and some logoed trinket. This process was halted with no notice leaving salespeople in a total panic: “I would not have imagined that a single event could negate the interpersonal skills I developed over a lifetime. Golf, Sporting Events, Dinners, and casual drinks all were removed from the selling process in one sweep. It would have been unimaginable just a year ago to think that business travel would be virtually halted”, said Mr. Bentley.
Selling has resumed and the economy is responding. Orders for goods and services are increasing, lead times are moving out, and allocation is on the horizon. All of this is positive news as long as there are no problems with a global supply chain. What new techniques have the Techies and Quality Engineers developed to mirror the advances in selling? How are we dealing with suppliers half a world away when the processes fall apart? How are we handling the New Product Introduction? How are we transferring the technology from R&D into volume manufacturing? The issues with the supply chain are just emerging. The system that was in place by the global OEMs was able to run for a while, but every engineer understands the laws of entropy and we all have seen “Murphy’s” interpretation of this law of universal thermodynamics.
“Any system left to itself goes to “Hell” in the shortest possible fashion” (Attributed to the infamous “Murphy”, but probably in error)
The solution to managing the global supply chain that has evolved over the past 20 years (or so) is “Feet on the Street”. The Techies and Quality Engineers have become global travelers.
They live with a suitcase packed and are dispatched at a moment’s notice to solve a problem in the quickest fashion. They audit new suppliers, supervise the installation of equipment, oversee the transfer of technology, diagnose process issues, ensure supplier compliance, and deal with quality problems.
Basically, the entire supply chain is managed by a mobile workforce of techies that are dispatched to the site to observe what is really happening. Like the selling process, this system was also halted without any notice. All the mobile Techies and Quality Engineers are working from home.
Could they do any of the following:
- Shoot a YouTube Video of how to fix the process?
- Do a web meeting with their counterpart at the supplier location?
- Direct a contractor from a monitor at the site?
- Use streaming video to view a process problem?
- Use video conferencing to hold a virtual Supplier Audit of their quality system?
- Screen share to show the documents?
- Create a TikTok video of their frustration?
In short, why can’t the high-quality video conferencing tools be used such that their presence is not required on-site? “I think that in asking these questions, there emerges a basic misunderstanding of how the present system works and the value of seeing everything as opposed to what someone wants to show you on a small screen. For example, performing a virtual quality system audit. Such a system presumes an openness and honesty that has not really been my experience. Few companies or people will rush to show you all of the “dirty laundry” just because you ask. From a conference room, can you really determine if a procedure is being followed?
How do you really know if an operator is properly trained? Can you ascertain something as simple as basic housekeeping? Will the company show you the equipment that is in poor repair? Are the calibration stickers real? Are the employees wearing the proper protective equipment for both themselves and the product? Can you really do a Quality System audit where you are shown only what the supplier wants you to see?”, wonders Mr. Bentley. “The same tools that allow you to be close and personal to a prospective customer are too iconoclastic (love that word) to deal with the expanse of a factory. Keep in mind, these tools are really 2-D! We must continue to explore options, and I will be the first to admit that you can never discount ingenuity when faced with a crisis. We have all heard the axiom: “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” “I have done some of my finest work when my “terror level” was high and there was no option but to fix the problem. I have not experienced this same level of adrenaline in front of a monitor. Somehow I subconsciously think I am watching a movie where the walking dead will re-attach their limbs, join the stars, and all head to the bar!”
Anyone that has ever diagnosed a process problem will tell you that solving the problem is a mix of tools and intuition. Yes, you can create a fishbone diagram or do the 5-whys from anywhere.
You can do the computations or calculate CPK’s where ever you can plug in a laptop. These are some of the analytical tools. What you cannot do is talk to the operators to ask questions about what they have seen that is unusual or if they have any insight (never discount the observations of the people that see the process every day!). You cannot observe the process and watch all of the activities. We know from our LSS Black Belt training that processes are sensitive to Man, Machine, Method, Materials, or “Mother Nature”. Our analytical tools can only account for some of these variables.
Some years ago, I was asked to assist with a process problem that was random, but persistent. The issue was de-wetting coming out of wave soldering at the end of a through-hole slide line. The Black Belt team had analyzed all of the process variables and tweaked the wave solder process to an extreme degree. The problem continued to re-appear such that the company was forced to put an inspector at the end of the wave. The team wanted to show me all of their charts and process data, but I wanted to simply observe the process. The inspector was instructed to alert me when they found a defect. Soon, I was totally ignored just sitting on a stool with my laptop. It did not take long before the inspector brought me a defect. I more carefully watched the line and observed a strange motion from one operator as they reached for parts in an overhead bin. More careful observation showed a very practiced move that allowed them to remove a salty chip from their lab pocket, insert it in their mouth and then remove the through-hole part with greasy fingers. Basically, the de-wetting occurred whenever the operator needed a snack. The wave solder system was not the culprit, and no analytical tool has been developed that detects “hunger”.
