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Ignorance in Four Acts

It is a truth universally acknowledged (apologies to Jane Austen) that ignorance, skillfully employed, enhances a career. At the very least, for the cunning practitioner, it is a survival skill. All well and obvious, but wouldn’t it be interesting, and perhaps eye-opening, were some enterprising academic to study the deadweight loss to gross national product attributable to ignorance?

Herewith an attempt to illustrate my point, in four acts.

Recently a customer approached me about X-ray services. Fortuitously, our company provides them. “I need 5DX inspection of 20 boards,” was his request. Nothing unusual here. I sent him a quote to create a 5DX AXI program and inspect his boards. I did not delay in returning a quote as his request came with more than a hint of urgency: He had a shipment to make.
Silence. A day passed. Another day. Something’s wrong. I called him. “I thought this was urgent,” were my first remarks after greeting him. “It was,” he replied, “but your quote shocked me and my management. It’s only 20 boards, and I only want certain areas of the board inspected.”

Now he tells me.

My thought (suppressing — barely — annoyance): Why then did you ask me specifically for a 5DX program (for the uninitiated, 5DX AXI programs inspect each and every solder joint, top and bottom, on the board)? Since this was only a thought, and a malevolent one at that, I could only speculate privately about his possible answers, but all were variations on a theme of ignorance. 5DX is a brand name (kind of like Xerox for copying) rather than a process (like AXI — Automated X-ray Inspection). Dangerous stuff in the wrong hands, and easily manipulated.

I then sent him a second quote for manual X-ray inspection of only certain specific locations on each board. A time and materials job, with no programming needed. Just pictures to accompany the shipment, checking off a box on their customer’s requirement. Much cheaper, by the way, than AXI. Less thorough, though. Not that he cares. But he’s the customer, and he knows what he’s doing, right?

The episode inspired a second thought, and this one I expressed directly to my customer: “Can I visit your facility to explain to you the differences in the technologies, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and the relative costs of each?”

More silence.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Or is it a matter of losing face in front of one’s peers?

I don’t know because he never called back.

An OEM customer of ours works with five different contract manufacturers (CM). All of them perform testing of the customer’s boards in one form or another. Sort of. Or so they claim. But the customer continues to experience an unacceptably high rate of failure in their own functional and system testing, CM testing notwithstanding.

A close perusal of the five CM websites reveals differing capabilities, some of them hidden. Really hidden. All, for example, offer basic functional testing. Beyond that the menu varies with the provider: Some boast in-circuit testing, but closer scrutiny reveals nothing beyond MDA (Manufacturing Defect Analyzer) capabilities. Nothing about debug. No standards or default Statement of Work. Very little revealing what is to be done if a board fails. Other than good luck, God Bless and here is your board back with a nice white tag attached. And a bill, of course. Have a nice day, and thanks for coming.

Meanwhile, our OEM customer has grown confused and frustrated by five different answers to the same question. And the unaccountable in-house and field failures continue to mount. So much so that the OEM dispatched three of their engineers, at considerable expense, to our facility for a day of sorting testing fact from fiction. We prepared in advance with a list of questions to be answered during the day; they would serve as our agenda. They read like a combat After-Action Report, a sort of Guadalcanal Diary of test failures.

We meet. We impart our wisdom. We spare no sacred cows and gleefully demolish as many misconceptions about testing as time and discussion format will allow. We confirm many of their suspicions, reinforced with facts and data and many real-world examples. Prejudices are reinforced, and gut feelings validated. They leave enlightened and empowered. And they have one parting question, which they ask, in different ways, three times: Why can’t our CMs be as well-equipped as you guys are?

My response: Ask Purchasing why that is.

Our facility often serves as a demonstration site for the manufacturers of our equipment. After one such demo of flying probe equipment for a group of test engineers for a local large CM, the conversation turned to shop talk and a comparison of programming techniques. At a certain point we asked one engineer how she debugged a flying probe program; her facial expression strongly suggested we possessed two heads. Clearly she was not familiar with the terminology, i.e. debug. And she demonstrated no inclination or willingness to become familiar with the terminology. Too time-consuming. Gotta ship.

Do you really know what you are paying for? Do you know what you are actually getting? And have you ever bothered to ask?
The answers might be enlightening.

As test engineers, we speak the language of CAD. CAD from more than 60 commercially-available circuit board layout platforms is the mother’s milk our test systems ingest as the initial step in generating working PCBA test and inspection programs. Many buyers do not know this. Incredibly, some buyers choose not to know this. They have important work to do, and this isn’t it. Some of the more reptilian purchasing types, when presented with requests for CAD, attempt to change the subject, employing intimidation as a defense. Their disingenuous reply usually goes something like this: “Nobody else has asked me for this” or “You are the first vendor in my entire career who has requested this.”

Machiavelli would be proud. That said, somebody needs to get out more.

The consoling thought in all this is that more work is available for chief petty officers, master sergeants and engineers. Somebody needs to know how stuff works. Or doesn’t. And why. For us, it all begins and ends with Ohm’s Law. For them, call it bravado, chutzpah, stupidity, fear or just an invertebrate disposition; it’s all the same, and it diverts attention.

Which in the end is what they want.