While most electronics manufacturers are building “smart factories,” Calumet focuses on people-driven processes
As the resurgence of domestic electronic manufacturing continues, PCB manufacturers’ processes are essential to meet the demands of the DoD, aerospace, and commercial sectors. Much of the industry uses next-generation technology to automate manufacturing and create smart factories, but at Calumet Electronics, we rely equally on people to drive more intelligent operations.
In January, Todd Brassard – Calumet’s VP and COO, Dr. Meredith LaBeau – our Director of Process Engineering, and Audra Thurston – our Process Engineer, discussed Calumet Electronics’ focus on people and processes with Nolan Johnson from PCBi007 Magazine. The team’s insights first appeared as an interview in Johnson’s article “Focus on Smart Processes, Not Just Smart Factories.” Below is a recap of their conversation.
There is newfound interest, as well as political pressure, on the part of domestic electronics manufacturers to lead technologies within the United States. Much of this new interest is coming from increasing security concerns as other countries rapidly advance capabilities—at times through nefarious methods—which often already exceed the manufacturing capabilities of the U.S. electronics industry.
During the PCBi007 Magazine interview, Todd Brassard explained that, unlike well-funded state-sponsored circuit board manufacturers common in China, U.S. circuit board manufacturers cannot be rescued with a sweeping injection of government capital. But defense, aerospace and advanced commercial domestic OEMs continue to seek circuit board manufacturers to provide reliable technological solutions. These industries are searching the supply chains for novel leading-edge electronic systems to fulfill their government contract commitments for the next two to three years, but the options are often very limited.
Money can help PCB manufacturers meet these demands, as it enables manufacturers to acquire more modern equipment, attract talented people, and sustain a capable workforce. However, capital limits domestic manufacturers to making just incremental technology improvements.
So how, then, can domestic circuit board manufacturers begin the journey to operating as smart factories?
According to Brassard, it may not always be in a company’s best interest to increase automation. It depends on what is being manufactured. He explained, “When producing stable designs at high volumes, a smart factory with automation offers efficiencies. But when operating in an environment with high design diversity and continually evolving complexity, especially at low volumes, excess automation may actually reduce efficiency, agility and flexibility.”
Brassard suggested that a middle ground, between overly automated smart factories and traditional process improvement, is sometimes more appropriate. These are known as smart processes, or “dynamic processes.” As designs become more complex and tolerance requirements stack up, the need to fine-tune process parameters on a step-by-step basis becomes critical. Dynamic process is where a product is evaluated and fine-tuned at each step of the process to maintain as much of an open tolerance as possible for subsequent steps.
Brassard continued, “To solve immediate problems, we need highly motivated and capable people using advanced equipment and dynamic processes. While much of the electronics industry is building smart factories, at Calumet, we make people and processes a priority – and we focus on people-driven processes.”
During the interview, Dr. Meredith LaBeau said that the company’s most significant contributor to innovation is talent. She told Johnson, “The future of electronics is not going to be reliant on robotics as a holistic system. Great PCB manufacturers should utilize an employee’s mind over their body—intelligence over labor. Where does innovation come from? A robot isn’t innovation. To innovate, we need intelligences—the humans.”
LaBeau further explained how our engineers and technicians are allowed the freedom to make process choices. “We ask engineers to challenge themselves,” she said. “Failure is the best teacher. Of course, we try to limit their failures but they will never understand the full process if they don’t fail. We have a culture where failure is acceptable if you ultimately learn and advance from it.”
In the article, Audra Thurston emphasized Dr. LaBeau’s point by highlighting Calumet’s practice of including young engineers in strategic conversations to help them understand the need to advance and innovate daily. We teach them not to accept the mediocrity that exists across much of manufacturing. Thurston noted, “For example, when we hired a relatively young LPI [Liquid Photo-Imageable] supervisor, we encouraged him to think outside the box. He started making changes and improvements to our solder mask process to make the workflow more consistent, drawing on world-class manufacturing techniques.”
The solder mask department advanced from working every weekend just to keep up with other departments, to smoothly running 800 to 1,000 panels per day, keeping up with the rest of the production. The culture of innovation and efficiency has spread through other departments as well.
Thurston told Johnson that the emphasis on brainpower extends to managers on the floor. “I am still a young engineer,” said Thurston. “There’s another generation coming up me. The most helpful tool we have is asking questions. If a senior engineer can’t give a great answer, it also opens their eyes. We both question why we are doing it this way. Then, the teams work together to answer the question or develop new systemic ideas for traditional process. When the young engineers are asked the questions, sometimes they can’t answer them either. That’s when we take the time and dig in to find out if this is the right way to do it. Can we do it a different way? Is this the smartest way? Let’s find those answers together.”
How is Calumet Electronics navigating these industry changes?
Domestic circuit board manufacturers suffered crippling downfalls from 2001 to 2018: the telecoms crash, housing market crash, and the true killer of our industry—rampant offshoring of circuit board manufacturing by domestic suppliers to low-cost regions, such as Asia. First they pushed manufacturing, then supply chain, then R&D offshore, until the U.S. industry was characterized as dying on the vine in an early 2018 report by the Department of Commerce. Through this period, US. Circuit board manufacturers struggled to survive, let alone invest in the future. It became too difficult to maintain state-of-the-art capabilities. Wage stagnation turned off career interest in electronics manufacturing across the nation.
Calumet demonstrated resilience through these difficult times. We remained committed to domestic manufacturing and local jobs by resisting the lure of low-cost circuit boards from offshore suppliers. We also continue to learn important lessons about world class manufacturing principles, empowering people, and reducing waste. The principles of world class manufacturing do not go out of style in the face of smart factories. The concepts of the smart factory are a subset of the principles of world class manufacturing, not the other way around.
As Calumet continuously improves, so do career opportunities at the company. Regardless of the level of automation, smart factories and manual factories have something in common¬—both require great people.
Calumet strives to be the kind of safe, secure and sustainable solution the United States needs, not just for prototyping, but for volume as well. We’re on the precipice of something exciting and novel. Calumet is continuing to work with DoD primes to develop reliable and robust next-generation solutions by harnessing the minds of our employees, creating smarter processes.
The benefits of this philosophy are boundless. It gives Calumet an advantage over other PCB suppliers in developing robust technology solutions that surpass other countries for DoD and commercial market segments, protecting domestic security interests and the future of American electronics manufacturing.
Calumet Electronics’ distinct culture has proven to be successful and measurably effective.