Catching up With Flexible Circuit Technologies
Flexible Circuit Technologies (FCT) is a full-service flex and rigid-flex supplier that has attained outstanding growth. FCT started business in 2000 with $300,000 in sales; now, FCT is nearly a $100 million global company. Since I am always on the lookout for companies with amazing stories—especially those that have reached success through creativity, strong customer support, and good old-fashioned business sense—I spoke to the people behind the scenes to find out how they did it. Here is my conversation with Troy Koopman, FCT’s president and co-founder, and Carey Burkett, the company’s VP of business development.
Dan Beaulieu: Thank you both for taking the time to talk with me today. Can you tell us about your company?
Troy Koopman: FCT is a specialized company that supports the design, development, and production of high-quality flexible circuits, rigid-flex, flexible heaters, membrane switches, and sub-assemblies to complete box builds. FCT supports customers in the commercial markets with as much or as little design consultation and support required to help develop cost-effective designs that will perform within our customers’ defined applications. We then help to manage the overall process from design through prototyping and then through production. We most often focus on Class 2 solutions but, at times, address Class 3 opportunities.
For some more background, in 2000, I met an engineer from a small local flex manufacturer where I learned about the industry and its potential for excellent growth; we were both looking for a change and an opportunity, so we decided to start our own company. We focused the business based on our ideas for sales and marketing on a global basis. We knew there was a definite need for flex and rigid-flex products, including assembly, and decided that it would be our path for growth. One of the things I had been successful with in my previous work experience was focusing exactly on the customers’ needs. I had spent a good part of my career working as a consultant and had learned a lot about how to run—and how not to run—a company, so I brought that experience to this company as well.
Beaulieu: You call yourselves a service company rather than a product company. Tell me about that.
Carey Burkett: The end-product is what we sell and make our margin on, but that is the end to the means. The services that we offer are the most important aspect of our business, including design support and consultation in providing our customers with expertise that will lead to the most cost-effective designs that will perform within the customer’s given application.
From there, our application engineers and CAD services team must do an outstanding job of working through the designs to pinning down the final design. We offer outstanding program management and communications in working with our customers to meet their prototyping deadlines and must do an excellent job of managing the process as we move to production, where we must provide quality products with on-time delivery. The services that we offer related to design support, communications, and management of the overall process is what leads to our success. The final product is the ultimate deliverable; superior service and support get you there.
Beaulieu: What is the driving force behind the success of the company?
Burkett: Expertise and superior support are what we truly sell; the end-product is what we deliver. We have developed a great team of experts who understand flex and rigid-flex technology, not only bare boards, as well as expertise in specialized assembly on flex all the way to complete product box builds. Interestingly, it’s been a natural progression from being a flex/rigid-flex company to developing our expertise in EMS/assembly on flex all the way to where we now execute complete product box builds. Perhaps the difference is how we have attacked this. We have come from the inside out.
The flex circuit/assembly is at the heart of the application, device, or product. There’s no doubt it is critical to get the heart right. FCT excels in the design and production of flex and rigid-flex. Approximately 15 years ago, we began our assembly on flex services. Today, we are experts in EMS/assembly on flex. From there, taking steps to complete a product box build meant beefing up our test engineering capabilities and sourcing capabilities to where they are today. We get the heart or assembly right and then build around it. Not many companies can do that.
Koopman: We always try to consider things from the customer perspective and act accordingly as to how we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes.
Burkett: Our mission statement comes down to one word—care. The bottom line is to take care of the customer by picking up the phone, communicating, meeting the deadline, or whatever else it takes. If each employee at every level comes to work with that attitude and motivation, the rest will take care of itself.
Beaulieu: Now, let’s talk now about your place in the market. What niche do you fill?
Burkett: We bring superior expertise to our customers. Given the growth and momentum of flex circuits and rigid-flex, many companies are jumping in to provide these types of products, but few offer true experts related to design. If a designer does not have a true understanding of the materials, properties, and what can and cannot be done, you can be sent down a costly path. Providing top experts in design is critical to helping our customers achieve success. This is one gap that FCT is proud to fill.
From there, we look to fill a gap related to flexibility—pun intended—to where we can take on low- to high-volume programs for our customers. We also offer a unique business model that allows us to provide expertise to our customers through our headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while utilizing our Asia-based production facilities that allow us to offer competitively priced products.
FCT offers significant capabilities and capacity. To me, we offer large company capabilities, yet are small enough to offer an improved overall experience for our customers with more focus on the services side. We also are large enough to support leading OEMs across all of the markets we serve.
Koopman: One of our biggest differentiators is that we are very experienced at assembly onto flex circuits. Many assembly shops can do rigid but struggle with flex. It causes turbulence between the flex shop and the assembly house when there are problems, and sometimes, the customer is stuck in the middle. Because we do both the flex and assembly, we can be a one-stop shop for the customer to get their flex assembly module and more if they want up to box build.
Beaulieu: How are you preparing for the future?
Koopman: We realize we need to keep moving up the technology curve to survive and stay out of the pure commodity market in flex that is becoming more common, such as mobile phones, etc. To that end, we will be opening our newest production facility in Zhuhai, China, in 2020, and are equipping and staffing that facility to specifically meet higher-end flex and rigid-flex requirements. We are also working on a partnership with a company to provide our customers with very high tech micro-electronic flex boards such as those used in medical electronics.
