For contract electronics manufacturers (CEMs) to succeed, they must have the right people with the right skills, in the right place at the right time.
Unlike original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), who are responsible for a defined portfolio of products, CEMs deliver a wide variety of electronics and electrically-based products across multiple market sectors to their customers.
Similar to an elite Special Forces squad, CEMs must be able to rapidly deploy specialist skills into critical areas of their business at peak times. They must be able to do this without comprising product quality or delivery objectives for current customers; or their ability to engage with potential new customers on the horizon. Once a contract has shipped they must then be able to extract this resource rapidly and assign it to the next mission.
So how do elite CEMs go about completing this challenge? Surely cross-training electronics manufacturing staff is beneficial to both the individuals involved and the company as a whole? Are there any negatives aspects to be aware of? Let’s find out.
Labour utilisation is one of the most important metrics for CEMs. Often measured by the number of hours "sold" to customers versus the number of hours paid to staff, the maths is simple. Unfortunately, with the need to balance so many variables regarding different customers, types of products and contract agreements, achieving this balance is far from straightforward. It can be frustrating - and extremely costly - for any CEM to have teams of wiring staff standing idle, while the surface mount production department struggle to keep up and vice versa.
This is where cross-training really helps, particularly for those CEMs that offer a complete outsourcing solution - covering a wide breadth of manufacturing disciplines such as printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) and total product assembly ("box build"), panel wiring and electro-mechanical (machine) assembly.
So what are the benefits of cross-training staff within contract manufacturing?
The pros of cross-training
Flexibility - Contract manufacturers that cross-train can provide greater flexibility to their customers. They are not constrained by staff that have unique skill sets and, as a result, can react quicker should project requirements change unpredictably and a need to rapidly ramp up (and down) emerges.
Efficiency - By training staff to work in other departments and teaching them new skills, CEMs are continually introducing "fresh pairs of eyes" into the various parts of their organisation. These eyes (and probably more importantly ears) can then challenge the status quo, leading to potential process improvements.
Morale - Investing in individuals by cross-training them can help to improve morale. It can be an effective way for the CEM to demonstrate their commitment to continuous improvement and personal development. In addition to learning a new skill or, in some cases, a recognised qualification, the individual will often find the process helps develop stronger interpersonal skills. This is a result of them communicating and problem-solving with colleagues they haven’t previously been exposed to before.
Awareness - cross-training allows individuals to gain a deeper understanding of the daily practices and challenges that exist within other departments. This can immediately lead to a positive change in behaviour; where frustrations are replaced with a sense of appreciation and respect for why certain procedures and guidelines are in place. The intricate nuances relating to cause and effect become much more transparent when staff can shadow colleagues and train in areas outside of their original job role or remit.
The benefits of greater awareness not only exist at a local or departmental level but can also extend to the organisation as a whole. CEMs that offer graduate or apprenticeship programmes will often specify that candidates work or shadow colleagues in all areas of the business, from accounts to engineering, through various assembly areas and quality, before completing the course in their chosen discipline.
Risk - Finally, the cross-training of staff helps CEMs mitigate risk and ensure delivery performance to their customers is uninterrupted. While annual holiday entitlement can be planned in advance, sudden injury, long term sickness, maternity cover or unpredictable customer demand can be more difficult. Although temporary labour has played a historic role within CEMs' resourcing strategies, it remains a costly tactic and far from ideal. It also relies on an available "talent pool" being there in the first place - which, as we have come to learn, particularly across areas like engineering and wiring, is no longer the case.
Let’s now take a look at some of the challenges that CEMs face surrounding cross training
The cons of cross-training
Investment - As with any training, it demands planning, takes time and, clearly, has a cost associated to it. As we touched on at the beginning of this blog post, poor labour utilisation can really hurt CEMs. Having staff work at a reduced rate while others watch and take notes maybe a step too far for some contract manufacturers.
Knowledge - Extracting knowledge from staff to train others can be a challenge for some CEMs. To begin with, the CEM may not know how much knowledge of a particular skill or product an individual has. Their staff should be competent to carry out specific builds - but what about the tips, tricks and improved ways of working that haven’t been written down? Having a clearly defined skills matrix in place to identify gaps, along with processes that encourage staff to share knowledge, ideas, process improvements and experience can help overcome some of these issues.
Morale - As well as helping to boost morale, cross-training can sometimes have the opposite effect. Individuals responsible for training may see the exercise as an extra burden. It's more work for them with little or no reward. What’s in it for them? Some employees may even see the process as a threat to their current position. If they start sharing all the knowledge they have built up over many years, are they risking the competitive advantage they currently hold over other team members?
CEMs can overcome many of these concerns by clearly communicating the purpose of cross-training. They will explain to staff that for the business to grow, and continue to deliver the wide range of electronic manufacturing services their customer base demands, it cannot rely on one or two highly skilled people. While individual performance must be monitored and continuous personal development encouraged, CEMs succeed or fail as a single unit.
Successful CEMs continually cross-train their staff as part of their overall strategy. They don’t do it as a reaction to an unplanned absence or sudden peak in demand. It should be built into the solutions they offer and part of their standard procedures. They understand that it will take some time and effort to complete. They also understand that in doing so there is a risk that their staff move on and take the new skills with them.
To paraphrase Sir Richard Branson, the best will seek to train their people well enough so they can leave but treat them well enough so they don’t want to.
Image by Ken Walton