The Newest Flex Shop in the U.S.

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Matties: I would think that with this reduction, and with this new flow, handling errors have reduced substantially?

Lencioni: Yes, we've seen improvements in our cost of quality levels and we're slowly realizing that. We develop and define each of the work cells and make them super-efficient for material handling and tool allocation. We brought in additional automation, as highlighted by our new programmable electroless line.  Things are being done much more efficiently.

Matties: Just for a frame of reference, what sort of sales do you guys do here and how many employees do you have?

Lencioni: We're currently on track to do about $30 million this year. We have 170 employees, and we have open requisitions for 20 right now.

Matties: What areas are you hiring in right now?

Lencioni: The majority of them are in the manufacturing area. We want to bolster staffing on the off-shifts, which are swing shifts, graveyards, and weekends. Those shifts help to utilize the factory as best we can, and to be able to produce products without stopping, which is important. Circuit board shops by nature run better when they are running. When you start them and stop them, it takes a lot to bring them down, and it takes a hell of a lot more to bring them back up. Temperatures, stability, and the baths like to be worked, so our goal is to run 24/7 and keep things moving, especially as we address the quick-turn market and time to market, which are critical for our customers. They have needs that have to be met, and our goal is to get them their products on time!

Matties: Where is the typical tolerance now in a flex shop?

Lencioni: We manage the same things most rigid shops manage, which are geometric feature sizes, trace and space requirements, dielectrics, and so on. I think the primary challenge for anybody in the flex business is still managing the material movement of the dielectrics. Controlling and maintaining processes addressing this fabrication challenge requires constant vigilance. When you look at the dielectrics being used, which are only 1 mm thick with maybe a quarter ounce of copper on each side, you're talking about handling a piece of aluminum foil.

Matties: What was the greatest challenge in achieving that?

Lencioni: It's really our handling—understanding how it is handled, from the day we start it up through to the day we ship it, by all of our employees, gloves and support materials, and things that make it work in each of the machines.

Matties: That material is just so fragile.

Lencioni: Flex circuits by nature have a lot of movement—X, Y, and Z—and they are very hydroscopic by nature. We constantly build a data library to understand material movement and its effect on layer registration. When we launch a product out of engineering we have a pretty good and predictable idea of how that material package is going to behave throughout our processes.

Matties: You've also incorporated some software controls in here. For example, in your plating area you have rectifiers that are not just controlled by operators, but they are controlled by past job specs.

Lencioni: Yes, we record all the data for every load that goes through, and we are able to recall the data from the previous lot so the next time a specific part number repeats itself we are able to produce it exactly how we produced it last time. We live and die by data; we collect it and use it to produce the same part over and over with consistency, that is what our customer is really looking for.

Matties: Were you doing that in your old facility as well?

Lencioni: No, these are all new installations that we had the opportunity to lay out correctly, add cable for it, and put computer systems in to deal with the storage. We have another program called Perfect Test, in which we're measuring the skew and shrinking and stretching the materials experience throughout all of our processes. After we’ve seen it go three or four times through the process, it does become very predictable. Those tools are very important for us in the flex circuit business.

Lenthor_Birthday.jpgMatties: I can see data is obviously a key strategy here. As we walked through you have monitors displaying all sorts of information from “Welcome” and “Happy Birthday” messages at the employee entrance, which is great, to the jobs that are coming onto the shop floor.

Lencioni: Information is the key to communication and getting things done. Efficiency without making mistakes is vital, and we installed monitors that basically tell the people what's coming down the pipeline. Our whole goal of the production control system is for it to act like an airport. Just like an airport, we have the planes departing and coming in. We want to be able to predict what's coming in the work cell so they can then produce the tooling for it and when it hits that work cell it's ready to go. Just like a plane coming in, you've got to have staff there available, you have to reload the plane, refuel it, and get it ready for the next journey.

It's really about understanding what is coming at you. It's kind of situational awareness. We have it in the color coding of our trays to the production control monitors that are instructing operators what job to work on next. There are customers who have various amounts of technology we are building from with many different layer counts, and a lot of sub-travelers are being produced. Flex circuits are kind of like a puzzle. You're producing not only the main travelers, but sub travelers—the base copper-clad dielectrics, coverlay materials, pre-pregs and adhesives, PTFE inserts, and special features such as pull tabs. It all has to come together into a main traveler at some point, so coordinating all those activities to get the product to the main gate is quite a task.

Matties: You're building such an interesting mix of products here, too. You shared some of your customer names here, in the military, and so on. It's really impressive technology.

Lencioni: We're definitely a Tier 3 supplier. We supply to the people that supply to the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines. We take a lot of pride in what we do, and our employees know the product has to work every time. People's lives are in danger if it doesn't.

Matties: What about manufacturing in America? You and I started in this industry 30 years ago when there were 3,000 shops in the U.S., and now we are a few hundred or so. Do you see more coming back?


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