Board Buying
How Quickly Can You Move PCB Business?
Expand your manufacturing base at little or no cost.

Why are PCB purchasing departments often hesitant to move business to a new vendor, even when it is clearly warranted? Perhaps it’s the overly cumbersome process many buyers require before production can be moved.

Adding a new supplier to an approved vendor list (AVL) needs to be done with care, but I don’t understand why many firms make it harder than it has to be.

It is important to keep PCB vendors on their toes. They should know that you, as a circuit board buyer, regularly review vendor pricing and performance and are willing to move business when necessary. And the truth is adding qualified suppliers may not be as difficult as you think.

Here’s how to evaluate a potential vendor:

Get a trial quote. For the buyer, it’s all about price. There’s no need to get the quality or production departments involved if the only reason to move a board is for better pricing. Start with a trial quote from a potential vendor, after you have an NDA in place. Have the Gerber files available for a PCB that your company assembles often enough to use for price benchmarking purposes. Send those files, along with your corporate PCB fabrication specification (your company has fab specs, right?), to the vendor with a request for a trial quote.

If the prospective vendor’s benchmark quote comes back at a higher price, and you are happy with your present vendor’s performance, then move on to another potential vendor, if desired.

If the price comes back lower than your current supplier, that doesn’t mean you should immediately jump ship, especially if it’s a difference of only a few percentage points and you are happy with your current vendor’s performance. But it does mean you should at least consider moving orders.

Check references. If the trial quote looks good enough to justify moving an order, proceed to the reference checks. Ask for at least three references, preferably in the same industry. And make sure you actually call those references. (You’d be surprised how many companies don’t.)

Ask how long the reference has worked with the prospective supplier. Find out how much of their annual spend is invested with the vendor and why. Also important: Does that reference require the same product as you? The vendor may be great at two-layer and four-layer work, but what if you require eight-layer and above? Get specific so you don’t miss crucial information. Ask how the vendor handles scheduling changes or quality issues. Great pricing means nothing if it comes with poor customer service.

Money matters. If the references are good, it’s time to check the vendor’s financial stability. Run a D&B report. Call the vendor’s bank and suppliers. Make sure the vendor pays its bills. A vendor that pays its own suppliers on time is more likely to be able to deliver your orders on time. Getting financials from an offshore vendor can be difficult, so in that case, double-up on references instead, and hit harder on questions concerning timely communication and customer service.

Quality concerns. If pricing, financials and references look right, it’s time to get quality involved. Make sure your prospective vendor has all the required credentials, such as UL and ISO, as well as anything specific to your customer’s needs. Send out a vendor survey (you have one of those, right?) and create a vendor file. Have your quality staff talk to their quality staff. Ensure the prospective vendor understands the quality paperwork (CofC, ET and material certifications) required to properly accept a shipment.

Talk to production. Production departments are usually and understandably averse to change. Don’t cut your new vendor into the production schedule without involving production in the approval process. To help put production at ease, consider a contingency purchase order to the vendor (with tooling and test charges waived), with little risk to your company.

While China might not be the preferred build geography, relocating production is a methodical, intensive process.
Figure 1. While China might not be the preferred build geography, relocating production is a methodical, intensive process.

Here’s how it works: Say a project requires a particular PCB every month. Order the next delivery from your present vendor and the following delivery requirement from your prospective vendor. Have both orders arrive on your dock at the same time. Have production assemble the boards from the present vendor as scheduled, along with a sampling of the boards from the prospective vendor. If your production and quality teams are happy with the sample assembly, you can be confident in the work of the new vendor.

If the boards do have a problem, according to IPC or your corporate specs, review the issue with quality and production. Don’t give up quickly on that prospective vendor. Was the issue related to poor communication that could be easily fixed for the next run? Or was it a real quality issue, where the boards are useless?

If the sample build is done immediately, you should have plenty of time to determine whether to give the vendor another try or reject the order outright. You can then order the next requirement from your present vendor without missing a beat in your assembly schedule.

If the order is rejected, there is no invoice from the prospective vendor.

Every company needs to be held accountable. Your fabricators should know you are closely monitoring pricing and performance, even long after you’ve established a relationship with them. And your buyers should have the confidence to move business quickly and easily, whenever necessary.

A carefully thought-out vendor selection process will expand your manufacturing base and help your company maintain its competitive edge, with little cost in time or resources.

Greg Papandrew
Greg Papandrew
has more than 25 years’ experience selling PCBs directly for various fabricators and as founder of a leading distributor. He is cofounder of Better Board Buying;