Streamline Circuits: The Importance of Being a Sales-Driven Organization

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I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Tom Doslak, senior VP of sales and marketing for Streamline Circuits. We discussed how the company got started, technologies that seem to be driving the marketplace, critical equipment for today’s PCB fabricator, and how being a customer-centered, sales-driven organization serves as the key to their success. 

Judy Warner: Tom, can you start out by first telling us a little bit about yourself and Streamline Circuits?

Tom Doslak:  I’d be happy to, Judy. Streamline is 13 years old, and most of us came from a company called Dynamic Details (DDi), which is now part of TTM. DDI was a $500 million company that manufactured printed circuit boards with seven PCB facilities nationwide, including 60 designers and three assembly facilities. We went public and had a great time with all that, but ultimately, in the early-2000s, we wanted to go back to basics and support our OEM customers by giving extensive engineering and DFM support.

We then started Streamline Circuits in September of 2003, and we have steadily grown the company to close to $75 million. Eighty percent of our domestic revenue is 10 days or less for advanced technology (blind and buried) products and ultra-quick-turn for medium technology. The other 20% are considered high-reliability customers, who have higher mix, lower volume production. This allows us to staff five shifts with 295 people, working 7 days a week. This is how we're set up as a PCB manufacturing company offering rigid, flex and rigid-flex PCBs. We also currently tool about 200 new part numbers a week, so we are very strong on the engineering side. We continue to grow at a fast rate, currently going through a 30,000-square-foot expansion right now, where we've spent about $10 million in the last two years to get us to build what we call the next generation of micro BGAs.

To give you an idea of some of this year’s spend, we now have a new laser drilling system that cost close to a million dollars. This new laser drill allows us to do 42,000 holes per minute versus 600 holes per minute on our four older units. Essentially, it's like taking a picture to be able to make 42,000 holes on what we call microvia technology, 4-mil drills for laser vias. After that investment, we have gone throughout the facility adding six LDI units, with two capable of doing sub-20 micron features, also getting into advanced X-ray capabilities for optimum registration tolerances, and going from front to back of the facility.

I believe we are the leader in PCB manufacturing from a capabilities and quick-turn standpoint. Most of my competitors do things in 12 days that we do in seven days. On the flex and rigid-flex side, I think we are doing things in five days that takes most shops 15–20 days. We are all about speed and high-reliability. We have all the certifications now, even adding our Nadcap and Mil-31032 for the military customers, and we’re very excited for the evolving military market. We've had some major approvals this year and last to start doing advanced work for many of the Tier 1 military customers. Other than that, that's about it [laughs].

Warner: Let's talk about market conditions for a moment. I know that you're located in the Santa Clara area. So I’m wondering if staying ahead of the technology curve is driven by your physical location in the heart of Silicon Valley, or is that just your technology offering across the board, regardless of geography?

Doslak: Believe it or not, half our customers are from the East Coast, so it’s more of a market. I also think about our first multi-lamination board that we built, about seven years ago; it took us a couple of trials to get it right. Now, doing as many as nine laminations and 13 stacked vias, I think the combination of our experienced engineering staff and the newer equipment of today has allowed us to do more advanced product in a more cost-effective way, reducing the overall cost and improving the faster lead times. The markets, everything from the cellphone companies, wearables, even to guys that are creating the inflight drones, have gotten denser, with more functionality. The only way you can really do that is by using multi-lamination designs, and that's really where we've had to reinvest for the future.

Our job is to stay about three years ahead of what the market is currently making. So we work very closely with the advanced chip manufacturers and the guys that are working on next generation micro BGAs. We need to be able to know how to build these products today before they become mainstream tomorrow. You may have heard of 0.4 mm or 0.3 mm BGAs? Well, we're doing 0.225 mm, 0.18 mm and a 0.08 mm micro BGA now, which isn't mainstream yet, but it is just around the corner. For me to be successful, I must be the expert for my customers, and that's where we spend our focus for R&D.

Warner: Interesting. So when you say three years out, are you designing these boards or are they being designed by the OEMs? I’m wondering because when you get down to BGAs that small, design becomes an issue too, and how to route that effectively.

Doslak: Yes, we have tools in place in the front-end where we’re doing many DFMs throughout the design stage, to be able to be proactive before they finish the design, along with giving them proactive design suggestions for their products, so we can do multiple lamination steps in one process. In other words, I can do three stacked vias with one lamination, which saves about two days of manufacturing time if the product is designed correctly. There are a lot of things that go into that up-front, not to mention materials and what is capable for that type of technology. The support goes all the way down the design as far as stack-ups, impedance, panelization and material utilization.

