‘Paste is Paste’: The Professor Hits the Road

Patty was staring out the window of her new office. She had just been made manager of a new department responsible for corporate wide productivity and advanced processes. At 25 years old, she was the youngest manager at ACME by six years. She was surprised that Pete was one of the folks in the new department and was concerned that Pete might have trouble accepting her as his boss.

When Patty mentioned her concern, Pete replied, “Hey ‘kid,’ are you joking? I’m thrilled to be in your department. Not only is the work the most interesting, but you are one of the few managers that really knows what they’re doing.”

Considering that Pete was Patty’s father’s age, this vote of confidence meant a lot.

The view out of her office window was terrific. She could see some of the local hills in Southern New Hampshire and the fall color change was striking.  A few coworkers claimed that on a clear day you could just see the top of Mount Monadnock. Patty had made some calculations using the position of her office, the distance and height of the local hills and had proven to herself that “the most-climbed mountain in the US” was 100 meters to short to be seen from her window. But the sky was so clear she couldn’t help by strain her eyes to see it she could get a glimpse of that majestic beak. Her pleasant interlude was jarred by the rude, demanding ringing of her office phone.

“Advanced Processes, Patty speaking,” she cheerfully spoke into the phone.

“Patty, it’s Sam. Can you come to my office now?” the voice on the other end spoke to her.

It was Sam Watkins, the site GM, and his call now did not make her nervous. Ever since the first visit of The Professor, Sam had treated her like a valued member of the team. It was his suggestion to launch a corporate center of competence for productivity and advanced processes and name Patty the manager. When he gave her the job, he said that a lot of the work would be corporate troubleshooting. She expected that Sam’s call related to this topic.

When she entered his office, Sam got right to the point. “Patty, there’s a crisis in our plant in Columbia, SC. A new COO took over four months ago and went on a cost-cutting spree. Since then, the plant’s profit is down 8%. We can’t figure out why. Go there and find out what’s going on. And develop a plan to fix it,” he ordered.

Patty excitedly returned to her office. She called Pete in and they discussed plans for their trip. Patty was trying to limit her use of The Professor, but this assignment seemed to beg for his participation.  His uptime improvement recommendations so impressed management, he was now on a permanent consulting retainer.

As Sam said, “Every time The Professor visits one of our facilities, they make several more million dollars a year. I wish he lived here!”

Patty made a call to The Professor and to her surprise he was available. They agreed to meet at the Columbia airport at noon in two days.

The time passed quickly and before she knew it she was in a rental car driving to the ACME facility in Columbia. Their first meeting was with the assembly process engineering team and the new COO. After introductions, the COO, Fred Perkins, spoke.

“I really don’t know why you are here,” he commented brusquely. “Profits are only down 5%; it’s probably just a random fluctuation.  I came here with a mandate to cut costs and dammit I did. I couldn’t believe what we were paying for solder paste, and I found a vendor that would charge 25% less. This was the first cost savings I implemented. Solder paste is solder paste. It’s just like butter. When I was COO of American Foods, they were paying too much for butter, and I found a vendor that would charge 9% less. Butter is butter, solder paste is solder paste,” he concluded.

“How much money will you save on paste this year,” Patty inquired.

“For all of our five lines, $100,000,” Fred proudly answered.

“How much profit do your lines produce per year?” The Professor asked.

“We have five, 20 -2 lines,” replied Jane Wilson, the site CFO.

“What’s a 20-2 line? “ asked Patty.

“Oh, sorry. It’s a term we use to here to describe line financial metrics. The ’20’ stands for $20 million in sales and the ‘2’ stands for $2 million in profit.” Jane responded.

“Thanks,” said Patty.

“Oh, but I guess we would have to call them 18.4 -1.84 lines now that the productivity and profit are down by 8%.” Jane sarcastically said as she glared at Fred.

At this comment, Fred lost his cool, he slammed his fist on the table and shouted at Jane. “It isn’t 8%, its only 5% and I told you it’s just a random fluctuation,” he fumed.

Is the lost profit just a random fluctuation? If not, what is the cause? And how are Patty and Rob doing?

Stayed tuned for the latest.

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (pcea.net). 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

4 thoughts on “‘Paste is Paste’: The Professor Hits the Road

  1. Allow me to sum this one up… I could see where this story was going the second I started reading it.

    If a substandard material (whatever it may be) causes a few tenths of a percent defect rate in your average line, then any cost savings realized in purchasing that material becomes null and void.

    Solder paste is among the most critical components introduced into a line, after all if you boil down what a line does to a single bullet point… it solders things together.

    For the print portion of the process, the paste rheology needs to provide a perfect deposition, good release, accurately placed, no slump, good definition and in exacting volumes.

    For the placement portion of the process, paste tack must be correct to hold everything together until flow.

    For the reflow portion of the process, the paste must have clean metal (controlled oxides), and an exceptional flux chemistry. This means a controlled activation, a long activity window, limited outgassing, and an even transition to liquidus.

    What all of this means is that if someone offers you a substandard paste, no amount of discount would make it worth introducing into your line. They better be willing to pay YOU to take it. It will cost you money in time, aggravation, rework and scrapped assemblies.

    If you’re building any sort of modern assemblies and you’re not using a quality type IV material, you should have your head examined. If you’ve been using the same flux chemistry for the last ten years because you don’t want the ‘hassle’ of qualifying something new, I’m surprised you’re still in business.

    As a senior process engineer, my job is to engage in mortal combat with any bean-counter who tries to cut pennies from my process. When it comes to solder materials, saving pennies will cost you dollars every time. Buy the best, ditch the rest, and you’ll save a LOT of money in the long run… period, end of story. The numbers don’t lie.

  2. Where is the mythical world.. are the customer’s process engineers and quality engineers?

    I have never seen a modern facility where managers can (or want to) make random changes in productions processes.

    Much less.. make changes without any regard to yields on lines with millions at stake!
    Maybe on very small / high mix lines where processes are constantly changing and being evaluated…

    simple / amusing stories… but need to be a bit more based in reality of Circuit Assembly’s readership.

    I have heard/seen stories of equally short sighted managers in OTHER industries.
    Just haven’t seen this on highly technical and expensive processing lines (electronic or otherwise).

    Old electronic production lines with very simple (robust) processes… yea, there are some old horror stories still floating around….
    But this mag is directed toward people that actually work in modern electronics.
    Modern: meaning they have to work within Mil standards or industry standards (ISO-9000)… all pointing to controlled processes for introduction of changes in production.

    then again… I know a lot of companies that are ISO certified.. but still do “stupid”
    never mind…

  3. Folks,

    I strongly disagree with John Lambert’s comments that the situation in the above story is mythical and not representing the real world. I have visited over 150 factories world-wide. All of the Patty-The Professor scenarios come from real events that I have witnessed.

    In the case that inspired this story, at one large company, purchasing brought all of the vendors in and said they had to cut prices by such and such percent or they would not be used in the next year. Several companies said they could not cut their prices that much and hence they were dropped. Purchasing had been given this authority by senior management. The process engineers had to pick up the pieces after the vendor switches.

    I’ll share another “Dilbert” like true event.

    One company, to cut costs, stopped using nitrogen on their wave soldering machines. This senior management decision was not discussed with the process engineers at this multi-billion dollar company. Management was surprised when wave soldering yield dropped by 15%.

    With the tremendous turnover in our industry, the experience and engineering sense of someone like John Lambert has become less common, I believe. Hence, the purpose of my blog entries are to share these true to life stories in an amusing way to reinforce methodologies and a mindset to maximize yield, productivity and profit.


    Dr. Ron

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