Strict control key to keeping customers
COMPANIES making printed circuit boards (PCBs) for computers need strict quality controls to attract and keep blue-chip clients, says Astron Group's chairman Stephen Rees.
Astron has won this year's Industry Department Certificate of Merit in Quality.
The company used state-of-the-art equipment to ensure its PCBs met strict standards and were reliable, Mr Rees said.
In an industry that made circuit boards for Boeing jets, medical equipment, hi-tech measuring devices and automatic teller machine cards, there was no room for defects, he said.
Astron had developed a three-pronged quality system, combining Statistic Process Controls (SPC), Total Quality Management (TQM) and ISO 9000 standards, Mr Rees said.
'The majority of our clients are blue-chip companies and it is their reputation that is on the line as well as our own,' he said.
'These companies have high expectations of quality from suppliers and we cannot afford our product not to be of the highest standard.' Although Astron was applying for ISO 9000 certification, customers were more impressed to discover it used SPCs to monitor the quality of production processes eight times a day.
Under the SPC programme, the chemical content of nickel used for plating circuit boards was checked every three hours.
Mr Rees said baths containing chemicals and metals must be monitored regularly to make sure solutions were not contaminated.
'It is impossible to tell just by looking if the chemical solution is correct and will be all right to use on a circuit board,' he said.
'The chemical composition of baths will change with use and over time and, although we employ highly-skilled chemists, it is necessary to conduct testing.' Regularly testing and recording chemical levels also helped the company explain and rectify defects, he said. Claims by customers that PCBs were faulty could be checked by reading statistical graphs.
'We also have a TQM programme which enables us to monitor quality levels using a different process to the Statistical Process Control method,' he said.
'This method is used to check that tiny holes in PCBs are drilled in the right place and their walls are sharp - not rough.
'If the holes are not drilled correctly, the TQM has a set of guidelines that managers can follow to sort out the problem and smooth over differences between the production department and the quality controllers.
'It helps to keep productivity at its highest level without the quality being sacrificed.' Quality control measures in the factory allowed managers to check the yield rates of every part produced so they could pinpoint who was responsible, Mr Rees said.
Stringent checks were made on raw materials and German standards on chemicals and metals often infuriated local suppliers.
Although Astron only made the circuit board and did not attach chips, the company checked assembly and every joint by running a current through the system.
'We know if there is a problem with assembly if the electrical current we monitor is weak,' Mr Rees said.
'We also test the board's 'pull strength' and bond a 10-gram component on to the circuit board to test durability.