When the ESCO Report (Electronics Systems: Challenges and Opportunities) was published in 2013, it outlined ambitious aims to grow the UK's electronic systems industry to £120billion by 2020, including the addition of more than 150,000 highly skilled jobs. The report talked of growing the UK's electronics industry by 55%, based on the premise that there would be improvements to supply chains and strategic procurement, the skills pipeline and the industry's ability to identify future growth sectors. What role could the UK's relatively strong EMS/CEM sector play in helping to develop the electronic systems industry?
Estimated by industry veteran Phil Inness, chairman of Axis Electronics, to be worth between £1.3 and 1.5bn, the sector comprises of some 250 companies, many of whom are playing a critical role in driving innovation in the electronics market, as well as supporting the initial start-up phase when it comes to developing new products. But could they be doing more? A growing number of companies in this space have been investing heavily in providing added value services, including design engineering and new product introduction. "The role of the contract manufacturer depends entirely on where they fit in the technology spectrum," says Inness. "At the high end, CEMs will be expected to provide a 'cradle to grave' level of service, supplying everything from prototyping services through to manufacturing and those requirements are unlikely to change." According to Inness, while some manufacturing has returned to the UK, off-shoring remains a significant challenge. "If reshoring is taking place, it is doing so at the margins, I don't believe it's a big number. If UK CEMs are to compete effectively, they must be able to benchmark themselves against the very best in terms of global competition." In a bid to become more competitive, a growing number of UK based EMS companies are making significant investments in their operating facilities, including the development of electronics prototyping and pre-production services. Their aim is to add value much earlier on in the design to manufacturing process. A case in point is the AWS Electronics Group, which has increased the scale of both its Fast Track and volume production assembly capabilities in response to a significant upturn in business. "Europe is still a vital design and manufacturing region", explains Paul Deehan, the company's CEO, "which is why we need state-of-the-art facilities to support customers throughout their product lifecycles." AWS aims to work collaboratively with design engineers and project managers on prototyping and looks to support customers during the development stage. It offers a Fast Track service, with a dedicated quote team and assembly of PCBs within five days of materials procurement. The service is available for low run production volumes, as well as for prototyping activities, and is not limited to basic single sided PCB technology; complex multilayer PCB assemblies can also be accommodated. Briton EMS, a division of OSI Electronics, offers a prototyping service that delivers a representative working production item within 10 working days. According to Peter Towler, the company's business development manager: "This will include PCBs, cables, wiring, switches and enclosures. We build these prototypes to full manufacturing standards in an ISO9001 production environment." Last year, Andover based Custom Interconnect unveiled a RAPID Electronic Prototyping service, which can turn around PCB assemblies within just 24 hours from receipt of components, depending upon the complexities of the build. "Our work is becoming increasingly complex and our prototyping offer has been designed to address this," says John Boston, the company's managing director. "We are currently manufacturing a new product every five hours and it is not uncommon to see assemblies with 900 components being processed in batches of less than 10." Designing for manufacture All contract manufacturers will advise engineers to take a number of issues into account when designing for manufacture. "Try to reduce the number of parts and look to develop a modular design which will help to simplify the manufacturing process," explains Towler. "Where you can gain a competitive advantage use bespoke components and design them to be multifunctional." He suggests that engineers should look to design for ease of fabrication, in order to limit the overall cost of manufacture, and they should work to reduce handling and feeding operations in order to limit the number of assembly directions. With more customers calling for full product build, Custom Interconnect is finding that it is becoming involved in board level testing and complete product testing. "In our experience," says Boston, "we are finding that design engineers do not have a test strategy, so we have to highlight the test strategies we use ourselves across the full spectrum of our customer base." According to Axiom's managing director David Davies: "While prototype testing can reduce the risk that a design may not perform as intended, generally it will not eliminate all risk. Some allowances and engineering judgement is often required before moving to production design. "Rapid prototyping services lend themselves to challenging timescales. If a customer wants a product assembled and visually inspected with no test or validation strategy, then the product could be completed within one day. "However, if full technical reviews, validation of all materials and a comprehensive test strategy is required, then more time should be allowed in order to fulfill the order." Prototyping is a costlier service than 'normal' production, due to the faster response offered and the greater amount of engineering input that is required. Boston warns that it is worth remembering that prototyping means not only prototyping the design, but also prototyping the assembly process. There is a very high expectation that everything will be perfect, even on prototypes. However, it is important to remember the EMS is assembling something it has never seen before. Many engineers underestimate the complexity of the project, according to Towler. "Complexity – and its management – is a big issue for us, as well as specifying parts from too many suppliers and then discovering unexpected issues such as poor chemical resistance." Prototyping enables engineers to focus on other aspects of the project, whether that's software or interface hardware, and engineers will not have to waste time communicating with PCB manufacturers and component suppliers to secure materials. "A well made prototype should be representative of a production item," says Towler. "This should enable the client to test it in real world conditions with its customers and to iron out any problems before it goes into production." Design and manufacturing need to work together and run well; and that will depend on the EMS/CEM being honest in explaining procedures to its client. It should speed the final production process, get the product to market faster and improve the return on investment – the basic ingredients of a vibrant and successful electronics systems industry.