July 20, 2021:

I couldn’t agree more with IPC president and CEO John Mitchell’s recent opinion piece in Roll Call about the Biden administration’s review of America’s strategic supply chains.

Specifically, the article addresses the administration’s willingness to invest mightily in the global chip shortage.

As Mitchell points out, however, it will take this and much more to help the U.S. electronic manufacturing industry remain competitive.

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

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

In my opinion, it’s not so much the chip shortage that is causing the U.S. to fall behind in the technology race. It’s what I continually witness in the PCB industry and elsewhere: poor sales management and customer service.

In my long career as a PCB broker, I was both salesman and buyer. In order to sell the boards, I had to buy them first.

And my biggest challenge during that time was successfully procuring PCBs from our domestic manufacturing industry. What I am talking about has nothing to do with technology, quality, or pricing—today’s customer service from the PCB industry is, to put it bluntly, subpar.

I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to bring business to U.S. manufacturers, only to be disappointed with quality and delivery. It’s rarely been about pricing.

For the most part, I got better customer service from manufacturers halfway around the world than I did from those in the United States.

The rise of the PCB broker over the last 20 years is testament to that lack of domestic service. Customers have been willing to pay more for good service, even while knowing they could go direct and pay less.

Domestic manufacturers have simply 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 both domestic and offshore manufacturers.

In that role, I visit a number of domestic manufacturers each year. In fact, my company supports several of them, as we provide an economical solution by supplementing their production with boards manufactured in Asia.

But I am still astonished at the condition of many of these domestic facilities: dirty floors and walls; worn carpets; mismatched furniture; overgrown landscaping.

The production floor is even worse, with dust covering the tops of machinery and garbage collecting under machinery.

There is rarely anyone at the front door in these facilities to greet customers or prospects.

And I am not just talking about the small shops. The larger, well-known manufacturers are just as guilty. 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 with providing decent customer service.

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

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

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 of them are. And the blame rests squarely with the ownership and management of these companies.

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

We should be looking in the mirror.

Need help saving money on your PCBs and getting better service from manufacturers? Reach out to me at greg@boardbuying.com.