Information and Education: A Roundtable Discussion About the Front End of Membrane-Switch Production

Membrane-Switch production can be challenging work once you get past the roadblocks to production that customers place in your path. Here a panel of experts reveals how they work with clients to arrive at products that satisfy all.

You know the old adage: The customer is always right. Well, whoever coined that phrase must not have manufactured membrane switches. Those who work in the industry know that buyers rarely come fully prepared for a purchase order or armed with the information needed to effectively describe an application. In fact, printers most often find themselves guiding their clients through specifying and ordering so that the switch will perform as expected and meet requirements for pricing, turnaround time, and more.

Screen Printing magazine spoke with a group of membrane-switch producers about the problems they encounter when customers bring in new jobs. The discussion also revealed some of the solutions they employ to streamline the ordering process and enhance their clients’ understanding of the technology. Members of this roundtable discussion include:

Jeff Arbogast, vice president of operations, VisionMark, Sidney, OH

Gene Baumgarten, vice president of product development and quality assurance, Dawar Technologies, Pittsburgh, PA

David Gintzler, president, Bovie Screen Printing Company, Inc., Concord, NH

Hemant Mistry, president. Jayco Panels, Corona, CA

Brad Root, president, GM Nameplate, Seattle, WA

Dennis Webster, Intaq engineering manager, GM Nameplate, Seattle,WA

 

What are some of the challenges you face with customers in the early stages of membrane-switch production?

Jeff Arbogast We get customers who have a varying degree of experience. Some are just folks from purchasing, others are engineers. We get all kinds of people. Sometimes customers have lofty expectations. In some cases, we’re dealing with electrical engineers who know that industry very well, but now they’re applying their experience to a screenprinted product that has some limitations and strengths, depending on the situation.

Gene Baumgarten Smaller or first-time buyers need more input from my company to establish what their goals and needs are—especially the firsttime buyers. They might be more familiar with printed circuit boards. In general, most customers are not familiar with the requirements for circuit layout for membrane switches. It’s also a challenge to get the correct information and have all of the information there so people can do their jobs.

David Gintzler Membrane switches are a unique application. In order for them to be functional, whoever is specifying them has to understand what they’re trying to do with the circuits. They have to have a higher understanding, and when they don’t, the schematic for the actual circuitry is left to the screen printer. If the company that is buying starts to do their own schematic layout, they do it without regard to the screen printer’s ability to do it more efficiently. Or, they’ll specify something that doesn’t exist or that has been discontinued or modified. Basically, 99% of the time, a screen printer designs and lays out the circuitry. There’s a huge problem in educating the customer as to what can and can’t be done.

Hemant Mistry The issue is always one of information—getting the information we need. We have to work very hard to make sure we understand what it is the customer wants. Sometimes they’re not even sure what they want, so we have to draw that information out of them.

Dennis Webster Membrane switches have historically been one of the last things customers think of. It’s at the bottom of the their checklist, and they will—almost as an afterthought— assume they can go out and buy one in a couple of weeks. Generally speaking, that’s not the way it works. Even with smaller shops it can take a month or more, and we’ve got a much larger operation and our lead time is a little bit longer simply because of that. Also, as the products become more complex, more time is needed to identifyand iron out the problems. It sounds as if customer education and information gathering are among the biggest obstacles in the process. How do you address these challenges?

Jeff Arbogast The reason why this is an issue is because we’re dealing with customers from various backgrounds. We focus on the application’s requirements right from the beginning. We’ve broken it down to visual, functional, performance, and dimensional requirements. We try to walk through each of those categories and try to understand the big picture, so to speak. We’ve developed a checklist to gather specific information to begin the process, and we’ll work from that. The rest is based on the application. We develop an understanding of the product’s end use. We’ll work from drawings that may or may not be very detailed. We sort through the information we get from the customer and then fill in the gaps. We’re also developing an interactive source on our Website to present technical information.

Gene Baumgarten As far as education, we use our Website and our sales force. There’s a lot of information on our Website, and our sales team is very well informed about membrane switches. They’re very good about asking the questions so we can get our customers quotes in a timely manner. It all begins with hiring the right people, making sure they have an engineering background and that they are trained properly so they understand membrane switches. The sales force uses a checklist that has a list of questions that must be answered before we can quote a project. Once the order is placed, we make sure that customer service and inside sales thoroughly understand the project so when it’s passed to production and engineering, most of the questions have been answered at that time.

David Gintzler When somebody inquires about a membrane switch, our salespeople will go out and do a lot of handholding. We spend a good deal of time educating our salespeople in how to find out what a person wants and how to express those requirements. Much of that initial series of contacts then transfers to inside sales, where we have much more depth in what we’re trying to find out from the customer. We use forms (Figure 1), and nothing happens unless those forms are completely filled out. We’ve developed those forms over time. It’s important that everybody inside understands what the particular project entails. Inside sales generally takes over as the relationship becomes one of our company dealing with the customer’s engineering department. There’s an enormous amount of detail. We have to train customers. Most are buying what they think is a component, but there’s so much detail that we have to know to make it correctly. It’s partly education, partly problem solving. We’re doing a lot of problem solving to protect ourselves so we deliver the right product that looks right and works right.

Hemant Mistry I hear this a lot in the industry—how to educate our customers. It’s more a question of how to express what it is that we can do. I think it’s really important to understand capabilities, limitations, strengths, then understand how it all relates to the job at hand. It’s really self-education. When a customer asks for something, you’re thinking about the process and can say, ‘Here’s a limitation, and I’m going to have a problem with that.’ Then you can point that out to the customer. We typically work with engineers first and work with our customers to develop the application. We have to sit down with more than one person on their side to try to find out their goals, the environmental conditions, and who might use the product. We ask a number of questions to find out as much as we can about the product and their expectations. It’s a fairly lengthy dialog. We don’t have a planned script, but we know the issues we need to cover. We do have a general form for gathering information about a project.