Warner: It makes sense that you offset the time for sequential lam by grouping them together—smart! Let me go back a little to your comments about off-shore.

Do you collaborate with sourced offshore suppliers? Meaning you take the order, and then drive the whole process? Or do you have offshore facilities that you have a stake in? How do you handle the dynamics of your model?

Doslak: While working with Tier 1 customers years ago, we learned and now understand the demand for exact-build concepts and why it’s needed today. When a customer does a prototype, they want it to literally react the same way from an impedance performance standpoint. It just wasn't possible back then because we would do all the DFM here domestically, and then once the product got offshore, we had to start all over and go back through the material characteristics based on the different glass and resin content. Now we stock about $800,000 worth of both domestic and equivalent off-shore materials, based on the facilities that we've chosen, based on their capabilities and their technologies for our customers. I do have some customers that go direct once we do the ramp, and come back when they need to for quicker lead times. But most customers want to rely on us to be the full service PCB experts, in fact, choosing the facilities, building the products, inspecting the products, and then shipping them to their CM or to their customer. There are various ways to do this solution successfully.

The nice thing is we have worked very closely with our facilities over there. We're either visiting regularly or they are coming here to the States. We're collaborating with the same software packages in the front-end, so that way we can scale the product for their facilities and be proactive to make sure that their products will be right the first time off-shore. That's something that we have been offering as a full service for a while now.

Warner: Tom, because you are looking down the road three years or so, what do you see as the driving pain points with OEMs these days in regards to board fabrication?

Doslak: The biggest growth for us has been the flex and rigid-flex, and just things overall getting smaller with more functionality, but really, the military market and the aerospace market have been pushed into micro BGAs as well. But they still have high-rel tolerances that they have to deal with, which means we have to deal with them. To give you an idea, I've had probably five vendor approvals for the top-five military companies in the world based on them outgrowing their PCB manufacturer’s technology and capabilities that they previously used.

If you're not reinvesting every three to five years, you're just riding that wave of technology and hoping that your yields stay high enough to be able to make some money and stay in business. I think that most of these OEM companies who had these board shops for 10–20 years have now realized that they've got to look elsewhere for the newer capabilities based on what chips are being developed today.

Warner: If I hear you right, what you're saying is, in today's market and with speed of the technology push, if you're not ahead, you're behind?

Doslak: Exactly. I will give you an example. I have laser direct imaging 100%, which allows us to do away with film. These advanced units literally taking an 18 x 24 manufacturing panel, which when using film had a tolerance of 0.005 mils, now allow us to image holding a tolerance as tight as 0.0005 mils. You can imagine registration and imaging capabilities and the success on that. Just in the last three years, I have a new LDI that went from 2 mils to now 18 micron. In two months, I'm going to have another one that gets us to 12 microns. Technology is out there and it is available for what we do, but you just have to stay on the cutting edge and reinvest for the future. In the last four years, you've seen dramatic improvements, and you either have to invest or sacrifice market share.

From a quality standpoint, for us to be able to build products that advanced, that's a great thing. If I can't verify the quality, then I'm kind of dead in the water. We had to reinvest in two brand-new AOI units called Fusion 22s. Yes, they're three times faster than what the old units could do, but the key advantage is they measure down to 25 microns. Most of my older units could not approach that standard.

You also can't go out and just buy one or two pieces of equipment and be a great PCB facility. You have to buy six to eight major pieces of different types of equipment to be able to accomplish what we call advanced hole-to-copper technology, which we are now down to 3.1 (hole to next copper feature). You can't just get by with one imaging unit. You've got to go through and have your etching process improved, your capabilities of prepping the holes improved, and X-ray for registration. In a way, you have to almost build your own scaling software to be able to predict material movement and to be able to reassure that you're going to get good products out the door.

Warner: Along those lines, if you were looking down the road three years from today with the equipment you're investing in and things you're looking at with your customers, what sort of challenges and future enablers are you looking at next?

Doslak: One thing that comes to mind is the faster speeds. Flex circuits and a lot of these things we talked about for density, but really, it’s the speeds of current, having the flex and the rigid-flex, and being able to remove connectors and certain things that do slow down the current. I had to reinvest in a new time domain reflectometer unit (TDR). That testing unit allows me to measure impedances over 6 gigs. Most shops out there in the country have TDRs or ways to inspect the impedance, but most of them are sub-6 gigs, and to get into the higher speed products and verify the quality, you have to be able to invest now to do that. I'm seeing products at 40, 60, and even 80 gigs. There are a lot of things that are going into these high speeds, mostly materials, trying to remove a lot of the loss, which happens with connectors and things like that. I'm seeing a big jump in that as well.


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