With globalisation and the focus on optimising cost and time, the electronics industry was the first to outsource most of its manufacturing. The primary drivers were the suboptimal utilisation of the manufacturing facility of the product companies as well as the need for addressing global markets. The big product companies were the first to embrace outsourcing, and the practice slowly spread to the small and medium companies. With the emergence of Asia centric manufacturing locations like China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines and India, almost 90 per cent of electronics manufacturing has moved into outsourced mode. Only products that have intellectual property (IP), are critical, and need to be protected for some reason, are manufactured by the product companies. Even in such cases, product parts that have no IP value are outsourced and the product companies do the integration and product support. Figure 1 shows the evolution of the different stages of outsourcing.
There is a subtle difference between complete outsourcing and what original design manufacturers (ODM) do. In the case of ODMs, typically, the product is designed as per the ODM vendor’s specification and invariably only the label on the box changes. These are called as ‘white label’ products. When complete design and manufacturing is outsourced, product specifications are still owned by the product owners and the manufacturing partner only does the design and manufacturing.
A manufacturing partner needs to be involved early in the design phase in order to develop a successful product at an optimal cost and timeframe. While complete outsourcing (both design and manufacturing) will lead to efficient design, it needs a fair amount of maturity from the product company to deal with this. Second, when the product involves a good amount of IP, it is prudent to keep the design function inhouse but outsource the manufacturing. In this mode, the early involvement of the manufacturing partner is very advantageous for the product’s development.
Complete outsourcing of a product will be successful only if the product development team understands the outsourcing process well. Other than the technical aspects, cultural aspects also impact the success of outsourcing. One of the most common causes for heartburn is when product specifications are not frozen early in the design cycle but keep changing during the design phase. This would probably be acceptable when the product is designed inhouse but will not work in the outsourced model. Failure to understand aspects like this invariably leads to strained relationships early in the project and in most cases the projects fail. To some extent, this is true even for pure play manufacturing outsourcing, where the design is assumed to have been frozen.
Impact of environmental laws
With the ever increasing consciousness about environment protection, it has become paramount that every new product meets a plethora of environmental friendly standards. There are four important components in a products entire lifecycle that have an impact on the environment in which the product will be used in. These are the raw material used in the product, the manufacturing process, the usage of the product, and the end of life disposal, or how the product is disposed of after it ceases to be of use.
If a product is to be made environmentally friendly or if it has to meet global environmental standards, it has to happen by design and this underlying environmental consciousness has to be incorporated right from the design phase. The design process should address the above items which typically impact the product’s environmental friendliness or its compliance to environmental standards. Most of these aspects need tight coupling with the manufacturing process as well as manufacturing partner’s involvement. That is why the Early Involvement of the Manufacturing Partner (EMPI) is crucial.
Thorough knowledge of the product lifecycle (PLC) is very important, so that it is easily understood as to when and where the manufacturing partner can help. The PLC covers all the activities of a product, starting from the concept phase to the product being retired and disposed of. Most product companies’ PLC is based on their requirements and the development process. Product owners customise the activities as per their needs. An important aspect of PLC is the six stages shown in Figure 2, going from the top to bottom. These stages are not fixed. In fact, companies that do inhouse product development and manufacturing have fewer stages. Some of these processes can overlap, too. For example, design, engineering and new product introduction (NPI) are overlapping processes, especially since nowadays, implementation and NPI tend to get executed concurrently, too.
Product development flow
Let us understand the flow of the different processes throughout the lifecycle of the product, which involves both development and manufacturing. In electronics product development, the process starts at the concept phase and progresses right up to the product getting disposed of at the end of its life. If the manufacturing centric activities are executed along with the design phase, it reduces time. This is where the EMPI helps.
One of the biggest advantages of identifying the manufacturing partner early in the product design phase is that it allows the team to leverage the partner’s experience and resources. Identifying those responsible for each phase of the development activities depends on the nature and depth of outsourcing. For a successful product, the entire team has to work together, as the product progresses from the concept phase to manufacturing. As the development progresses, the responsibility of the design team reduces gradually, while the ownership of the manufacturing team increases. This transition will be smooth only if the manufacturing partner is involved early in the design stage.
While there are a multitude of activities starting from the concept phase to product withdrawal in a products development cycle, there are six key elements that EMPI brings in, which helps make the product a success.
