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EMSNOW Executive Interview with Thanh Tran, Owner, QTA Solutions in Richardson, Texas

Mr. Tran is one of the most respected and experienced prototype engineers in the industry. He immigrated to the US in 1979 and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. He joined the Navy right out of high school and served for total of 8 years (3 years active and 5 years reserve) as a Fire Control Technician; then he attended Nicholls State University and LSU, receiving his BSEE.

He began his career working for OEMs Boeing and Hitachi before joining Flextronics in 1997 as a process engineer.  This effectively launched his career in building prototypes.  After Flextronics, Mr. Tran was a Founder and Director of Manufacturing for Texas Prototypes, before starting QTA Solutions in 2009.

EMSNOW caught up with Mr. Tran recently to tap into his knowledge, experience, and skill in this challenging EMS niche.

IMGEMSNOW: The issue of prototyping often gets confused/conflated with different levels of production, most commonly new product introduction (NPI). How would you define and differentiate the prototyping of PCB boards?

NPI is a completed cycle of a new product, from design through production. Prototyping is only the initial board assembly portion of the NPI process.  Prototypes will proceed only after the design is completed where you assemble the board so the design engineer can verify the design.

EMSNOW: How has the business of building prototypes boards changed over the last 5 years?

Over the last 5 years the prototype industry has changed dramatically. There has been a significant decrease in OEM design activities and therefore a lot of former prototype houses have moved more toward production work.

Our customers are primarily OEMs and board design houses. You need to have a lot of customers to be a dedicated prototype shop, with each customer ideally doing several new designs each year. Years ago we would have customers who would do multiple designs each quarter, but that rarely happens anymore.

EMSNOW: What are the critical core competencies a company must have to perform prototyping well?

The core competencies for a good prototype house involve primarily people with the right skill sets. You want people who possess multiple skills sets in the needed functional areas of engineering, production management, quality, program management and materials.  This should not be a big team with a specialist in each functional area, but rather a small team of people with diverse and complementary skill sets.

EMSNOW: What are the biggest challenges faced when prototyping?

Scheduling!  90% of the time spent on prototypes is doing setup so scheduling is the most challenging part. When the SMT line is idle waiting for a setup you are losing money.  This can be a fast paced environment with projects competing for line time based on who has the first complete kit. This is not a production environment and people who are only familiar with that level of manufacturing usually struggle with prototype builds.

EMSNOW: In prototyping, the customer interface is usually someone in engineering. What are the benefits and challenges of this?

The benefit of working with engineers directly is that you get raw information directly and in return you can save time. The challenging part is that the engineer’s mind set is different from manufacturing.  Design engineers usually think that the manufacturing process is simple and expect perfect outcomes quickly.  Engineers want the products in their hand as soon as possible, so sometimes this results in compressed time lines to satisfy those engineers and this can result in quality issues.

EMSNOW: What are common mistakes made by OEMs and other EMS?

The most common mistake by OEMs and other EMS is treating prototype builds as if they were production builds.  Prototypes and production are different. For production the process parameters are in place, while with prototypes you set the process parameters as you go along.  Also, the bill of materials (BOM) for proto builds never has an approved vendor list (AVL), whereas a production BOM always has one.

EMSNOW: Are there any special considerations you must manage to do this work well?

The most important element to perform prototypes well is flexibility. It is a fast pace model from PCB fabrication, materials procurement and managing the build schedule. You have to adapt and change on the fly in order to deliver the products on time.  If you approach it with a production mentality you will frustrate your customers and not be successful.

EMSNOW: How do you see the future market for building prototypes?

I think that pure, dedicated prototype shops will become less common due to the lower volume of new designs being created.  Also, larger EMS that perform mainly volume production are providing this service for their clients along with NPI, and also China is taking on lower volume builds and offering this at lower cost.  So I think in the future there will be fewer specialized prototype companies as we are all forced to expand into other production work to remain viable.

Of course, if OEMs start designing more new products this can all change and they will need and appreciate the specialized service we provide.

EMSNOW: What else would you wish to share on this topic?

When it comes to choosing a prototype service provider there are a lot of choices out there. Many companies offer it along with other related services all under one roof, like design services, PCB fabrication, and production.  Those companies are generally good as what they really specialize in, which is the PCB design services, PCB fabrication or production builds.  I think that a specialist is always better than a generalist when it comes to building prototypes.