Following alarming revenue plunges in late 2008 and early 2009, the global electronics contract manufacturing business showed signs of stabilization in the second quarter, with the top players experiencing a collective return to growth, according to iSuppli Corp.

Based on a review of second-quarter sales data, the Top-10 Electronics Manufacturing Service (EMS) providers achieved revenue growth of 1.6 percent compared to the first quarter. While this may not appear to be much of an increase, it represents a dramatic swing from the 25 percent sequential revenue contraction in the first quarter. The Top-10 Original Design Manufacturers (ODM) performed much better, with second-quarter revenue rising by 12 percent compared to the first quarter. This contrasts with a 14 percent sequential decline in the first quarter.

“The year 2009 could not have started any worse for contract manufacturers,” said Adam Pick, director and principal analyst for EMS/ODM at iSuppli. “However, during the second quarter, senior managers at EMS and ODM companies hinted that performance was stabilizing as demand firmed, cost structures adjusted and inventory decreased. iSuppli’s research confirms that the market did regain its footing in the second quarter. Despite these positive signs, it is still too early to celebrate an electronics manufacturing recovery. Several factors continue to cloud the outlook for EMS/ODM.”

One major factor is the global recession, which remains severe. Although revenue is rising on a sequential basis, the effects of the economic downturn can still be seen when making a year-over-year comparison. Second-quarter revenue for the Top-10 EMS providers was down 15 percent from 2008, and sales remain significantly lower than the normal seasonal pattern. Quarterly revenue for the Top-10 EMS providers, compared to a year earlier, has performed dismally since the fourth quarter of 2008.

Furthermore, certain OEMs are adopting strategic and recessionary manufacturing strategies, hindering growth for contract manufacturers. As evidenced by the moves of Nokia and NCR, some OEMs are taking back manufacturing operations from their outsourcing providers. For example, iSuppli estimates that Nokia has reclaimed as much as $5 B worth of spending from its EMS/ODM partners during this recession.

Other OEMs are acquiring assets from EMS providers to ensure continuity of supply. OEM Ericsson has taken this action with contract manufacturer Elcoteq.

Another market inhibitor is overcapacity, which continues to plague contract manufacturers by pressuring margins. Finally, ongoing shortages for devices, including optical disk drives and display panels, are negatively impacting the electronics supply chain in Taiwan and China. To adjust to these market realities, managers at EMS/ODM firms are taking appropriate actions to right-size their cost structures and to collaborate with OEMs and suppliers to establish realistic expectations for the future. Wall Street also has corrected its expectations for the contract manufacturing market, with the industry’s second-quarter results conforming with or slightly exceeding financial analysts’ expectations. However, four of the Top-10 EMS providers failed to improve revenues on a sequential basis during the second quarter. Furthermore, when Foxconn’s sales are excluded, revenues of the Top-10 EMS providers actually contracted in the second quarter on a sequential basis.

Finally, when examining forward-looking guidance against historical datasets, it is apparent that a true bottoming out of the market remains elusive for some EMS providers. Despite the various adjustments that EMS providers have had to make, a resurgence of notebook and netbook orders to the ODMs has inspired bullish sentiment among a number of companies, including Quanta, Compal, Wistron and Inventec. Even with component shortages and lackluster guidance from Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Dell, certain ODMs have suggested that second-half shipments will greatly outpace first-half production given macroeconomic trends and the introduction into the market of products with new features.