The UK’s electronics manufacturing is much more likely to involve a variety of high-mix products delivered in low volumes.
This is particularly true in industries such as defence, security and aerospace or healthcare and life sciences.
Companies operating within these industries have specific challenges that require highly complex manufacturing processes with strict regulatory compliance standards.
The question is what is it that makes companies in these sectors choose to keep production within the UK, specifically with an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) partner?
For some, the obvious answer would be that if it is close to home then it is easier to keep an eye on production.
However that is not always the primary strategic driver for this decision. Close geographic proximity to their end markets often provides OEMs with the lowest total cost of ownership.
Not only will they be able to react more quickly to local customer demand, due to the shortened supply chain / logistics routes for their products, in many cases they will also be able to reduce inventory and, therefore, working capital employed.
Another trend is the requirement to provide customised or configured goods and ship them to the OEMs or even the OEMs end customer. This requirement to ‘configure to order’ (CTO) adds further complexity to the manufacturing process.
By using the CTO model, each individual unit is customised to meet the end customer’s exact specifications. If required, the manufacturer can then supply the product direct to the end customer.
Providing this direct order fulfilment (DOF) service has the potential benefit of both minimising costs to the OEM and speeding-up delivery to the end customer. Experienced manufacturing partners in the UK have the necessary skills to fulfil this requirement, providing a further reason for manufacturing closer to home.
In the high mix environment, there is a move towards working with the same partner that is manufacturing and fulfilling the product, for design and commercialisation services. Effectively partnering with one provider for multiple stages of the product realisation value stream can provide substantial benefits for OEMs.
These benefits include reducing the time to market and improved yields in the manufacturing process, ultimately resulting in the lowest total cost solution.
This is particularly relevant given the nature of high-mix products which often have long life cycles and face stringent regulatory requirements.
When products are properly designed with optimal performance and ease of manufacturability in mind, hugely expensive change orders are reduced. Therefore, ensuring designs are able to be efficiently manufactured becomes crucial.
Access to rapid prototyping during the product development process is another essential piece of the jigsaw and can enable the swift identification of potential problems with the design or manufacture of the product.
Using a UK-based prototyping facility will give a company direct access to engineers, operators and technicians that they may not have in house. This close proximity to the design team is critical to reducing the overall design cycle time.
The rapid prototyping team will manufacture the customer’s product using manufacturing equipment that is flexible. The objective is to deliver the product quickly with zero manufacturing defects.
In addition the EMS partner should be able to provide the OEM with a post-build build report that identifies potential improvements in the design. This report could include changes in the PCB design that would improve yields and reduce manufacturing costs when the product is produced in volume.
Working with a partner that offers integrated design, prototyping and manufacturing services will smooth this process still further as they will be able to offer design support while utilising their experience with volume manufacturing.
An example of this is the production of a post-build build report that identifies potential improvements in the design. This report could include changes in the PCB design that would improve yields and reduce manufacturing costs when the product is produced in volume.
The latest technology to be recently introduced into the development process is 3D printing.
Whilst there is much hype around this process, with a wide range of uses suggested from body parts to aeroplane fuselage fixings, it does have a growing role to play in the prototyping process. It will enable the making of specialist moulds and fixtures and will become part of the technology mix when rapid prototyping for high mix products.
These are the areas of expertise that keeps manufacturing in the UK as a strong part of the economy.
It is the move towards high mix and low volume that has reinvigorated the industry and opened up new opportunities for companies in the electronics manufacturing business.
There will always be a need for high volume, low mix production to be undertaken off-shore but the wealth of knowledge and excellence within the UK is what is keeping the production of high mix products close to home.
Ronnie Darroch is regional president in EMEA for Plexus