Board Buying

Greg Papandrew

A board’s level of technology should dictate how often to expect imperfections.

One of the most common questions I get from PCB buyers is, “How many X-outs are acceptable?” Some might say receipt of a PCB manufacturing panel or array with any X-outs indicates the supplier cannot maintain a high level of quality.

This is not necessarily the case.

An X-out occurs when a defective board in an array or manufacturing panel of like PCBs has been shipped. The board is literally marked with an X in permanent marker to signify it is flawed.

While a panel or array with zero X-outs is ideal, the board’s level of technology should dictate how often to expect this kind of perfection. If the board is a single-, double- or easy four-layer item, then a PCB buyer should expect – in fact, should demand – the manufacturer deliver panels free of defective boards.

Read more: A ‘No X-Out’ Policy is a PCB Cost Driver

Greg Papandrew

The source of domestic manufacturing woes is customer service, not offshoring.

I’ve sold PCBs for over 30 years, sourcing boards both domestically and internationally, and I find it much harder to source boards from American manufacturers, not so much because of pricing but because of poor customer service.

Of course, many US-based PCB fabricators meet or exceed customer expectations, but unfortunately, even more American shops struggle to deliver printed circuit boards on time and communicate promptly and effectively with customers. That directly affects their sales performance.

Many domestic manufacturing companies point to offshore manufacturing – with its lower pricing – as the cause of their sales woes. They call for government involvement to level the playing field. While I applaud efforts by PCB industry trade groups to bolster business for US-based PCB manufacturers, government intervention is not a guarantee for growth. No matter how hard the government tries to control business – be it with incentives (rewards) or tariffs (punishment) – board buyers aren’t motivated to do business with firms that lack good service.

Many PCB buyers would like to buy American, even if it means paying more for their boards, but they will not do it if they can’t be certain manufacturers will treat them well. Lobbying the government is expensive and time-consuming. In the meantime, domestic manufacturers should take note of what they can do now to improve their business, while they wait for that government help to arrive.

Here are some suggestions:

Improve customer service. Price isn’t the only reason PCB customers choose to buy from offshore manufacturers. It is also the willingness on the part of overseas vendors to jump through hoops to win and retain business. Too many times when dealing with domestic board builders, I’ve had to call again and again about a quote or order, and still haven’t gotten a timely response. I can count on one hand the number of US PCB shops that have a human answering incoming calls. The personal touch is invaluable and would help make domestic firms more appealing. I’ve also noticed a lack of urgency with the basics, like notifying customers about schedule changes or ensuring paperwork is correct. Getting people to respond to an email or promptly return a call is often a struggle.

Quote quickly and accurately. A board house needs to produce quotes in a timely manner, and pricing needs to be consistent. A customer shouldn’t have to call to confirm receipt of an RFQ. The customer certainly shouldn’t have to follow up days later, looking for an update on the quote. Many US-based sales departments fail to communicate pertinent information to their quoting teams, meaning the quote is often inaccurate, or it sits overlooked on someone’s desk or in their email. In my experience, it is often the quote that comes in first that gets the order, not the one with the lowest price. How many orders have been missed because of a delayed RFQ response?

Empower your customer service team. The inside sales teams at many domestic PCB manufacturers appear overworked and insufficiently trained. They have no real authority to resolve quality or production issues when they inevitably arise. This causes delay and frustration for customers.

Today’s PCB buyers want to feel valued. They need to be able to trust their vendors are continually working to earn their business.

To be clear, I won’t deal with certain offshore board houses because of their poor customer service, even with their government subsidies and attractive pricing. It’s not only a domestic problem. The truth is, however, no amount of government incentives will guarantee the success of US board shops. Yes, the government can play a valuable role in the success of the domestic PCB industry, but the responsibility for customer service rests squarely with the ownership and management of these companies.

Whether it’s printed circuit boards, assemblies, TVs or vacuum cleaners, the basics of stellar customer service are the same. Available training can be easily tailored to fit the PCB industry. When was the last time a professional development course was offered to your key employees? 

GREG PAPANDREW has more than 25 years’ experience selling PCBs directly for various fabricators and as founder of a leading distributor. He is cofounder of Better Board Buying (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Greg Papandrew

Government-imposed inflation hurts the overall domestic market.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is considering whether to reinstate Section 301 tariff exclusions that expired late last year on certain Chinese-origin products, including some printed circuit boards.

If granted, the exemption will pertain – as it did before – only to 2- and 4-layer rigid PCBs made of epoxy-glass. The tariff will continue to apply to single-sided and higher-layer counts, flex circuits, and other substrates such as aluminum or ceramic.

While 2- and 4-layer boards represent only a narrow portion of the PCBs manufactured in China, an exemption continuance will provide some relief to many OEM and EMS companies struggling with supply chain challenges.

The tariff aims to encourage “reshoring” by making domestic PCB manufacturing more appealing.

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Greg Papandrew

Buyers will pay more for local products, if only manufacturers were easy to do business with.

In a recent opinion piece in Roll Call, IPC president and CEO John Mitchell – addressing the Biden administration’s willingness to invest mightily in the global chip output – points out it will take this and much more to maintain the US electronics manufacturing industry’s competitiveness.

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

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

In my opinion, it’s not so much the chip shortage causing the US to fall behind in the technology race. Instead, it’s poor sales management and customer service.

In my long career as a PCB broker, I have been both salesman and buyer; to sell the boards, I had to buy them first. My biggest challenge during that time has been successfully procuring PCBs from our domestic manufacturing industry.

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