The role of a Contract Electronics Manufacturer (CEM) has changed significantly in recent years, says Damian McCusker, Elite Electronic Systems, Northern Ireland. He shows how Elite has changed to meet these new demands

When Damian McCusker started with Elite, their customers, like those of many other manufacturers, wanted a PCB populated with a series of components, component inspection and then some degree of test to ensure reliability. At this stage the product was then sent to the customer for use in the assembled electronic device.

McCusker has seen this role evolve into what he describes as a manufacturing partner where the CEM has a much greater role in the production of not only the internal electronics but of the finished product that the customer takes to market.

“It’s a one stop shop,” McCusker explained. “Many of our new customers want us to deliver a full turnkey solution for them; this will include cable and PCB assembly and then putting the lot together in an enclosure.

It is an obligation that has seen Elite really hone existing skills and strengths allowing them provide a complete manufacturing solution for customers.

“It’s a Cradle to Grave service” according to McCusker.

With any new customer a CEM can be expected to be involved in the design phase, offering considered advice on design for both manufacture and test, thus ensuring a seamless transition beyond prototyping and NPI into commercial manufacture.

During NPI and Prototyping a now common requirement for a CEM working with any new customers, the CEM is expected to almost ‘babysit’ a product through this initial stage of product development. Elite have a team of experienced engineers, who take the required time and care in ‘babysitting’ products through this crucial phase.

As a product moves towards commercial manufacturing much more is now expected of a ‘manufacturing partner’. McCusker considers a number of key services CEMs now provide as part of commercial manufacture.

He first looks at procurement; it was not so long ago that free issuing of components for assembly was commonplace. In today’s world almost all CEMs offer procurement as standard practise. In McCusker’s opinion it’s not just the procurement that is important, it’s the ability to provide solutions for stock management and even more importantly in the rapidly evolving world of electronics, providing customers with complete support in dealing with difficult issues like component obsolescence.

Elite’s customers are supported in this instance by an experienced purchasing team who work closely with both suppliers and customers in providing best practise in stock management and obsolescence management.

While the process of electronics assembly remains broadly the same, boards pass through surface mount and through hole component placing with boards passing through various levels of inspection. This inspection has become much more sophisticated and detailed, delivering a lower failure rate, hence increasing those all important yields for customers. Inspection is now common at various stages through this manufacturing process. 

Consider the level of inspection Elite provide for customer, to really understand its importance as part of the manufacturing process.

A 3D Solder Paste Inspection means that PCB’s are inspected before components are even placed. With much smaller components and the increase in use of flexi-boards Elite want to ensure delivery of the highest quality electronics for customers.

Every board that passes through the surface mount lines are subject to inspection, this  AOI Inspection ensure that as well as the correct components are being placed, these components are in the correct position with correct orientation on the board.

Any boards where a BGA has been placed undergo a further inspection. With 3-D X-ray and Ersascope inspections utilised, quality is paramount. At Elite all boards will also pass a final inspection following production.

For CEM’s the commitment to the customer doesn’t end there. In reducing failure rate and increasing production yields, board and final product testing is required. In many instances, customer and manufacturer are required to work together to derive the test regime best suited for the customer. Test regimes can be complex, testing at different levels, from board to full product functional testing.

Elite have chosen to offer a bespoke test regime to each customer. A period of consultation with the test team allows engineers to create the optimum test strategy for each customer. Tested boards are then ready for assembly or integration into enclosures. It is this final stage that has become a growth area for many CEM’s

This really is the final step in manufacturing a ‘turnkey product’.

In McCusker’s experience supporting the customer doesn’t finish there. The emergence of ‘virtual’ companies who don’t want any manufacturing add a new dimension to the role of the ‘manufacturing partner’.

Product must be packaged and shipped to the end user. In many instances this will include uploading software, addition of correct cables and manuals and then shipping to the end user. It’s not uncommon for this to happen on a global scale.

A further requirement on manufacturers who provide turnkey solutions especially with higher value devices is to provide a reworking service under the terms of product warranty.

The final expectation is to assist in devices being WEEE compliant indicating how product can be economically recycled or reused, or correctly disposed.

McCusker concluded: “The Contract Electronics Manufacturer that used to exist has evolved and over time become known as a provider of Electronic Manufacturing Solutions.”

Elite Electronic Systems

T: +44 (0)28 6632 7172