Engaging with the Right CEM - The Challenges of Matching Skillset & Volume Requirements

Author : Andrew Hall, Managing Director, Just Electronics

24 November 2023

The engineering and purchasing teams involved in new electronic designs have to make some tricky decisions when it comes to the best manufacturing strategy to follow. So much depends on in-house capacity and skills, predicted sales quantities, the stability of the design, and how quickly the product is needed.

Outsourcing is often a sensible option, but can seem like too large a commitment in the early stages. However, balancing it against internal investment to achieve manufacturing targets can be quite a challenge. 

Where a product is aimed at a mass market, some of these decisions will often be simpler, as larger contract electronics manufacturers (CEMs) should be able to take on the whole process, possibly including the prototyping stages. Any investment needed in-house for staff training or specific capital equipment is then reduced. Either the CEM would have things in place already, or the amount of business involved would justify any further outlay. However, it can prove more difficult if the product is intended for a smaller market, with lower unit volumes involved. 

Reasons to outsource
To begin with let’s deal with what can motivate the decision to outsource. Some electronics design companies do not have any manufacturing capability at all, so there is no other choice but to use external companies for anything more than prototypes. Other companies may have staff who can perform some parts of the manufacturing process, but do not possess the expertise for other stages. For example, outsourcing the PCB assembly element and then completing the mechanical and final stages in-house is common. Investment in equipment and personnel to perform certain niche tasks can be hard to rationalise. Recruitment and training will also take time and effort, plus any extra quality controls and procedures needing to be implemented may mean that the required delivery dates cannot be achieved.  

Other companies do have all the skills required within their organisations. However, increases in sales across their product range can mean that they would not be able to fulfil the orders coming in using their existing workforce alone. If a new product suddenly becomes a lot more popular than expected, similar problems can occur. Outsourcing to cover such humps is perfectly feasible, but larger CEMs’ timescales and workload plans cannot always adjust easily for a quick solution.

Some jobs are harder than others
There are products that will include intricate assembly stages, which need equipment that is not readily available, or call for specialist techniques. Often, these are reliant simple but repetitive stages that cannot be done by a machine, yet would not be wise to assign to in-house staff.  

Attaching delicate sensor devices to PCBs is just one example where automated pick-and-place equipment and reflow soldering may be impractical. Fiddly through-hole components might have to be dealt with by experienced human operators to get the legs into the holes, and may need fine-pitch hand soldering rather than reflow.

Programming and testing of a few prototypes or early production batches may be possible internally, but could be consuming of design engineers' valuable time once production gets under way. These tasks will need people to do them that have the right level of understanding to resolve issues without troubling engineers unnecessarily.    

Box-build assemblies often require a special knack to get things to fit together.  Laboratory instruments can need calibration using external reference materials.  Audio equipment often demands real ears to check it. Mains-powered hardware may need documented portable appliance testing (PAT) procedures.  Digital replacements for old vehicle voltage regulators will require special testing. Displays and touchscreens can only really be checked by seeing and touching them.

Finding an effective solution
As a consequence of the considerations just outlined, it can prove more difficult to hand things over to an external supplier - especially when there are small volumes involved and the work required may be convoluted and time consuming. Not all larger CEMs will want to take on such projects, or they will look to fit them in around their committed higher volume workloads, making the desired delivery date less achievable. New products occasionally need a few tweaks during early manufacturing runs, which are not always easy to achieve with mass-production CEMs.

This is where Just Electronics comes in. As a CEM that is focused on small/medium runs of electronic and mechanical assemblies where hand building is an important aspect of the process, it is able to help companies to outsource projects of this kind (or particular parts of such projects). Customers are thus provided with a service that can happily deal with smaller sized batches (typically between 5 and 100 items) and can also offer them quick turnaround times when they are needed.

The company has a specialist team of operators that are fully adept at the often challenging by-hand work needed for integrating certain key components into designs, or where processes just cannot be done solely by machines.  This covers simple single-sided PCBs right through to much more complex finished products comprising multiple PCBs, cable assemblies and box-build work, programmed and tested ready for delivery to the customer's end user.

As well as taking care of PCB and final assembly work, the team can also focus on specific elements where real expertise is necessary, if other parts of the project are made in-house or via specialists in particular fields. In addition to initial prototyping activities, assembly and test/calibration work, Just Electronics is proficient in component procurement too - so any part of the project (or even everything, from start to finish) may be offloaded. 

Making an appropriate choice 
In conclusion, making a commitment to large-batch production can be quite daunting - especially if the product is likely to sell hundreds, rather than tens of thousands. Companies will want to avoid this if they are unsure about how big the customer demand is actually going to be. Likewise, many CEMs are less keen on scheduled batches, or repeated small orders. That is why searching for a service provider that is a suitable fit is paramount. There are specialist CEMs out there that can help.


Contact Details and Archive...

Print this page | E-mail this page