By the ’90s, Asia had become a great player on the electronics industry, driving companies all over the world, especially those in Europe and the Americas, to compete against its low prices. More recently, Asian manufacturers have been delivering more high-quality products to the market. These phenomena resulted in little space for mass production companies in Western countries and an increasing need for quick-turn production and prototypes of medium- to high-complexity PCBs.

Printed circuit board shops have been driven to build new business strategies that overcome the paradigm of trade-offs, in which customers had to choose between one characteristic or another, into a new way of doing business in which an equilibrium is found that meets customer needs.

Having said that, flexibility has turned into a slogan for Western companies and despite being largely spread in our culture, very few organizations handle it effectively.

Why do some companies get outstanding results while others struggle to survive? Why do some always seem to be ahead of their time, while others are always running behind? Is it all about money?

Certainly, money is a good portion of what is needed to achieve better results. Money buys new technology and helps develop highly skilled people. However, consider Toyota as an example from the ‘50s. They turned from a small company in a country destroyed by WWII into the most lucrative automaker in the world. They found a way to compete against economies of scale, huge amounts of money invested in new technology, skilled engineers, and low costs of production per unit, just to cite some of the challenges Toyota faced. In that scenario, reducing cycle time to produce better and faster was a live or die battle. Everything that followed those events has become part of the history that is still being written by Toyota.

The PCB market that Western companies face today has some similarities with the automotive market Toyota faced in the ‘50s, but a bit more challenging. All in all, the principles remain the same.

What are Customers Willing to Pay For? (Value Stream Mapping)

First of all, managers and engineers must know exactly what is happening on the shop floor, and being told is not enough. They must take time to go to the shop floor, analyze the whole system, talk to people, encourage them to speak truthfully, get to know each area in detail, and look at the factory with the customers’ eyes. They must not try to find excuses for the real state, but see opportunities in each difficulty. This is not a one-day walk, but an activity every single industrial engineer and manager should incorporate into their daily routine.

Once done, it is time to design the value stream mapping (VSM), in which the current state is contrasted with the future state—the desired one. When designing a VSM, team leaders should put themselves in the customers’ shoes, including the internal customers, asking questions like: What is the customer willing to pay for? When do they want to receive their parts? What should I do to deliver parts on time? Each feature that the customer is willing to pay for is called value-added; everything else is defined as non-value added, or waste.