Posted on 26 Oct, 2015 by Neil Sharp

choosing_an_ems_provider It's always important to do your homework when choosing any supplier. But when it comes to selecting an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider to take over your procurement, assembly, test and shipping requirements, extra scrutiny is clearly required. 

Outsourcing your manufacturing to an EMS company means aligning both parties to a common set of objectives for the foreseeable future. A lot rests on the synergy of this relationship, including the ongoing growth and profitability of your company.

With this in mind, here's a three-step plan for choosing an EMS provider. It will help you conduct a thorough analysis of potential partners and lead you to find the right one for your needs.

1. Send out a questionnaire

Once you have identified three or four potential suppliers, it's a good idea to augment your initial web-based research by sending out a preliminary questionnaire to each of them. This is a time-saving way for you to gauge their suitability from the outset - and quickly brings any unsuitable suppliers to the fore.

It's not necessary to go into too much detail at this stage. The aim is to find out which companies match your key criteria, such as:

  • Manufacturing capabilities
These will be determined by the design of your product and how far you are prepared to outsource. It’s fair to say the majority of UK EMS companies have some form of surface mount equipment, which enables them to populate PCBs. But what if your product includes an electrical cabinet or is a complicated machine, consisting of electronic components, electrical parts and mechanical items? What specialist equipment, experience and processes are critical to you?
  • Delivery schedule
Are you looking to place fixed, scheduled orders with the EMS company or will you require a more flexible agreement, possibly including finished stock holding? The latter will require a degree of financial commitment from the EMS company, so they need to be aware of the scale of the project. And you must be comfortable they have the financial security to manage this and enable you to grow.
  • Geographical reach
Is your target market based wholly in the UK or is it further afield? Would an EMS supplier with an offshore manufacturing facility offer you additional benefits to those that don’t?
  • Physical location
How long would it take for you and other key members of your team - say engineering and test staff - to visit the EMS provider's factory? Close collaboration, certainly during the early stages of any project, helps guarantee project milestones remain on track - while extended travelling may cause unwelcome stresses and strains.  
  • Levels of specialist expertise
For example, will you require design for manufacturing or test support? During the transition stage how much involvement will you want from the EMS supplier in terms of the supply chain, setting up production lines, transferring tooling or creating build documentation? If these areas add value to your business, then they should form part of your questionnaire.
  • Compliance
Will your supplier require specific ISO quality standards or health and safety certifications? Are there any regulatory, compliance or ethics requirements? Can the supplier demonstrate they meet these or at least are working to a documented roadmap?
  • Monitoring and reporting
Before, during and after any outsourcing agreement it’s important to clarify how you expect project progress to be monitored, documented, communicated and reported.
  • Payment terms
What are your expectations in this area? Are they realistic and will the provider be prepared to offer them to you?

Based on the replies you receive from issuing the questionnaire you are likely to find that a shortlist will emerge of two or three strong candidates, with whom further dialogue is appropriate.  

2. Attend site visits

There's no substitute for visiting a company first-hand, so arranging a site visit to inspect your shortlist of potential partners is a natural next step to finding your ideal supplier.

Site visits provide you with the chance to meet the key people who are likely to be involved in your outsourcing programme. While there, you will be able to find out about their expertise and note any potential weak points across the operation that may impact the success of your venture.

Make a point of distancing yourself from the sales staff during your visit. This is an ideal chance for you to get beyond the conference room and PowerPoint presentations, to dig into what is behind the facade of the company.  Rely on your intuition. Images of PCBAs, cabinets or finished products can easily be sourced and added to glossy sales brochures and websites; experienced staff and robust procedures are much harder to copy.

Take time to talk to the team leaders responsible for logistics, operations and test, with the quality manager on hand throughout to answer any questions you may have regarding quality systems or processes. Your team is looking for the EMS provider to demonstrate clearly best practice across every faculty of the business - from quality to production; health and safety to data management.

Also, take time to contemplate the culture of the company. Does it fit well with your own? Does the operation seem organised? Is it safe? Do the staff seem motivated and productive? How clear is the vision and purpose and do you believe in what they are trying to achieve? Can you envisage working day in, day out with the management team and staff?

Look for consistency throughout your entire journey with each EMS provider. If the messages you receive at each stage of the process keep changing, then you have to question why. For example, does the information listed on their website match what you see with your own eyes? Can you see examples of products similar to yours - in terms of volume and complexity - being manufactured out on the shop floor? Do they have the experience and capability to support your business with the value-added services you require?

Once you’ve had time to reflect on the outcome of each visit and your experiences so far, you should be much clearer on whom to send your request for quote document (RFQ) to.

3. Investigate and audit

Once you’ve sent your RFQ across to the suppliers, it can take between two and four weeks (depending on scope) for responses to start coming back. This "dead" time provides an ideal opportunity to carry out further checks and audits. It's at this stage you may want to send in other members of your team - for example, quality and engineering - so they can start getting into the operational details associated with an outsourcing agreement.

Find out how well they are equipped to respond to changes in production, both in terms of increases and decreases in your sales volumes. What extra precautions are taken with new products? Do they have formal NPI procedures? And can they demonstrate control when it comes to changes in revision controlled data? Providing some hypothetical "worst case" scenarios is often an excellent way to put your potential supplier to the test.

And then there was one

Sending out a preliminary questionnaire, attending site visits and carrying out final audits is a methodical and thorough way of finding a productive partnership - one that will consistently deliver the full range of services your business requires. And one that will free up time for you, your management and key staff, to enable you to focus on your primary business objectives for years to come. 

By following these three simple steps, it should be possible to find a partner you can trust and who can deliver on most - if not all - of your original outsourcing criteria. The initial list of suppliers you found through your first internet search will have naturally reduced to just one provider that clearly stands out from the rest in terms of their suitability and appropriateness for your business. While this stage of the process draws to a close, an exciting new chapter is only just beginning.

Image by Terry Robinson

Topics: EMS, Outsourcing

Get The Latest Updates From our Blog

About the Author

Neil Sharp
Neil Sharp
Previously holding sales, account management and customer service roles, Neil has over 20 years’ experience within the Electronics Manufacturing Services industry. Neil heads up the marketing departme...read more