The Quest for Perfect Design Data Packages


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Matties: So, we know the problem is data is not getting here correctly. There's maybe some education needed. But is this a problem that can be solved, or is it something that we just have to rely on the way we do it?

Ryder: I think that you'll never completely resolve that particular issue. Certainly, with repeat customers, we steer them in the right direction once they have a better understanding of the challenges of the manufacturing process. They get it, and it doesn't go away.

Thompson: A great example of some successes in that respect is that we have been able to nurture many of our customers and get that sort of consistency from them. When their data comes in now, it takes a fraction of the time for us to review it and get it out into manufacturing.

Matties: When we talked about the data package, there's the design element. Some of it may be a poor design, but then there's the matter of providing the correct data set.

Thompson: That's correct. An output package should be a template. It should be all done by rote. Common sense would dictate we have to drill the boards to be able to get through-hole continuity, so we have to have an NC drill file. We're going to need image layers for all layers that are involved. If it's a 10-layer board, I need 10 image layers. If it's going to take solder mask, I'm going to need solder mask image layers. If it's going to take silkscreen, I'll need silkscreen image layers. Whether it's going to be sent to a local assembler or not or if we're panelizing it, I'm going to need any paste files associated with the job. Beyond that, any PDF drawings, or anything really unique about the job—such as unique reference planes for impedance scenarios or unique alternative surface finishes and those kinds of things—need to be called out, which is always helpful. That’s the nuts and bolts of what we need. It's the accuracy of this stuff that we see coming in.

Matties: Any designer, whether they have firsthand manufacturing knowledge or brief knowledge in manufacturing, should be able to provide you a good data set.

Thompson: Yes.

Matties: What's the obstacle for them to do that?

Thompson: The only thing I can think of is a lack of design reviews. They could be crunched on time. Maybe they've gone through a service bureau to do their circuit boards, and they're really cutting it close on time-to-market issues, and they didn't do an adequate review of the data set once it has been outputted. Nine times out of 10, when I said, "You didn't provide us with an NC drill file," they said, "Oops, I'm so sorry."

Matties: It's really just a simple checklist. How much does it take in terms of time for someone to review the data set?

Thompson: It depends on the complexity of the board. All I could think is that perhaps they're not operating off a checklist in some cases. A Class-3 IPC-6012 job dictates that I have to do an IPC netlist compare. They didn't provide me a netlist or an NC drill file, and they're missing all of their inner layers and vias. Sometimes a customer will come to us with preliminary data and ask for a preliminary quote on a board when it hasn’t been filled out. It will have 115 holes with all of the tooling holes but have no vias on it. We'll give them this arbitrary charge, it will come in, and there will be 9,000 additional vias associated with that job. We see that kind of stuff too; it's not at all uncommon.

Matties: How much time would designers save you if the data set was accurate to start?

Thompson: It would save our inside salespeople and me a lot of additional time and work.

Matties: Are we talking 30 minutes an order?

Thompson: It could be up to as much as three hours per order, depending on the severity or the amount of the issues.

Matties: Let's say the average is an hour for easy math because you have to go through all of this just to make a quote, and it doesn't even necessarily translate into revenue.

Thompson: That's right. It may not even come to fruition.

Matties: How many quotes would an average board shop do in a month?

Thompson: For every inside salesperson you have, you should have at least one per hour their entire day. If they work eight hours a day, they should have a minimum of eight per day. If you have three inside salespeople, you should have 24 jobs a day.

Matties: You're spending an hour per job fixing the data with 24 quotes a day. That would be 24 hours of waste. Why do we put up with it?

Thompson: It's hard to say because we are still considered a third party. For many years, the fabricators were seen as those who built us the boards. “They don't know anything about dielectrics, stackups, or the functionality of my board. They don't know anything about electronics.” All of that is untrue. However, that was the thought process many years ago as well.

Matties: They must have faith that you do know this stuff or they'd be sending the right data. I think they're relying on you to provide them with the right data. Is that cost factored into the board or is that just a part of the overhead?

Thompson: I'm assuming it's part of the overhead because I don't think we factor that in. We've always said our services are above and beyond; it's a value-added service. Whether or not your board ever comes to fruition at Prototron, you still have my time to be able to run calculations or give you engineering assistance.

Matties: It's a problem that's not going to go away unless there's a collective solution. When I hear multiple times that 99% of all the work that comes into any given PCB factory is not accurate, it’s a big problem.

Thompson: It's alarming, isn't it?

Matties: And maybe it's just the cost of making a sale, but if the data package was right to begin with, on average, how much time would you save out of that hour if it was correct?

Thompson: Most of it. It would take us a fraction of that amount of time.

Matties: If I'm running my company, this would be a top priority.

Thompson: And it has been at Prototron. Hence, the reason for writing the eBook and my drive to educate the customer through these presentations.

Ryder: We try to limit how much effort we put into it before actually getting a purchase order, but you can't necessarily scale that back because ultimately, we have to look at it like it's actually going to be an order for us. We have to look at it like we're going to build it.

Matties: Do people look at this on their P&L statement as a cost of sales?

Ryder: No.

Matties: Until you have the order, you're still in the selling process.

Ryder: That’s correct.

Matties: And it's a cost to sales. We can lower our cost of sales by training people, incentivize it, and do a lot of things, but it's not an order. Once it's an order, then it becomes engineering value-add. The value-add is them saying, "They will solve my problems for me, and I may or may not even buy the boards from them."

Ryder: We certainly see what happen.

Matties: Gentlemen, this has been very interesting. Thank you both.

Ryder: Thank you.

Thompson: Thanks, Barry.

To download your copy of Prototron’s eBook, The Printed Circuit Designer's Guide to… Producing the Perfect Data Package, written by Mark Thompson, click here.

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