ASK THE EXPERT
Todd King is vice president of operations for EI Microcircuits, located in Mankato, MN. He has been active in electronics and manufacturing for 22 years. The company is an ISO 9001:2000-certified and ISO 13485-certified electronic manufacturing services (EMS) provider that has served the medical and industrial industries since 1984. A provider of turnkey services to large and small customers, the manufacturer specializes in low- to medium-volume printed circuit board (PCB) assembly services, including design, layout, and box-build assembly.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing EMS providers as medical devices decrease in size?
King: As medical devices become smaller and more sophisticated, PC board space will dictate smaller components. With smaller components comes modern, precision placement machines and better inspection equipment. All this microminiaturization, however, comes at a price. For example, 0201-size components (0.02 × 0.01 in.) and their siblings, 01005 components (0.01 × 0.005 in.), appear to circuit designers as the solution to all space and cost problems, but this is not always the case. Placing a component that is the size of a grain of sand--and making sure it is correct--requires newer, advanced machinery to perform both placement and inspection. This technological challenge also stretches the limits of PCB manufacturers, which end up paying a premium for smaller pad and trace requirements. Microminiaturization can be achieved, and most EMS providers will offer it, but it usually comes with a higher price than the employment of larger components. Suppliers always try to work with their customers to design circuits with size-appropriate components that are cost-effective and easily manufacturable.
For OEMs, what are the advantages of outsourcing their electronic assembly operations?
King: Whether an OEM considers outsourcing to be an advantage or a disadvantage seems to depend on the decade in which you ask the question. We have seen the medical device industry swing back and forth as OEMs try to find the most cost-efficient and controllable method of production. Currently, outsourcing is trendy. EMS outsourcing providers can offer their customers a range of advantages. Many medical OEMs are required to perform extensive product testing. With FDA, 510(k), and other requirements, a medical customer can have a fairly extensive investment in engineering and quality systems alone, not to mention little things such as customer service and distribution. An EMS provider can take away, or at least minimize, the headaches of production or box-build assembly and let the OEMs do what they do best: design products and service customers. EMS providers can also solve inventory issues, and they tend to be more cost competitive with component buying power than OEMs. In addition, if EMS providers carry a medical certification such as ISO 13485, component traceability and documentation will provide key parameters for product certification.
What are some of the latest innovations in electronic subsystem design and prototyping?
King: With our instant, need-it-now society, more and more EMS providers are providing prototypes to their customers with turnaround times of five days or less. Component vendors usually have entire bills of materials ready for assembly that they can ship from stock within a day or two, and EMS providers can quickly process prototypes on a separate prototype line. This rapid manufacturing scenario provides OEMs with the proof of concept they require for their products, enabling them to decrease their time to market. Rapid prototyping can also apply to case design. What once took weeks or months and expensive tool-room modeling can now be performed quickly by a designer using a rapid-prototyping or stereo lithography system. This process can create 3-D working models out of plastic that can resemble very closely the final product. Designers can now conceptualize a package design, print it out overnight, add the electronics, and show it to marketing in days rather than months. A good EMS provider offers its customer a set of full-service options to turn new concepts into products in a very short time.
Do you have a question on another topic that one of our experts could answer in a future column? If so, e-mail MPMN managing editor Bob Michaels at [email protected].