Inside EMS

I attended a fascinating conference yesterday on the state of electronics outsourcing and supply chain management.

Set on the campus of Tellabs in the Chicago suburbs and produced by Charlie Barnhart Associates, speakers and attendees patiently dissected current trends and needs.

So as not to inhibit discussion, I promised not to reveal any specific remarks or details prior without getting the individual speaker’s signoff, so for now I will stick to generalities.

Attending were representatives from about 10 EMS companies and a like number of OEMs, some from Fortune 100 companies. There were also various analysts and other talking heads/pundits. I was the only media person in attendance.

Topics ranged from the concrete to the speculative. Tellabs spoke at length on how and why the telecom gear maker decided to outsource its electronics assembly, and was refreshingly upfront not only about the pros and cons but about the mistakes it made along the way.

Researcher Matt Chanoff noted the startling success of the Apple iPad and wondered whether the reason it has managed to capture a 95% share of the tablet market despite more than 80 competing products has to do more with the “ecology” of Apple vs. the form, fit or function of the iPad itself. He also pointed to a few distinct trends in the electronics design and manufacturing space, noting an unprecedented product platform commoditization is underway, while at the same time a newish breed of hobbyists (“prosumers”) has emerged and created a niche market for very expensive, semi-retro (read: electromechanical) products like cameras.

CEO Cary Wood laid out the turnaround of 118-year-old Sparton, which came thisclose to bankruptcy before righting the ship. The current metrics are an impressive display of refocusing and rebalancing. He said that the bulk of Sparton’s EMS customers two years ago were money losers, and Sparton had to either cancel the programs or renegotiate terms. But the bigger issue was convincing the sales team to jettison bad customers. Wood was forthcoming about the specific policies they put into place, including standardizing templates for pricing and quoting, and installing a sales and incentive program based on profits. He also noted that given Sparton’s exceptionally long history in Michigan, they effectively had to relocate the headquarters because they were the big fish in that small pond, and after all the local layoffs and shutdowns, they would have been tarred and feathered. He also said they made the decision to separate HQ from a manufacturing site so as not to get too emotionally attached to a particular business.

Time and again, OEMs and EMS companies said it was advantageous for competitors to place programs with a single EMS and that IP concerns didn’t really factor into the equation. The EMS companies said that OEM competitors are attracted by the knowledge that the EMS knows how to build products for the target market and that the EMS would also know what the appropriate prices would be. (That latter point was made several times.) In short, IP concerns take a backseat to the hope that the EMS would ensure the build price remained consistent with their competitors’ products (which also hints that OEMs accept the commodity nature of most of their products).

Another speaker asserted that no EMS is too big to fail, Flextronics and Foxconn included. He pointed to the disruption such an event would have on supply chains, pricing and capacity.

The good folks at CBA put me to work moderating a panel made up of two OEMs (Tellabs and Eaton) and three EMS companies of varying size and geographical reach (Plexus, Morey and Creation Technologies). I’ll have more on that in a bit.



This entry was posted in Hot Wires and tagged , , , , , , , , , by Mike. Bookmark the permalink.

About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association ( He previously was editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He spent 21 years as vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversaw all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 30 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow

One thought on “Inside EMS

  1. As one of the panelists at the above-referenced CBA event in Chicago, I must say it was a pleasure to meet so many people with similar experiences. I thought the discussion was outstanding, and Mike Buetow brought a great perspective to the dialogue. The EMS business is a difficult one, to say the least. That said, it is refreshing to talk about how important “fit” is, recognizing how critical open, honest communication is to the success of an outsourcing relationship. We often hear about the examples of poor engagements between OEMs and EMS companies – this forum brought out some examples of the success that can come from “doing it right.”

Comments are closed.