Beaulieu: What do you do in terms of staying competitive in the market?
Burkett: We look to be as competitive as we can be. We most often offer an improved price over U.S.-based production. Given our Asia-based production facilities, our goal is to be extremely competitive, but it is not our goal to be known as the low-cost provider, given the fact that we offer significant services to our customers. We would rather offer our customers the best overall value. For example, a build-to-file shop sitting in China may offer lower-priced end-products when compared to FCT, but these types of organizations offer few, if any, services.
Our goal is to provide value to our customers. We seek to develop long-term relationships so that our customers not only see but feel the value that we bring, given our design expertise. Because we are able to provide superior, cost-effective designs, we often pull costs down during the design phase that can save our customers far more when compared to savings on a piece price. We want our customers to see and understand the overall value they receive by partnering with us.
Once we have established what the customer needs, we look for the best possible solution that will deliver the best overall value. The bottom line is we look to provide our customers with outstanding service, high-quality products that are competitively priced while delivering the best overall value.
Koopman: We make our money by providing high-quality products that meet customer requirements and allow FCT to make a reasonable margin on those products. How we get there is much more about the services and support that we offer.
Our basic philosophy is that it does not matter that much if we make money during the prototyping process. We’d rather help our customers get to a great design, provide them with outstanding support, win the prototype order, even if at a loss, and then look toward the opportunity of supporting our customers with longer-term production. We take the long view when it comes to developing a valued relationship with our customers as their partner of choice.
Beaulieu: What about quality at FCT?
Burkett: FCT is certified for ISO 9001 and 14001, as well as for ISO 13485 for medical and IATF 16949 for automotive. Additionally, we have performed, and are presently performing, product box builds for products that are FDA-registered. FCT has very stringent quality processes and procedures in place, inclusive of the stringent traceability requirements that go with FDA-related programs.
Also, all parts are electrically tested before shipment to the customer. For more complex builds, we try to work with the customer to develop a functional test to ensure 100% of products are usable when delivered. We follow the IPC guidelines for all builds.
Koopman: Our quality stats are outstanding because of our process controls, as well as our final testing. We have all of the quality processes and certifications in place that allow FCT to successfully serve many of the top-tier global companies across the various markets that we support. We are extremely proud of our facilities and how well they are managed and welcome customer and prospect visits and audits.
Beaulieu: What makes your company stand out from the competition?
Burkett: First, I want to emphasize our expertise. FCT offers highly experienced application engineers that each offer 20–30+ years of expertise in flex and rigid-flex. Our roster is extremely talented, and we leverage that, which helps to separate us from our competition. Second, being customer-centric and service-oriented is critical. One can always improve in this area, but, overall, we do a very good job being responsive and serving our customers.
Third, we’re also very flexible. FCT is able to take on small- to very large-scale programs. We can address customer needs for 50 circuits a year where we are delivering 15 million circuits a month or more. We offer significant capacity and flexibility. Fourth, our strong relationship with our FCT China group is a significant differentiator and leads to getting the job done for our customers and to the delivery of high-quality products on time.
Another key aspect is our size. We are small enough to allow for improved focus and service. We are nimble and can move quickly. However, we are large enough that we can take care of large customer needs and programs. Often, large companies tend to slow down or be slower and are not nimble, while small companies have a niche that they serve but do not have the capabilities and capacity to serve larger customers or large-scale opportunities. This agility is a quality that we strive to hold onto as we grow.
Koopman: We always want to grow the right way, ensuring that customer care is number one so that we don’t get too big and lose that. That’s why we have developed specific customer teams across sales, engineering, customer service, quality, etc., for our larger customers. We want to give them multiple resources and points of contact, whether in North America or Asia, so that we can service them around the clock.
Beaulieu: Generally speaking, what markets do you serve?
Burkett: FCT does not want to be defined by a narrow niche. Some companies are set up to serve a specialized market (i.e., cellphones), while others are set up to serve a specific niche (i.e., quick-turn prototyping). FCT is more broadly focused on the commercial markets, including medical, automotive, consumer, telecommunications/data, industrial, and more. We want to bring best practices and superior design support to our customers that will lead to cost-effective solutions across all of these markets. This will allow us to build a strong, broad-based business that is less susceptible to downturns in any specific market.
Koopman: Also, by choice, we do not want to be the leader in the development of new technologies because it is very expensive, and certain technologies may not get adopted. Therefore, our focus is on developing designs, products, and services that are more broadly accepted in the marketplace. This does not mean that we do not want to keep an eye on where things are going, as we must understand our customers’ requirements and develop the capabilities to meet those requirements. For instance, high speed is upon us, and FCT must be able to support applications that will require the use of new materials and more. Again, we want to focus on those technologies that will be more broadly accepted across our customer base.
Thus, we are more of a broad-based production business that must leverage our expertise and provide superior services to meet broad customer needs. We also desire to build long-term relationships with our customer base to where we are their supplier of choice, given the expertise and support that we provide while providing high-quality, competitively priced products. We want to be an overall solutions provider that will take on as much or as little as our customer desires, whether it’s just the bare flex or further to sub-assemblies, product module builds, or complete box builds.
Beaulieu: Thank you for your time, gentlemen.
Koopman: Thanks, Dan.
Burkett: Thank you!