Seriously! Like many other specialty disciplines, building custom circuit boards is a challenge that is best left to the experts. But you may have found that the experts were not interested in assembling your boards – and that’s because you are not doing large batches of any single product.
Many typical OEM’s have electronic product portfolios that look like the pie chart on the left, below. When this is the case, the decision to outsource board assembly is fairly easy. Hungry Contract Manufacturers (CM’s) compete for the large volume business, and they are usually happy to do the medium volume as well. They are even willing to do the small batch work on a limited basis, as long as there is enough of the “good stuff” to offset it.
Often the small batch work that does come is considered prototype or early production – with high hopes that “decent” volumes will eventually materialize. So these small runs can be justified by both parties as the investments they really are.
By contrast, if you are an OEM who happens to manage a portfolio that looks more like the second chart, you probably have had a different experience. Your small batch runs don’t mature into large runs later on; you are more likely to create a new device or another product variation instead
Over the years you have likely tried to engage with reputable CM’s only to discover that they are less interested in your business over time. Prices and lead-times creep up. The CM may no longer bend over backwards to get your next order; you’ve learned to fend for yourself.
The Tide Is Turning
But now you may be in luck. That’s because there are a growing number of sophisticated custom circuit board assembly businesses that specialize in the particular challenges of small batch assembly. These aren’t your father’s low-budget prototype houses either. They are professional electronic CM’s, like RBB, who may handle hundreds of different assemblies every month, with no minimum order sizes. The good ones are ISO certified, do both RoHS-compliant and non-RoHS assemblies, and continue to invest in equipment and training every year.
Search your local area for keywords such as “electronics job shop”, “low volume electronics”, or similar keywords. You will quickly find a handful of people who will (profess to) be interested in your small batch business.
New Negotiation Tactic
Screen out the tire-kicker CM’s who may treat you badly down the road. Do this by emphasizing the small batch nature of your product mix. Never apologize for it. Tell your potential partner that your products come in small runs, with frequent revisions, that they often hit at unpredictable times, and that you always need them quickly. Remind the CM that after the early qualification stages go well that you intend to deluge them with a lot more small batches, not the gravy runs they may be secretly counting on.
The right job shop will embrace these needs in stride. Give them your tired, your poor, your huddled devices yearning to be built. As an illustration, RBB serves several customers today with well over 100 unique assemblies each year and an average batch size of less than 50 units. This is not theory.
Most LEAN manufacturers today excel because they do only that which only they can do. If you are building your own custom circuit boards because you have unique expertise that adds value to your customers, by all means you should continue to do so. But if you are doing so because the CM industry has let you down in the past, I encourage you to take a fresh look around. You may be pleasantly surprised that you did!
Does your company have experience building their own boards? Have you had good (or bad!) experiences partnering with circuit board manufacturers? Let me know below and take a look at our circuit board manufacturing checklist.. which will give you all of the questions you should ask as part of your partner evaluation.
Bruce Hendrick has been a leader of major change in corporations and small business alike for the past 25 years; he's the owner of RBB Systems and Organizational Development Services, LLC; noted speaker, author, active church member and community volunteer.