Greg Papandrew

Want to go offshore? Head to a trade show.  

The PCB world is getting smaller all the time. As a veteran of hundreds of trade shows, I’ve noticed increasing attendance of offshore PCB manufacturing companies at US events. I applaud their efforts to promote a direct customer relationship. Tightening the supply chain benefits buyers and sellers.

As I pointed out in my last column (November 2016), the process of selecting an offshore PCB manufacturer is much the same as selecting a domestic manufacturer. But before you buy that airline ticket for Asia, start your search at a trade show, interviewing offshore PCB manufacturers that are exhibiting and eager to win your business.

There is no doubt today’s offshore manufacturers have technology and capabilities above standard fare, along with world-class quality. You will typically find the exhibiting offshore manufacturers speak excellent English. They will have samples of their work on hand, and most should have a seasoned US representative or two with them in the booth. In most cases, these ISO-registered manufacturers are able to build commercial products economically, according to specifications, and on time. They will save you, the PCB buyer, money that does not need to be spent on a third party such as a broker.

There are undoubtedly good PCB brokers and distributors that offer a valuable service. However, brokers are not manufacturers. Offshore manufacturers exhibiting at trade shows, while seeking direct relationships with US buyers, are likely to also be building boards for PCB brokers.  

It begs the question: Is it necessary to have a middleman for your bread-and-butter product line? If your answer is “no,” you might be wondering how a PCB buyer can successfully initiate a direct relationship with an offshore supplier by attending a trade show in the US.

Attending a trade show benefits the buying side of your business. Whether national or local, a trade show introduces you to new suppliers, strengthens relationships with existing vendors, and lets both existing and potential suppliers know you are shopping. Every trade show you attend is an opportunity to enhance your company’s vendor base and possibly lower your board costs. Manufacturers that exhibit at trade shows tend to be serious about earning and keeping your business. They allow you to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Before you attend, have a clear “shopping” strategy. Do your homework. Check the trade show website to see which PCB manufacturers plan to exhibit. Then research those companies to determine whether their production capabilities match your needs and verify they have the necessary certifications (ISO, TS, AS, etc.). If they have domestic representation – or, better yet, a US office – call them. Was the response from that local contact promising?

Categorize your findings as a “definite” or “maybe” and mark the location of the booths on the show floor map. Your time is valuable; make the most of it. Treat your walk on the trade show floor as a fact-finding mission. The show floor can be loud, and there are many distractions, so to stay on track, make a checklist of questions for prospective vendors. See which booths attract the most attendees and find out why. Talk to exhibitors and don’t forget to ask for references. You can also schedule an appointment for them to visit you, if you like what you see and hear. No decisions need be made on the show floor, but taking these steps will help narrow your search.  

And be prepared for any questions the prospective vendor may have. The more you know about your PCB requirements, technology, number of part numbers and annual spend, the more bargaining power you may possess. Sometimes board buyers need to be salesmen too!

Review your notes while they are still fresh in your mind. When you’re back in the office, be sure to call the provided references and send test quotes to prospective vendors. Don’t forget to confirm the price quoted is the price delivered. For any vendor visits, have your quality department involved. Have your production team take a plant tour, and if all are on the same page, place a contingency purchase order. A contingency PO awards the production order as long as the sample board provided by the vendor is accepted according to the print.

Just as you want to ensure quality at reasonable pricing, the manufacturer wants to obtain follow-up orders, so an orderly selection process with all expectations laid out in advance will keep everyone happy and business flowing.

Attending a trade show gives a purchasing team an efficient way to evaluate a number of prospective vendors at once, all without the tension that seems to go along with traditional direct sales call methods. Trade shows allow you to put faces with names and encourages interaction with offshore manufacturers who are motivated and professional. It’s a much better approach than playing Russian roulette with those unsolicited manufacturer emails we all get.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, “PCB buyer, get thee to a trade show.” You’ll thank me for it.

Greg Papandrew is a PCB sales and marketing advisor; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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