Mike Buetow
Are there too many audit programs? Or is there always room for one more?

For decades, when it came to PCBs, the US Department of Defense has been the world’s leading authority for establishing and maintaining qualified manufacturer’s lists. Board fabricators and assemblers endured the paperwork, cost and process as a means to gain access to the steady military business.

Although seen as lower margin at the time, the benefits of having a creditworthy customer and the ever-present promise of future business were enough, for some at least, to focus on defense contracts. And while there was a lull in the 1990s as assemblers eschewed military work in order to chase the (then) high-volume, high-margin communications and PC business, many players in the US market essentially owe their continued existence to the US DoD.

So, the future of MIL certification for electronics manufacturers must be clear-cut and unchanging, right? Well, maybe.

IPC has launched or is in beta certification programs, to surprisingly little fanfare, built on the IPC-6012, J-STD-001 and IPC-A-610 standards, among others. Those “big three” documents are the backbone of most master drawings for bare board qualification, soldering and electronic assembly qualification, respectively.

Having worked on all three, I know the input from the defense prime contractors to those standards has been significant. In theory it’s not a large leap, then, to tack on a QML. Yet it has taken more than 20 years since those specs were introduced for a qualification program to take hold. In large part there were two hindrances: the seemingly immutable presence of the MIL programs and IPC staff ambivalence.

On the latter count, the inertia has been overcome. QML programs for all three are wedging their way onto the scene, and as of this writing IPC counts 11 sites as having reached qualified manufacturer status to J-STD-001 and IPC-A-610, eight in the US and three in China.

What’s fascinating to me at least is how IPC has positioned its QMLs. While they certainly compete in a sense with the DoD programs, IPC has taken a different approach in terms of how it audits prospective manufacturers. That approach starts with the person in charge. Randy Cherry is director of IPC’s Validation Services unit. He came to the trade association with decades of industry experience, most of which with Tellabs. He knows a thing or two about audits.

“A lot of people say there are too many audit programs now,” Cherry says. “A lot of OEMs have their customer audits too, based on what they needed to do. I look at the Validation Service as more of a teaching program. We’re trying to help customers. The J-STD-001/IPC-A-610 programs are targeted at EMS and OEMs that still have in-house manufacturing. We try to help them with manufacturing.”

Starting from scratch, Cherry and his task group looked past the typical “yes/no” type of audit in favor of a program design that focused on processes, with a four-point system for scoring. “As an ISO auditor, I spent 80% of the time in an office looking at documentation. As such, [for the IPC QML] I don’t ask ISO-type questions if they already have ISO 9001. I’m really holding people to the standards; do they follow it?”

Huntsville, AL-based STI Electronics is one of the first EMS companies to date to make the IPC QML. President David Raby says the firm was already following the IPC standards and spied a marketing opportunity. “As a contract manufacturer, it is hard to advertise how we are different from someone else.”

Mel Scott, director of Quality at STI, notes certain differences from the DoD audit: “The military is primarily product- and performance-oriented based on that product. IPC dug down into the process.”

To make the QML, STI had to pass 111 questions for J-STD-001/IPC-A-610. There’s also an addendum for building for space products that includes an additional 17 much more detailed questions. “If someone passes that IPC QML audit, they’ve really done something, based on our experience with the process and the auditors. It’s not easy,” Scott says.

“I think the IPC audit did make us better. I’ve been happy with the results,” Raby says.

One long-term goal, IPC’s Cherry says, is to reduce the number of customer audits that go on. (The IPC-6012 program will be based on a test coupon, relying on coupon generator software to make it easy for OEMs and board shops to design coupons per standard.) “If we could reduce the time and effort OEM customers spend auditing board shops, there’d be a real savings.” What is less clear is whether having a QML puts IPC in an untenable position in the event of a disagreement over workmanship between some combination of OEM, fabricator and EMS.

Besides the three aforementioned QMLs, IPC will eventually offer programs for IPC/WHMA-A-620 (cable and wire harnesses), IPC-1071A / IPC-1072 (intellectual property protection) and IPC-A-600 (bare board workmanship).

We will take a look at how the DoD is responding in a future column.

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