Mitigating supply chain challenges

5 mins read

Manufacturing products and solutions that integrate electronic, electrical and mechanical systems is no easy task. Today’s design engineers must address multiple challenges, from integrating advanced core technologies in an optimum manner to managing complex supply chain issues.

However, using a comprehensive and coordinated design and development methodology can go a long way towards delivering success in this disruptive marketplace and in this article we outline 10 design tips and techniques that we believe will help to remove unnecessary time pressures, avoid delays and increase time-to-market.

Team organisation is key

The first task for any company or organisation involved in the design, development and manufacture of devices and products is to establish a good team and set it up well.

Typically, a project manager will lead a multidisciplinary team of engineers who possess the different specialist skills required, which might include software, electronic, mechanical or PCB design, manufacturing, test and quality assurance. Proper team organisation is especially important when dealing with large teams or those with members working remotely.

A good analogy is a sports team. Regardless of the sport, the coach (think project manager) must help set up and coordinate a team of individuals with diverse skill sets, roles and responsibilities. They must keep these various talents – all of whom typically know their job well – on track to get the best out of them and deliver on the goals of the project.

A team lacking the right mix of skills and talent – or with the wrong coach – will ultimately struggle.

Handling adversity

The last few years have been tough for everyone in industry, with multiple challenges making it more and more difficult to conduct business – from Brexit and US-China trade tensions to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. Even before these disruptions, manufacturing supply chains were under pressure from the demands of new technologies, ever-tighter development cycles and “just-in-time” production.

Some manufacturers suffered during the first months of the COVID pandemic because their processes weren’t flexible or resilient enough to handle the multiple disruptions presented, with some suppliers shutting down or refusing orders.

Between workplace challenges, disrupted and dispersed workforces, and critical supply chain issues, some companies couldn’t maintain their business and either went into hibernation or folded.

You can’t build a house without bricks

Supply chain and procurement issues have risen to the top of the challenges a manufacturer must address, since even the best team can’t make a product without parts. One of the first questions you need to ask yourself is: when do you need the component stock? Do you need it for production, or for prototypes? When and how many are needed is a critical path, because while you can often get parts for a prototype, you may not be able to source those parts in volume quantities.

Understanding and managing lead times is an important element of manufacturing today. It is vital to ensure that the lead times needed for parts are properly accounted for in your development plan and timeline. Pre-COVID, you could usually count on parts being delivered in four to six weeks, but today some of these lead times can now be anything from 26 weeks to more than a year, depending on the component.

Extended delivery times (or worse, lack of availability) can derail a project. In a normal pre-COVID development flow, after the initial concept phase, sample parts might be used in prototype design and development, through to initial testing. Findings may then be integrated back into design and redevelopment, before formal testing is performed for application needs and standards compliance. At this stage, parts are ordered in bulk and production begins.

Today, each step should take procurement into consideration. The initial development should be done using a DFM (“design for manufacture”) methodology, with specifications based on part availability, as well as performance. Alternative parts options should already be in consideration at every step, especially for components known to be in tight supply. This is where it is vital to engage with a trusted development partner, with a healthy knowledge of and experience in supply chain management.

For example, a knowledgeable development partner can help you with parts selection by helping determine which parts can be substituted with little or no technical disadvantage.

Keeping in close communication with your partner is also key, as you can communicate critical product deadlines throughout the development process. And it’s important to leverage your assets to keep your Bill of Materials (BoM) flexible in order to manage any changes in designs.

Ten tips for success

Get help reviewing the BoM: Knowledgeable development partners can help you select the right parts – and just as importantly, avoid common mistakes. For instance, the choice of plating on a connector may significantly affect the lead time – but does it make a difference for your design needs? For instance, Harwin’s M80-5401622 PCB connector features gold on the contact area and tin/lead on the tails (often used in MIL-SPEC applications, the presence of lead helps inhibit tin whiskers) – but its current lead time is 14 weeks.

A quick chat with an FAE could help establish that the M80-5401642 connector (identical in every way, save only tin on the tails) is perfectly OK for your application needs – saving you 14 weeks, since it is available immediately from stock.

Use FAEs to help with specification: FAEs and product specialists will be able to provide specifications, 2D or 3D drawings, test reports, pricing information and certifications – especially for legacy parts and those on a limited parts database. This can help speed up the process and avoid problems later.

Communicate critical product dates: It’s vital to communicate development and project milestone dates along the way. Good distributors will be able to advise of potential supply chain issues based on these. Through open communication, orders can sometimes be “babysat”, pencilled in or scheduled with suppliers.

Component selection: In order of priority, select your components based on i) ability to solve the design problem (technically); ii) project dates; and iii) manufacturability.

Be supplier agnostic: Different suppliers will have differing technology offerings, stock and pricing models, and openness to customisation, so this approach results in the optimum solution both technically and commercially.

For instance, both Glenair and Harwin have hi-rel interconnect offerings – but each follow differing supply models. Glenair specialise in customisation and offer very short lead times but can be at the higher end price-wise for short runs. Harwin, by contrast, is focused on popular variants and maintains industry-standard lead times, helping keep pricing competitively low.

Keep your BoM flexible: Important as traceability is, one problem that it has resulted in is standard parts lists, limiting alternatives or the ability to cross reference – but if you can keep your BoM flexible to switching out parts during development phases, it can help mitigate some supply chain issues.

Don’t stick to the status quo: Be open to considering alternatives to the obvious suppliers can also help.

Make use of distribution partner’s warehouses: Some distributors will be able to help you manage your just-in-time requirements by holding stock for you and delaying delivery to suit.

Use common solutions: Using the same components for multiple solutions where possible enables you to take advantage of fewer lines, lowering the probability of shortages, as well as benefit from volume pricing.

Reduce the number of items on the BoM: Custom kitting and cable assemblies can help to do this – reducing complexity and improving deliverability.

Powell, like many distributors, maintains strong partnerships with a wide range of manufacturers and suppliers. But in the current climate of component shortages and lengthy lead times, the company has looked to expand its linecard with alternatives that can offer shorter lead times across various product categories.

These include KEC for EMC interconnect backshells, Corning for specialist RF connectors, Hi-G for relays, Altran Magnetics for DC Contactors, and East Coast Microwave for custom RF cable assemblies.

At the same time, the company has increased investment for in-demand items with existing partners, for instance in piece part stock with Amphenol and heatshrink boots with Glenair.

Looking forward

Surviving and thriving in today’s disruptive geopolitical and manufacturing environment requires effective management of both your team and the supply chain.

Establishing the optimum team composition can help address issues before they start, ensuring the right people are in the right roles and are able to communicate effectively.

In procurement, you should select components according to how they solve the design problem technically, how parts availability matches your various project milestone dates, and the manufacturability of the solution to be created.

Working with a trusted and knowledgeable development partner can address all these factors, helping mitigate supply chain challenges and issues. 

Author details: Robert John Webber, European Applications Manager at Powell Electronics