Dennis Webster The greatest amount of education we give people is one on one when they bring to us an opportunity for a new part, something for us to manufacture. We review their project and advise them of cost-saving options or options to augment their project. We read between the lines and figure out what they’re really trying to say, and we help them say it correctly. It’s also an education process every day of the week for our sales staff. Our design engineers get involved as well. We have an RFQ form, and when we’re attempting to put together pricing, for instance, the more information the customer can give us, the better our pricing can be. When we get to the point where we’re going to take an order, we have a much more detailed form we use, and we go through that internally to make sure we have everything we need. If we don’t, then we set up a conference call with the customer to go over the items that are left open.

Brad Root We have a preproduction huddle to talk about the project with everyone who will be involved with it. We’re also in the process of putting together a design guide for the Web. Internally, the design guide gives us most of the routine information, such as using ink systems with certain substrates, actuation life of an overlay, and so on. There are some customers who like to come in and understand your business so they can help you. That’s actually help that is not too very well appreciated. It’s usually an opportunity to learn what we’re doing on a level that’s beyond our comfort. They also want to learn what you’re doing so they can debate price with you.

How do you address pricing as part of the customer education process?

Jeff Arbogast Cost increases due to part requirements happen frequently. There are materials that do meet certain performance requirements, so it’s just trying to dial in the materials to meet those requirements. You’re trying to sell quality and service, especially when it comes to membrane switches. Durability always comes up. Obviously, depending on material selection, you can design a product that’s very durable. But as customers look for something that is bulletproof, you get into some difficult situations.

Gene Baumgarten We’ve identified what we call quality suppliers. We don’t want to put a bad product out there, so we stick with them. We have a source for metal domes, LEDs, adhesives, overlay materials, and other components. On complex jobs, very rarely do we see problems related to pricing. By complex, I refer to value-added requirements, such as making a membrane switch that will then be applied to a touch screen—and we’re asked to quote that entire project. There are instances where we actually have to get quotes from offshore to be competitive domestically or to meet customers’ needs. We have the ability to go offshore for projects with our many partners.

David Gintzler Materials costs have made membrane switches much more expensive in the last five years. The costs of adhesives and plastic films have gone straight up. Silver isn’t that expensive on a per-switch basis. But there’s a lot of control involved in medical work, so you can’t use stuff after a certain amount of time. We can explain these things, but it all comes down to dollars. You have a buyer, he has three quotes in front of him. One is a dollar, one is 90 cents, one is 80 cents. He buys the one that’s 80 cents. He doesn’t care whether it’s right or wrong. We quote doing it as a firstclass job, so our price is right, but the buyer doesn’t know. The buyer doesn’t care. Ultimately, I think price is the only determinant factor nowadays, and we get paid very little for quality. For example, you’re doing an overlay, it goes on a switch, and the background is a light tan. If you hit one layer of light tan, you can actually see the circuitry through it. You have to hit a second layer of tan, or white, or white with a little grey filler in it so you can hide the circuitry. All those cost. The guy at 80 cents doesn’t do that. But the buyer doesn’t care.

Hemant Mistry If we see there’s a potential problem, we’re not going to take the risk and hope it works out. We’ll point it out to the customer and say, ‘Look, if you do it this way, you’re going to have problems. If you do it the other way, it’ll cost you 10 cents more, but you won’t have the liability issue.’

Brad Root Every situation is different. We try to look at the concept of what they want and give them up front ideas on potential cost savings. But at the same time, we have to look at their specifications and what the product needs to hold up to, and we have to—based on us being the experts—tell them what’s going to have the best chance of meeting the specifications. Cost is somewhat secondary.

Dennis Webster Cost does become second, and it comes down to a take it or leave it eventually. If we’re not able to feel good about the design that we’re proposing for the specifications, we simply can’t do it. They’re always looking at their pricing options.

What other tips can you give membrane-switch producers to help them improve their interactions with customers?

Jeff Arbogast Find reliable suppliers—suppliers you can count on to deliver consistent product.

Gene Baumgartner Collect the information up front. Make sure you have the correct information and understand the customers’ needs.

David Gintzler When you get a membrane switch, there’s generally anywhere from $500-3000 on the front end of it before you make piece one. One of the beauties of membrane switches is once you get a switch, you tend to maintain it as long as the product runs because you’re holding the tools and dies. Our company policy is whatever dies, tooling, and art you’ve bought and paid for is your property. We will give it back to you. The only caveat is don’t owe us any money. There are other screen printers who won’t cough it up, no matter what. Some are honest enough to tell you that what you bought is their property— you’re paying for it, but they own it. Make your policy clear.

Hemant Mistry Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Some are so eager to please the customer that they try to do something they don’t have the capability to do and maybe try to learn on the job. I strongly encourage people not to do that. If you want to expand your capabilities, do it on an R&D project, not on a customer’s dollar.

Brad Root Sometimes we’ll get involved with two-way non-disclosure agreements so if we do make design recommendations, they are supposed to be proprietary to GM Nameplate. If we’re working on design options, our ideas that will help save money and still meet requirements are supposed to be unique to GM Nameplate. For somebody to take that information and shop elsewhere is, in theory, covered by the two-way non-disclosure. You always deal with some customers who are not as ethical as others. You always take a chance with that.

Dennis Webster Get involved a lot earlier than you have in the past. It’s nice to review what customers are doing early on; otherwise, they’ll box you into a corner and make something very difficult to produce—and it becomes very expensive for them.

 

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