Buy PCBs with your brain, not your heart.
“Pray for me. I buy circuit boards.”
That was a saying posted on the wall of a prospect I visited some 25 years ago. It’s funny, of course, but it also speaks to an unchanging truth about PCB buying: It’s often an emotional experience, especially when it comes to the bare board.
The PCB is the foundation of your products. It represents a good chunk – about 8 to 12% – of the cost of the bill of materials. While it is the first item needed to begin the assembly, it is usually the last item ordered. That alone can make buying boards stressful.
In my years selling boards and training companies how to buy PCBs, I’ve found it’s not a lack of knowledge about circuit boards that prevents buyers from leveraging their annual spend most efficiently; it’s misplaced loyalty or an aversion to risk.
In many cases, a triggering event that disrupts the status quo and creates a sense of urgency to solve a problem with the current PCB supplier initiates the buying process: quality, delivery delays, higher pricing, an acquisition and/or the imposition of tariffs. Many buyers in this situation will procrastinate on dealing with the problem, especially if it means changing vendors. Buyers want to protect the time and energy they’ve invested in their existing vendor base, no matter how bad the current situation.
I’ve seen board buyers stick with a PCB supply chain strategy even after openly admitting it isn’t working. They’ve become emotionally invested in suppliers that used to provide good service. Often they develop a “we can’t give up now” attitude and will continue to throw money at underperforming suppliers, giving them more orders, hoping they will improve.
In some cases, a particular buyer’s ego will prevail over logic when it comes to the best interests of the company. Changing PCB manufacturers is perceived as an acknowledgment that a wrong decision was made.
I understand being loyal to vendors, and I’m not advocating to immediately dump a problem vendor. All PCB manufacturers have their strengths and weaknesses, and there was a reason you brought on a particular vendor in the first place. But they can become complacent, especially if they realize you are hesitant to move business. Your board orders must be constantly earned. Let them carry the burden of competing for your business. Are you leveraging your vendor, or is your vendor leveraging you?
I realize it’s not always a board buyer’s emotions that prevent them from developing the best PCB buying strategy. Management, as well as the production and quality departments, can have their own agendas when it comes to adding or changing vendors. Some EMS and OEM firms impose an overly cumbersome process on buyers before orders can be moved.
A good PCB buyer should constantly be reviewing present vendor pricing and actively quoting prospective new vendors. They should have the power to move business quickly if necessary. Companies that prevent buyers from doing this are only hurting themselves, and the truth is adding qualified suppliers is not as hard as many firms think it is.
When buying PCBs, I remind myself the customer always comes first, and in this case, I am the customer. This mindset makes it easier to make logical decisions that keep vendors working hard for my business. You should do the same.