Navigating the Global Materials Supply Chain: A Roundtable Discussion


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Willis: I think it's great to be able to have that information. I still find a challenge in that so many users of technology don't understand the technology. They're specifying things that they may or may not need. But also, when we're talking about going down to smaller and smaller pitches, the last 10 years we've been stretching technology in the materials we use. Every PCB manufacturer has had to take a design and massage it to get what a customer wanted out of the materials available. We are really at the limit. I think that, yes, we can produce a product and meet the specification, but the challenges for the future I think are immense.

Goodwin: One of the things we've done to properly address that is we very recently set up our own OEM team. We call it an OEM marketing team, but it's about a two-way information flow, not just us marketing our products to the OEM. We really want to know their roadmaps and where they're going. Also you've got to be very careful because a lot of the things you see happening in high-speed digital materials now is that everybody wants a custom laminate product. That puts an immense pressure on the supply chain because small quantities of very special products are very, very difficult to deliver. One of the messages we're sending out there is to try to get people to root their technologies around a product base so we stand a chance to deliver that within the time scales and be as reactive as the OEMs want us to be. I guess you guys are really stuck in the middle of this, aren't you? If we haven't got the products available you can't support the OEMs.

Keuthen: It is like that, definitely. The only chance to deal with this is obviously having a wide variety of products on board to be able to supply our various customers’ needs. That's one thing. On the other hand, we've got products that are not lasting for that long. When you think of the pre-pregs, it’s a three-month time period that we've got, so we are not really able to forecast that long to stock it very long.

Otherwise we have to retest it and that's something in the supply chain that came to my knowledge as well. That we've got a lot of problems getting these materials in time in our house and then have them available for at least three months. After that the expiration date of these materials is also done. That makes our life even more difficult. 

Willis: A lot of customers just don't fully understand that these materials do have a shelf life.

Keuthen: That is true.

Willis: They come to you and the designers probably don't comprehend that. I think that one of the challenges again is the education. If you go back and understand how a designer works on a specification that he wants to achieve, with the greatest respect, so many designers never visit a PCB shop. They don't understand how it all is made.

I know that's basic stuff, but having that understanding first of all and then building on that is so important. Then when you make a point, he can understand what you're saying. He's not saying you're specifying something because there's more profit margin in it. You understand technology first. You help, you talk, communicate, etc. I think that's one of the nice things that a lot of major PCB manufacturers have done is get people that are experts in assembly and are experts in design and provide that expertise to the customer. Then you get a better build, a better understanding back from them so consequently you can do it quicker and you can do it at a more reasonable price because you've done your development up front.

Goodwin: One of the things that you bring up that's really interesting is, and Jack mentioned it earlier, it is in the competitive nature of our business to almost blanket the demands that come out of OEMs. One of the things that springs to my mind immediately that links in with what you were saying is about pre-preg retesting. We get OEMs that say you cannot supply a retested product. Now we make pre-preg to a specification. We measure a set of characteristics on that pre-preg, so it either passes or it fails. So with blanket bends on retesting, all they do is add to the complexity in the supply chain, delays in the supply chain, and added costs in the supply chain.

Actually I think mostly they're put in place by people that really don't understand that we're a manufacturer of a product. We make it to a specification. We test it to a specification. When we retest it, we retest it to that original specification. Either it passes or it fails. It's delivered with a retest certificate and a CMC and we're standing behind the retest we've done.

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