Custom Plating Meets RF Conductivity Needs in High-Growth Telecom Industry
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Parts electroplated by Professional Plating for the telecommunications industry
Photo courtesy of Professional Plating, Inc.
For one Minnesota-based electroplater, the key to success isn't about the chemistry, unless you mean the cooperative relationships that the company builds with its customers.
Electroplating, a mature metal finishing process that uses electrical current to coat a conductive object immersed in a chemical solution (www.jobshop.com/techinfo/metalfinplatingdef.shtml), is a method widely used to impart critical properties--such as corrosion resistance, wear resistance, or electrical conductivity--to parts used in high-performance applications. Although it's been used since the 19th century, electroplating doesn't necessarily lack opportunities to apply the process in clever ways.
One company that welcomes these opportunities is Professional Plating, Inc. (www.proplate.com), an Anoka, Minnesota-based company that offers electroplating services ranging from gold, silver, and palladium plating, to rhodium, nickel, and tin plating, among others. The company, which focuses on plating of small- to medium-sized parts for technical and performance-oriented applications, has become quite adept at configuring customized electroplating processes to meet the unique needs of its customers in industries such as telecom, aerospace, orthodontics, medical, and computers.
At the Schaumburg (Illinois) Design-2-Part Show in May, Professional Plating exhibited several intriguing samples of its capabilities, including one part that required the use of a plating rod to reach an internal area of the part that was otherwise inaccessible.
Craig Ingalls, president of Professional Plating, talked with D2P recently about some of the company's electroplating applications, particularly in the telecom industry; the company's role as a process innovator; and how it approaches customer relationships.
D2P: Professional Plating prides itself on being process innovators, having served many customers "whose application did not seem at first to lend itself to consistent electroplating," according to your website. What types of process innovations have you developed?
Craig Ingalls (CI): What we have done is not in terms of chemistry, which is, perhaps, what you would first think about when you think of electroplating innovations. That isn't the case here. What we have focused on is the material handling aspects, the mechanical aspects. It seems that, invariably, when there's a plating challenge, it's about a difficult geometry to a part. Parts stick together, they nest, they intertwine, they don't mix well; they're fragile, they bend, they break, they have deep dark blind holes--on and on and on.
The chemistries are robust, well engineered, and commercially available. It's getting the parts to move properly, to orient properly, that has always been the challenge. So that's where we've focused our engineering efforts--it's more on the mechanical side than the chemical side.
Those are the innovations we bring to it. As we approach what I call these difficult to plate parts--by which I mean geometry--we will design and develop tools (mechanical tools), fixtures, and methods to get the chemistry to work in conjunction with the part.
D2P: How does your understanding of unique customer needs inform your development of proprietary process innovations?
CI: It drives it. We are not a research and development organization. First and foremost, we are a service organization, and we don't develop a tool or a new method until the need has been presented to us by a customer. It is the uniqueness of each customer's part that drives the need for innovation. The customer is, in our opinion, perfectly free to design a shape that is optimal and appropriate to their needs without regard to the mandates of electroplating. And the part shape is intrinsic and crucial to the successful outcome. We take it as our mission to not constrain the customer, but to allow the customer to design freely, and we'll figure out the process for them.
D2P: What's an approximate range of dimensions for the small to medium size parts that you plate?
CI: On the small side, down to maybe 0.010 (ten thousandths of an inch) inch as a given dimension, perhaps a diameter or a length. We do parts of that dimension routinely. That's pretty small, and it's driven by the miniaturization of electronics. Extremely densely-packaged electronic circuit boards are demanding ever smaller interconnect devices and discrete components that are populated on the board. We do a lot of that work.
We also do quite a bit of work in the size of a dollar bill. And then the largest parts that we're operating with are probably about, oh, say, 12 to 15 inches square--small breadbox, small tackle box size. But that would be as large as we go, just over a foot.
D2P: Can you talk about some of the company's work on telecom parts, including some of the particular strengths that Professional Plating is able to bring to these applications?
CI: To me, from an electroplating perspective here at Professional Plating, telecom divides itself into two major categories. One would be the electrical or electronic components, which really don't distinguish themselves from any other electronic component. The other side of telecom is quite unique, and that would be the radio frequency (RF) conductivity aspects of it--the so-called waveguides, the devices that are actually working in the cellular towers, transmitting signals from tower to tower. There's an awful lot of silver plating that's going on in that regard, and a lot of that is on plastic. We do quite a bit of work in that arena. Silver is the most conductive metal of all metals known to man, and is used because of that for radio frequency communication, as a conductor. We do work in both sides of the arena--the electronic components and the silver for radio frequency.
What we bring to the table is a lot of knowledge about fixturing. Silver is a fairly challenging metal to plate, relative to the other metals. It's demanding in terms of surface cleanliness of the base part in order to ensure good adhesion. It is very sensitive to some other physical parameters, so you can get a very non-uniform deposit in terms of thickness, which can drive cost.
It takes a lot of care in terms of tooling and fixturing to ensure that you're getting uniformly thick deposits that exceed the minimum requirement, and yet don't become wasteful (and become a cost driver for everybody involved). That's something that I think a lot of people don't think about, because if it looks good, the assumption is that it is good. But it may be intrinsically or inherently too expensive, and people could be paying a premium for waste. We work very hard to manage the dynamics of the plating process to prevent that from occurring.
