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While achieving industry accreditation can be a challenge, it shouldn’t simply mean box-ticking

It’s no secret that contract electronics manufacturers (CEMs) in the UK have been under increasing pressure in recent years to be global market leaders in terms of value and quality. Yet discussion around the challenges of industry accreditation when it comes to testing and quality assurance has often been sparse.

Accreditations, particularly in the case of SMEs, can be a difficult proposition. Even gaining ‘standard’ accreditations can present organisations with a steep learning curve and an even larger outlay in resources. Audits can disrupt normal business for days, if not weeks, and the pressures involved in meeting all specifications have the potential to push staff to their limits.

Yet accreditations are often nothing short of imperative for CEMs. Axiom Manufacturing Services operates across the aerospace, defence, medical and industrial sectors, so certifications such as ISO9001, ISO14001, AS9100 and ISO13485 are essential if it is to survive and compete – customers will often assume these standards are in place.

It’s easy to see why manufacturers can treat accreditations as little more than a box-ticking exercise: a client wants a certain accreditation, or a competitor already has it, so they jump on the qualification bandwagon. This can lead to certifications being seen as little more than ‘badges’ to be collected, with the bare minimum done to attain them.

This is an inefficient, unsustainable and – ultimately – unbeneficial model approach.

Demonstrating quality

There are several reasons for this, chief of which is that accreditations aren’t the best way to demonstrate quality. They may help spark initial interest in your organisation, but the best way to prove operational quality is through in house product yield, reconciled delivery and quality performance metrics. Even if accreditation plays a big part in getting on a contract shortlist, customers will put more stock into processes and data. When showing a prospective client around Axiom’s Newbridge facility and pointing out a sought after certificate of quality, the client noted ‘That certificate got me here, but an audit of your organisation is what matters to me now’.

It’s not only potential clients that will place more emphasis on what goes on within your walls than what hangs upon them; different divisions and teams within clients and suppliers will have their own priorities and requirements and it’s unrealistic to think that merely complying with industry standards will allow you to satisfy them all.

Linked to this is the fact that, in the highly competitive CEM sector, accreditations alone cannot be your unique selling point; there will always be another company who is more qualified than you on paper. Even with its list of accreditations, Axiom has yet to sign a customer simply because of them – and that will not change anytime soon.

Detracting from normal business

The other issue with compulsively pursuing accreditations is that they detract from normal business activity. Axiom recently attained Nadcap AC7120 – a ‘gold standard’ within the aerospace industry. The factory audit lasted almost a week, but the entire process lasted around six months. Naturally, operations don’t come to a standstill during this time, but if you’re always applying for accreditations, it may result in resources being taken away from the important task of servicing your clients’ needs while growing and developing your organisation.

The counter argument is that accreditations form part of a growth and development strategy. However, the key is not to view accreditations through the prism of perceived short term value, but rather as part of a long-term commitment to quality.

If you want to see quality or improvement in a specific area, this means moving away from checking off criteria, instead using accreditations as a guide to establish what long-term changes need to be made. Decisions on accreditations at Axiom entirely driven by the customer-technology roadmap.

The journey starts with an examination of the future for each customer market sector. Each department – from procurement to test – will outline how the demands are likely to change and this future mapping involves asking questions around important trends within each market sector.

Is a particular sector placing great importance on green credentials, for example? Does supply chain security need to be enhanced? Will there need to be greater levels of tractability? As customers require CEMs to share more of their risk management burden, CEMs must look to see how they can best prepare to do so.

There are more exact questions about potential accreditations. Do the required standards match where the product and technology is heading? Will this shifting base create a gap not currently accounted for? Can accreditation help to fill that gap?

It’s then time to sit down with clients and experts to cross-check the expectations of where their sectors are headed. Ultimately, the question is ‘will confirming our best practices with this accreditation improve our offering or can it improve competitiveness in the future?’.

Will any resulting improvements offer customers a sufficient return on investment on any outlay and disruption caused in the process. Only by answering these customer and market-driven questions can strategic decisions be made. If consensus is reached – and the processes involved in meeting certain accreditations align with identified trends or gaps –the accreditation process can begin.

With Nadcap, for instance, Axiom saw the aerospace sector was placing more importance on quality control; as a result, Nadcap would likely become more important in the future. After weighing up whether the best practices from the accreditation could help the long-term commitment to quality, Axiom met with customers and explained why pursuing the accreditation and implementing the processes would help to improve the long term offering. As a result, customers agreed to sponsor some of the activities involved in pursuing Nadcap AC7120.

Working with a mentor

This is the best model for attaining such accreditation; working with a mentor or sponsor to help identify gaps and help the process run as smoothly as possible. The key question is ‘what help is available from your supply or customer base?’. If the answer is there isn’t any and others don’t see the long term mutual benefit of certain accreditations, then re-evaluate whether going through the process is worth it. It’s crucial to realise the journey towards quality doesn’t stop if an accreditation is secured, or if an application is unsuccessful.

When quality is instilled from the top down throughout every layer of an organisation, it not only improves products, but also begins to meet many of the top industry standards, whether you are seeking accreditations or not. If the necessary long-term steps are in place, the accreditation you deserve will come. It’s also important to recognise that encouraging the constant pursuit of quality creates a culture of stretching yourself. In the competitive CEM marketplace, what was great yesterday may only be good today and not even adequate going forward.

Author profile:
David Davies is managing director of Axiom Manufacturing Services

Author
David Davies

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