Mr. Bentley is impressed with how quickly we all adapted to the conferencing tools and that team collaboration can occur in this sterile and isolated environment: “I am not so convinced about the ability of these tools to deal with diverse groups that have never interacted as a team. Particularly when the members are hastily assembled and there is a variety of languages in the group. We lose some of the ability we all possess to understand others by the inflection of the voice, eye contact, body language, hand signals, and other subtle cues that we have developed to communicate over the past 100,000 years. I am confident that replacements of all of these interpersonal traits will continue to evolve. I will not declare we have arrived until you can use a video monitor to “smell fear”!”
In the short term, if we cannot immediately replace the “Techie Road Warriors”, is there an alternate or hybrid solution? Read the following story about ICAPE Group.
In 1999, Thierry Ballenghien, a PCB engineer and Fabrication plant manager recognized an opportunity in the exodus of PCB shops from Europe to Asia. He theorized that there would be opportunities to become an agent for European companies that were being pressured to purchase PCBs from Asia. He understood that the large OEM would develop their own strategies, but the smaller companies would not be able to afford the infrastructure to manage a supply chain so far away with a technically sophisticated and fully custom product such as PCBs. It was obvious that simply offering services like a component distributor where he purchased the PCBs in Asia and then resold them in Europe would not survive as the market matured. Therefore, the model he developed was to have an in-country infrastructure of PCB specialists that were bi-lingual. These specialists would be able to translate between the PCB shops (many of whom had no bi-lingual people) and the European customers. They could review the customer specifications in one language, correct them into the terminology of the fabrication industry, and then translate these technical requirements to the fabricator.
This was the “genius” of the model. Understanding that there were two language barriers. One in the native tongue and another in the technical terminology. The customer base was not always disciplined in the terminology they used in their drawing notes, frequently confusing technical terms or sometimes creating their own. When dealing with a supportive and long-term supply base, they did not need to correct these problems. The local fabricators understood their needs and simply provided what was required, not (necessarily) what was “asked”. Now, suddenly faced with a foreign supplier, they quickly discovered that these suppliers did not necessarily have their best interest at heart and that the commerce became a very sterile business relationship. It was all about the specifications given and not about the suitability of the product to the end-use.
The model Mr. Ballenghien created was a “bridge” over this argument about the suitability for use, and he was rewarded with rapid growth in the marketplace.
The second innovation was to understand that over time the OEM and supplier would begin to develop communication techniques and acceptability criteria with common terms. For example, the IPC-A-600 Acceptability of Printed Circuit Boards. Therefore, long-term growth would require continual evaluation of the value-add proposition and continue to make the bridge between the supplier and the user more convenient and economical than a direct relationship.
One such example would be the rapid expansion of PCB shops in Asia, today numbering well in the 1,000’s. How is a small company determine the best match to their needs and then perform an audit of the supplier? How do they deal with a problem with quality, delivery, or NPI? It needs to be understood, that there are none of the remedies of the Western legal system that can be applied to a foreign company. How do you enforce a warranty? How do you resolve a dispute? Particularly, if additional (and desperately needed) orders are being held for a resolution?
Having in-country advocates is critical to dispute resolution. However, if those advocates represent a significant amount of revenue to the supplier, then they can bring a lot more pressure for an equitable resolution.
The ICAPE business model is to be a significant customer for the selected suppliers allowing them to have economic leverage that much outweighs legal remedies. The suppliers are carefully selected and continuously audited and monitored by trained Quality Engineers. A professional Purchasing department manages the distribution of the business to maintain the best supplier performance.
Another example would be the uncertainty of the logistics systems for transporting PCBs from Asia to the West. The logistics companies (air and sea) have not fully recovered from the disruption caused by the pandemic. How is a company with a small PCB order going to ensure that their package is handled and delivered efficiently and not lost (or delayed) in the backlog at the staging sites in Asia? Combining these small orders with larger orders delivered to one central distribution location is a way to give the small package visibility and security.
Today, ICAPE delivers over 22,000,000 PCBs every month. This volume ensures that they can mix large and small orders into single secure shipments.
But perhaps the best example of the long-term vision of Mr. Ballenghien is when the present business model is evaluated for its ability to offer solutions to PCB customers that overcome the challenges caused by the global pandemic.
The Dongguan facility has over 250 specialists in Purchasing, Logistics, Engineering, and Quality. These specialists are connected with the same video conferencing tools of the sales professionals to the headquarters of Paris and Indianapolis. Western customers can connect to one of these technology centers in their native language and these local engineers can quickly engage their counterparts in Asia to resolve the issue. While the USA or European specialists and engineers cannot travel to Asia, they can engage with an in-country surrogate that can immediately travel to the site of the Problem request
This global response by ICAPE Group has always been available to the small and medium-size OEMs and EMS providers. For this reason, they have been isolated from the disruptions in the supply chain caused by the inability of the Technical Road Warriors to travel. As the travel restrictions continue, many large OEMs and EMS companies are now finding the ICAPE business model to be very valuable to them as well. There is an irony that the global pandemic has actually turned back the Supply Chain Management clock almost 20 years and is requiring a new look at old techniques. A business model that can flourish in a pandemic is indeed a visionary model.
Stanley L Bentley, ICAPE Group’s North America Technical Director