A manufacturer with many plates

Published: 1-Jun-2017

Contract manufacturers (CMs) are not your regular one-trick pony; they have the ability to keep many plates spinning at one time

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In the back of every CM’s mind is the knowledge that just one unexpected hiccough could bring everything crashing down and result in the cost of production rising by tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Here, Jonathan Wilkins, Marketing Director of industrial spares supplier EU Automation, discusses ways contract manufacturers can maintain healthy production lines and keep all the plates spinning in harmony.

The life of a CM is an exciting one: lines change, production remains flexible and manufacturing is fast-paced and lean. However, it is not all stress free. Tight manufacturing deadlines, long lead times for supplies and high maintenance costs mean that CMs must have impeccable planning and foresight, as well as an in-depth knowledge of their systems and the industry.

If a part breaks down in an automated system, CMs still have to fulfil contracts and meet deadlines.

Even if the solution is a costly upgrade to a control system in the plant, a CM will most likely proceed because the loss of revenue caused by a poor reputation would be more expensive to the company in the long-term.

It’s always difficult when companies decide to outsource manufacturing, especially when this decision is made for the first time. Giving up complete control is hard and placing trust in a third party does not come easily to many. However, the manufacturing industry is not what it was a quarter of a century ago and changing times have brought with them the need to squeeze margins. This, in turn, has brought about the rise of CMs.


The electronics and pharmaceutical manufacturing industries are particularly reliant on CMs. This is partly because of the nature of the two sectors. The electronics industry has a reputation for innovation and short product lifecycles. No sooner has a component gone live than a new product is developed, which makes the previous one obsolete.

Instead of every electronics manufacturer investing millions in innovative semiconductor fabrication machines and so on, many will use CMs who own the relevant machines to produce their designs. This not only saves money on manufacturing costs, but also frees up resources that can be used in other areas of the business.

In the pharmaceuticals industry, manufacturers have to comply with strict regulations. For example, the current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations contain minimum requirements for the methods, facilities and controls used in production, processing and packing of a pharmaceutical product. The regulations make sure that a product is safe for use and that it has the ingredients and strength stated on the label. Accountability and traceability throughout the manufacturing process is imperative in pharmaceutical production. By passing this responsibility onto CMs, companies can avoid having to deal with the red tape themselves.

A manufacturer with many plates


Owing to the flexible nature of contract manufacturing and the pressures associated with it, devices and systems tend to be slightly older than you might expect. In fact, most will employ obsolete parts in critical infrastructure. Despite this, contract manufacturing systems are meticulously maintained.

Complete upgrades will most likely be sparse and the systems supplemented with spares when components break down. This is because engineers need to know the inner workings of the production lines inside out, for when they have to adapt them to new customer specifications. They also need certainties that machinery will act the way they expect, which often isn’t the case when upgrading.

In addition, industrial systems in pharmaceutical manufacturing plants are subject to strict regulations. Upgrades require new paperwork and certifications to ensure the new device is fit for operation, whereas swapping a broken part with a like-for-like replacement is much more straightforward.

Consequently, many CMs rely on obsolete parts to keep critical systems running smoothly. The way in which they can control this process and keep it sustainable is through meticulous obsolescence management planning and forecasting.

It is common for computerised maintenance management systems (CMMS) to be used in contract manufacturing plants. These systems help companies to manage infrastructure. For example, they enable alerts for new software updates, manage records of where spare parts are located or calculate when machines are likely to need maintenance.

By taking the time to assess systems and predict which components may soon become obsolete, companies can stay ahead of the game and have a solution ready. This will reduce downtime, save money and uphold a CM’s reputation.

Key benefits of using strategic obsolescence management include anticipating and mitigating the risk of costly redesign cycles, as well as the rapid assessment of where and how component obsolescence affects the system supportability. A good management system also allows companies to minimise the risks of obsolescence by identifying second sources and alternative parts in advance.

In short, a good CM will have a spare part lined up and ready to be fitted into a system even before the existing device breaks down. Last Time Buy options and End-of-Life (EOL) notifications give plants time to stockpile obsolete parts before the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) stops production. However, these will not last forever. This is why CMs need a reliable spare parts supplier who can quickly process, source and ship compatible refurbished parts.

By keeping a stock of spare parts, maintaining strong links with a reliable industrial parts supplier and planning for every eventuality, CMs ensure they can repair equipment at a moment’s notice without compromising timelines. For CMs, proactive maintenance and time management are key to keeping all those plates spinning smoothly.

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