Then, on the other side of telecom, there's a lot of gold plating for electrical interconnect devices--pins, sockets, and relay contacts. That's a real stock in trade to us--barrel plating of precious metals.
D2P: For parts used in telecom applications, what are some of the common technical needs or engineering challenges that Professional Plating is able to solve?
CI: Consistency of thickness and managing the consistency of performance with complex geometries; tooling, fixturing, developing proprietary material handling--high-volume, cost-effective handling solutions. That's where it comes back to; it keeps coming back to mechanical design.
D2P: How are you able to provide a consistently high level of quality?
CI: Train, train, train; never stop training. We are ISO 9000 certified we are AS9100 certified, and we are currently working on our Nadcap 7108 certification. All of it speaks to documenting thoroughly what you intend to do and then doing it the way you plan to do it, which is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish.
Our approach is to take intelligent individuals, preferably without any prior electroplating experience, and train them to follow instructions diligently. Then, that creates for us the demand to keep the job interesting, if you're following rote instructions. So that becomes another challenge--to find ways to keep people's minds engaged while they're doing this thing in a decidedly uncreative way. So there's a second aspect to this: to engage people in the continual improvement in a disciplined way. You can't experiment without a plan, but everybody is encouraged to experiment within the constraints of a plan. At the same time that we are training our people to do it in a lock-step way, we are also training them how to be creative, simultaneously. And that's our operating philosophy. That's one of the things that we believe distinguishes us from a lot of our competitors. Are we successful? Ninety seven percent of the time we are. We're working on 98.
D2P: What are some examples of ways that you're able to engineer an electroplating process for a customer's parts?
CI: One of the parts that you saw [at the Schaumburg D2P Show] was a tube about an eighth of an inch (1/8-inch) in diameter, and about 12 inches long, and was open on both ends. The requirement was to get the gold onto the inside of the tube, without any on the outside, which is generally considered to be an impossible task--getting gold to go in a tube like that. And we did it; we succeeded. We do it very well, and we do them by the thousands of tubes every month.
If a competitor came in and looked at what we were doing, they'd say, "Oh, of course; it makes perfect sense." There's nothing to what we're doing that's genius or radical or revolutionary. But what we are doing is taking the time to get some smart people together and say, "How are we going to get there from here?" What I see a lot of, is people who aren't engaged in being creative. They are indifferent to the opportunities in front of them; they want to do the same thing [over and over]--it's kind of an auto-pilot mentality.
D2P: It sounds like you recognize the opportunities, whereas some people, if they're a little bit indifferent to the opportunities and would prefer to do things on automatic pilot, don't even see the opportunity, let alone come up with a solution.
CI: Right. Again, what we're doing here may be a little bit clever sometimes, but it's not genius. We didn't design silicon chips here; we're just doing what people have been doing for 150 years, but have a measure of passion for it.
D2P: It sounds like a mindset that's key.
CI: Yeah, I think it is.
D2P: What does Professional Plating do to understand its customers' manufacturing challenges and act as a problem solver on their behalf?
CI: There's a balance there. The first question we ask ourselves in a new customer relationship is, "How engaged does that new customer want to be?" We're trying to gauge our relationship there. There are some customers who aren't staffed or equipped, or don't have the mindset to want to be involved. And at the other extreme, we have customers who are passionate and curious, and want to be involved in a very extreme way. So our first step is to learn that dynamic, and how we're going to interact with those people.
Having said that, we hope for a minimum level of interaction with our customers. There have been cases where we have elected to discontinue the relationship because we could not engage our customers sufficiently in the dialogue on a difficult part project. It becomes a setup for failure, because there has to be--on these challenging parts--there has be a cooperation, there has to be a conversation: What is its fitness for use, what's a realistic quality standard? What are you looking for, what are your expectations?
So we'll go through this exercise; it's iterative, it's 'learn as you go,' till we develop those connections. The other thing we do is make contact with our customers on more than one level. We strive to develop relationships between our technical staff and their technical staff, and include the sales people as a carbon copy, but not to let the logistics managers become the gatekeepers for the technical information. We need that parallel communication between all parties.
We know what level of conversation needs to occur to ensure success, and we're gently, kindly persistent to get that. We cannot operate in a vacuum. The customer expectations, whether they understand it or not, are too exacting, too particular, for us not to be in close contact with the customers. Or, six months down the road, you're going to get that phone call saying 'Everything out in the field is failing.' And that's the fear of every manufacturer, to get that particular phone call.
D2P: What are Professional Plating's goals for the future? What, if any, current developments or trends are impacting how you prepare for the future as a provider of electroplating services?
CI: Globalization, deficit spending, the arguments both at the state and the federal level about taxes versus revenue; healthcare costs. I'm a small business owner, and I'm watching these conversations and going, 'These have meaningful and dramatic impacts on the potential health of my little business.' For small manufacturers in this country, this is like a roller coaster, unless you have some truly unique idea, and you're in that original growth phase. But for us, for people operating in stable technologies, it's an up and down world.
So what we are doing, and my response to that, is to excel. I had heard a fellow one time, many years ago at a business conference. He said, 'Really, you've got four competitors: You've got your cost structure, you've got your quality issues, you've got your internal communications, and you've got the guy down the street. If you conquer the first three competitors, the fourth one--the guy down the street--doesn't have a chance.'
So we're positioning ourselves for the future by not worrying about the guy down the street. We will just continue to improve our own performance. We just aim to be the best, most service-oriented, cost-effective electroplater around, and we'll keep selling that.
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