Six elements of EMPI
PCB layout and fabrication:
The first of the six elements of EMPI is the PCB layout. Most of the designers never factor the PCB layout into the product’s design. When they design, the physical size of the PCBs is factored in with the assumption that the rest will be addressed by PCB manufacturing. However, this is not sufficient, as understanding PCB fabrication and the customised processes that each PCB fabricator uses is important, and can avoid additional work later, or the sub-optimal usage of PCB real estate. One of the key aspects that most designers forget is that when the product is in large volume production, PCBs are panelised (multiple PCBs in one large standard PCB size). Unless this panelling aspect is factored into the PCB’s design, the cost may not be optimal. EMPI helps to optimise this.
The second important aspect in the PCB design is the DFx (where x stands for assembly, manufacturing, testing, and compliance).
Design for assembly (DFA) needs to be addressed in the PCB design (layout) phase. Manufacturing partners, based on their production line capabilities, have certain guidelines and checklists for PCB design by using them yield in the assembly line, which can be near 100 per cent.
Design for testing (DFT) depends on the test equipment that the manufacturing partners use. In the design phase, typically, the manufacturing partner has to help in analysing the test coverage of a PCB and also recommend how to achieve close to 100 per cent test coverage. This is vital because the test equipment used in the manufacturing line may be different for different partners, apart from differing in capability.
Design for compliance (DFC) will ensure the products meet global compliance standards (like FCC/VCCI/CE, etc). Since compliance is affected by design and manufacturing, designing for compliance is key for the success of the product. Here again, working with the manufacturing partner is crucial to ensure the product meets compliance requirements.
Involving the manufacturing partner early helps in ensuring the assembled PCBs deliver 100 per cent yield. Inputs that ensure 100 per cent assembly yield will be addressed in the PCB layout phase. During the assembly phase, involving the manufacturing partner helps in reducing the complexity, cost and time. This is especially true when the PCBs use mixed technology (SMT and leaded parts). The fully automated process can be a challenge, and needs the manufacturing partners to examine the design and make the appropriate modifications in their assembly process.
Supply chain and component engineering: The third and the most important element in the EMPI is the integration of the supply chain. Just selection of a part alone does not end the designer’s responsibility. In fact, with globalisation, rapid obsolescence and electronic components being traded like commodities, their continuous availability is of paramount importance. Added to this, developing custom parts and ensuring that the vendors produce it at a low cost without breaks in supply, is another challenge. Involving the manufacturing partner early in the game will ensure that when the product is in high volume production, the availability of components does not become an issue. An added advantage is the low price that manufacturing partners get due to the high volumes.
Test engineering is a key activity in the manufacturing of a product. It is important that the products test strategy is well addressed to ensure the product leaves the assembly line fully tested so that it will not fail in the field. Involving the manufacturing partner allows the designers to get an insight into how products are tested, and will optimise the cost and time involved in testing the product.
System engineering and electronic packaging:
With the emergence of devices, vendors providing the basic reference circuit due to the complex design of integrated circuits (ICs), product design to a large extent has become more of an engineering exercise, where the so called ‘design’ is basically engineering the product to meet the manufacturing standards’ compliance requirements. In areas like consumer electronics and networking equipment, most product owners now focus on the software rather than spending time in developing the hardware. It is in this situation that involving the manufacturing partner early enables the product companies to quickly roll out the product.
Product support, test and repair and logistics:
Last of the six elements is support and logistics. Support phase is critical for the scaling up of volumes. In the initial phases when the volumes are low, low yields can still be managed with reworks. However, as the volumes increase, it can lead to choking of the line, unless issues are sorted out by the design team. Some of the manufacture support issues that need to be addressed are manufacture yield management, alternate component identification, test efficiency improvement, etc.
Gone are the days when outsourcing manufacturing used to be thought of as a ‘fire and forget’ option. With the increase in globalisation, the push towards effective utilisation of the capital invested and reduced time to market, unless manufacturing is thought of as a design activity, effective product development will be elusive. Designers and product companies need to look at manufacturing outsourcing in a holistic process rather than a standalone assembly job.
The author is vice president, design engineering and head, India Design Center, Sanmina-SCI Technology India Pvt Ltd.
Electronics Bazaar, South Asia’s No.1 Electronics B2B magazine