© SMS Electronics Production | May 25, 2018

A successful transition for SMS

When Nottingham meets the world, it does not always involve a mean-spirited sheriff and Sherwood Forest. Sometimes it involves electronics manufacturing at Technology Drive in Beeston. A lot more successful than the aforementioned sheriff too, I like to add.
For British EMS-provider SMS Electronics - Smart Made Simple, a new fiscal slate starts in October. The exit of a major telecommunications customer — even if planned — would bring difficult times for any mid-sized manufacturing provider. Despite, or maybe because of it, COO Graham Shaw looks back at a successful transition year: “We knew that this was going to be difficult. We had a dash on bringing in new business to offset the one we were about to loose. From this point of view, I have to say, this was very successful”.

According to him, the EMS-provider succeeded in two things; firstly, bringing in new business from new customers and secondly, opening up to more opportunities. “If you replace one large customer, where you know what and how much you are going to produce, with a number of different customers, you will end up with a broader workload. A lot more variety and excitement.”

So the company looked into various different industry sectors that could bring variety and excitement, but also enough revenue to offset the departure of the old telecom customer: Medical, Military & Defense and Industrial all made it onto the list, while Automotive has to stay on the ‘maybe later’ pile.

Keeping the future in mind

Being a British company doing business in Europe also means taking care of every eventuality that may follow Brexit. The lack of direction seems to be the biggest problem for most companies, but how does Mr Shaw see the prospects for this particular EMS-provider? “Efficiency is the key. We have to make sure that the efficiency of our manufacturing processes is as good as it possibly can be. We keep our focus on what we already have in place and continue on this path.”

To achieve that objective, close proximity to one’s customers is another key element: “Geographically, all our customers are relatively close to us. For them, efficiency is being able to come and have a discussion while spending the least amount of time possible to do so. Making sure everyone is going into the same direction and than heading back to the office. That’s a really big advantage”.

“Fast-forward forecasts fluctuate and you need to be close to your EMS-partner to be able to say ‘scale-up’ — ‘scale-down’ — ’stop’. What happens later? We don’t know. We will see when we get there and deal with it. For now, we focus on efficiency and obtaining the right capabilities.”

The question about automation gets a clear “No!” from the manager. With manufacturing of highly complex products, as is done in the facility in Nottingham, any kind of automation would not be a timesaver. “It simply cannot be automated. If you look at the boards that we produce — the size, the shape, the scale — you cannot automate that. At least not with today’s technology.”

Instead, the manufacturer looks at getting more flexibility into the workflow. Focal point here is the training of staff members. “I came from a Tier-1 environment, where a rather large group of people would manufacture the same product; the same process, repetitively, all day with low flexibility. SMS Electronics is on the other end of the spectrum. High flexibility with operatives being able to change quickly from ‘finish those 100 units of this product’ to ‘start producing this product where we need 300 units’”, says Graham Shaw. “This is very much driven by good documentation; driven by the knowledge and training we give our operatives. The justification for automation, capital investment — in a lot of cases — just isn’t there.”

However, there is one production area that has been singled out for capital investment. During last year’s productronica in Munich (Germany), Graham Shaw was looking at various printing equipment that could join the machine park assembled in Nottingham. The company has been an MPM customer for many years. As the pick & place machines are Siplace, looking at DEK became an interesting option: “We recognised that it is time to upgrade our printing equipment. So why would we just look at MPM? Because we’ve always used them?”

The process now involves looking at pros and cons from both companies. “Buying a machine is easy, it just costs money. But you also have to look at what else is involved”, explains Graham Shaw, “There is, for example, the training. We know how the MPM machines work. How much of a difference will it be, if we got in a machine from DEK? What are the advantages? Are there any advantages?”

“Like I said, buying a machine is easy; integration is the difficult part.”

Another hobby horse, if you can call it that, is the rework centre in the company. Although the development here does not really go in the direction that Mr Shaw envisioned for it. “My objective was to reduce the amount of work being done in this facility. Most of our re-work was done because of our own inefficiencies, our failures in terms of PPM. If we got our processes right, I thought, then one person would be enough for this department”, he explains. And the company succeed in this. Production efficiency was upgraded and improved on, which left the centre with hardly any work.

But life has its own way of working out. Other companies and customers of the EMS-provider started using the centre for their own purposes, think after market services. More and more external contracts are flowing in for the department.

“Instead of being able to close it down, the department has grown; from originally 2 to 3 and now to 4 employees working here. It is a very busy department, lingering on the edge of a headcount increase”, Graham Shaw states. Customers know that ‘we can take a certain chip of the board and refit the product with a new component’, thus prolonging the products lifecycle. We offer a new service to our customers, but our intentions lay in quite a different direction.”
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December 13 2018 1:08 pm V11.10.14-1