Posted on 10 Mar, 2016 by Andy Bailey

electronics_manufacturingIdentifying and preventing "failures" is an ongoing issue facing electronics manufacturing services (EMS) providers. While most will have robust processes and procedures in place to drive key performance indicators (KPIs), like efficiency and delivery performance, lower level KPIs are often more difficult to manage and can sometimes get overlooked.

Focusing improvement activities on these lower level KPIs is of strategic importance to EMS companies who seek to continuously improve quality and drive performance. Failing to recognise where problems occur or where opportunities for improvement exist can be costly, if not damaging, to the overall effectiveness of an EMS provider.

In this blog post, we will take a look at what "failures" within electronics manufacturing might look like and outline six steps proactive EMS providers are taking to help identify and prevent issues from occurring.

The word failure is very broad, but some obvious "top level" examples within electronics manufacturing could include missing a delivery schedule, fitting an incorrect device to a printed circuit board (PCB) or delivering a damaged assembly.  

These kinds of failures have a negative impact for the EMS provider and/or their customer base. At a lower level, failing to extract or fully document pertinent build data or knowledge from key operators could also be classed as a failure. While an issue may not have occurred yet, the opportunity for something to go wrong when, for example, those operators take time off for holidays or sickness exists.       

A failure within electronics manufacturing can also represent an opportunity for improvement; where nothing has actually gone wrong or caused an issue but could be improved through greater focus or a process change. For example, the EMS provider may employ staff to carry out manual, unskilled tasks, which, with small amounts of investment, have the potential to be automated and, therefore, release more skills within the workplace. Applying serial number labels to PCBs or the process of applying adhesive to certain components before assembling a double sided PCBA are both areas that could fall into this category.

So now we have attempted to define what a failure is let’s take a look at six steps forward thinking EMS companies are taking to help identify opportunities for improvement or prevent issues occurring in the first instance. 

1) Gaining support  

The most effective improvement programmes are reliant on having support from the top of the business. This helps set a clear vision, enables communication to flow freely across all departments and empowers staff to take full ownership of each project they are involved in. It can also help with funding requirements; whether this is to initially train members of a team in "lean" principles or when it comes to implementing any new solutions they may propose.

People will always question change, form assumptions and evaluate what they are being asked to do. This can lead to resistance, which is why it is essential to involve, empower and gain buy-in from your staff at all levels.  

2) Creating a team

The next step involves creating a team responsible for identifying failures and leading improvements. The majority of problems and potential improvements will be more visible to those exposed to the day-to-day processes that enable the business to function. Therefore, it is logical to select members of the team that already understand the detail of specific processes and are aware of the stakeholders they feed.

To succeed, this team should be empowered to reward initiative, suppress resistance and eliminate obstacles. 

3) Identifying opportunities

The team should openly brainstorm possible causes of failure. Those performing the same operation day in day out may not immediately pick up on inefficiencies or recognise opportunities for improvement. The way they have been taught is probably the only way they know; brainstorming helps challenge this thought process.

All ideas should be noted and taken on face value as even the most extreme suggestions may help to inspire others to contribute to the perfect solution. Creating a process map at this point will also help to identify areas of weaknesses.

To help the team maintain focus and provide an opportunity to evaluate the success of their improvements, this should be supported by a problem statement that details the area of failure and its current impact on the business. 

4) Analysing root causes

Analysing and segmenting the reasons behind potential errors using an approach similar to the Boston Matrix helps to weight potential solutions. This process can highlight to the EMS provider which solutions have the ability to yield the largest return for the lowest investment.

Clearly this doesn’t mean the EMS provider will only focus on small or "quick wins" but, as a way of prioritising process improvements and to help the wider audience start to see tangible results, it makes sense to complete a number of these asap.

To paraphrase Sir Dave Brailsford, the boss of the Team Sky professional cycling team, "it’s important to understand the 'aggregation of marginal gains'. Put simply, how small improvements in a number of different aspects of what you do can have a huge impact to the overall performance of a team."

5) Implementing solutions

Once the team has agreed which area to focus on they need to create an implementation plan. The plan should include clear targets and SMART actions to help maintain improvement and flag up any areas for concern if the targets are not being met.

It’s a good idea to communicate the start of the project to all other departments. This will inform team members of any potential changes that are due to take place and help reinforce the message that there is a culture of continuous improvement within the organisation. This may well encourage others to come forward with their own suggestions.  

6) Monitor performance

Finally, the team need to monitor how their solution is performing against their original targets. Implementing a solution is really just the start of the process; if no-one then measures its effectiveness, it was a pointless exercise.

On larger process improvement projects it’s likely that adjustments to both the implemented solution and the targets set will need to be made. This is absolutely fine, and the team should not be made to feel like they have failed just because their initial solution wasn’t perfect.

In summary, progressive EMS companies should commit at the highest level to developing a continuous improvement culture within their organisations. They will understand the importance of investing in training to ensure that employees are effective at solving problems and implementing process improvement plans.

They will want to see realistic targets being set for projects being worked on and will expect regular updates on the progress being made. However, they will accept that the team need both the freedom and the correct environment to deliver this, which often means dedicated "time out" from their day-to-day role.  

And finally, they will actively encourage all employees to think alike and use continuous improvement as a way of identifying activities that help minimise cost, improve performance or prevent future problems from occurring. 

Image by Kim Davies

Achieving quality, consistency and delivery within electronics manufacturing

Topics: EMS, Engineering

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Andy Bailey