Board buying
US PCB Shops Should Look in the Mirror
Buyers will pay more for local products, if only manufacturers were easy to do business with.
In a recent qopinion piece in Roll Call, IPC president and CEOJohn Mitchell – addressing the Biden administration’s willingness to invest mightily in the global chip output – points out it will take this and much more to maintain the US electronics manufacturing industry’s competitiveness.

“The issue,” Mitchell notes, “is that America’s supply chains keep generating problems that frustrate consumers, threaten companies and undermine American competitiveness.”

He hits the nail on the head by calling for a more “holistic” approach and points out that while chips are important, they are just one piece of the puzzle. The printed circuit board, on the other hand, ties together all the components of electronics manufacturing, and that seems to be the greater domestic challenge.

In my opinion, it’s not so much the chip shortage causing the US to fall behind in the technology race. Instead, it’s poor sales management and customer service.

In my long career as a PCB broker, I have been both salesman and buyer; to sell the boards, I had to buy them first. My biggest challenge during that time has been successfully procuring PCBs from our domestic manufacturing industry.

What I’m talking about has nothing to do with technology, quality or pricing. Instead, it’s about customer service from today’s PCB industry.

To put it bluntly, that service is often subpar. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to bring business to US manufacturers, only to be disappointed with quality and delivery. It’s rarely been about pricing.

For the most part, I get better customer service from manufacturers halfway around the world than I do in the United States. And that is nothing new.

The rise of the PCB broker over the past 20 years is testament to that lack of domestic service. Customers are willing to pay more to use US-based manufacturers, even while knowing they could go direct and pay less.

But domestic manufacturers have not made it easy to do business. And they still don’t. Today, I teach companies how to buy PCBs better, including how to work directly with domestic and offshore manufacturers. In that role, I visit several domestic manufacturers each year. In fact, my company supports a number of them, as we provide an economical solution by supplementing their production with boards manufactured in Asia.

But I am frequently astonished at the condition of some of these domestic facilities. Outside, I see overgrown landscaping. If it weren’t for the cars parked in front, I’d assume the business was closed.

Inside, it’s even worse: dirty floors and walls, worn carpets, mismatched furniture. Lobbies look shabby, with awards displayed that are years old and often reflect previous ownership. Rarely is anyone at the front door to greet customers or prospects.

On the PCB manufacturing floor, I’ve seen dust covering tops of machinery and garbage collecting under plating equipment. I understand it’s tough to keep a wet process or drill room looking presentable. But really?

How these PCB manufacturers expect to impress OEM or EMS companies is beyond me.

I am not just talking about the small shops. Some of the larger, well-known manufacturers are just as guilty.

A manufacturing facility’s curb appeal, along with a clean and orderly interior, will help attract and retain customers. It will also soften the blow when, inevitably, a quality concern rears its ugly head, and a presentable and pleasant workspace will help attract and retain good employees.

PCB buyers regularly complain to me that, because of specific technology requirements or customer demands, they are forced to buy from domestic shops that think they are too big to bother providing decent customer service.

Just as bad, the inside sales teams at many of these companies appear untrained and overworked, with no real authority to resolve issues. The quoting process usually takes too long. And pricing is inconsistent.

Sure, the cost of PCB raw materials has increased, shipment delays occur, and quality issues arise, but that does not excuse the other failures I’ve described.

In addition, these firms fail miserably in getting the word out about their capabilities. Just encouraging people to “Buy American” is not a viable marketing strategy.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all domestic PCB manufacturers are like this, but a significant number are. And the blame rests squarely with their ownership and management.

Maybe they don’t know any better, or they accept things as they are because that’s the way it’s always been. But change to any organization starts at the top. Investing in your facility, along with ensuring proper training in sales and customer service, will provide an even greater return than buying a new piece of equipment.

Yes, investing in the chip industry is a good start, but a chip needs a PCB. And the truth is China doesn’t bear the responsibility for the condition of our domestic PCB industry or the electronics industry in general.

Instead, we should be looking in the mirror.

Greg Papandrew portrait
Greg Papandrew
has more than 25 years’ experience selling PCBs directly for various fabricators and as founder of a leading distributor. He is cofounder of Better Board Buying (boardbuying.com); greg@boardbuying.com.