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Custom Assembly, from Telecom to Trucking
Danbury, Wisconsin firm connects telephones to the mother ship, and gives truckers a leg up
Mark Langlois, Senior Editor
Custom Assembly, Inc. (CAI) assembles telecommunication testers used worldwide on blocks manufactured by some of the largest companies on earth, including Siemens, AT&T, TE, 3M, Verizon, Ericsson, and many others.
The test connectors, once assembled, are called Front Tap Shoes, and telecom workers use them to confirm telephone service and record verification. They might test from a central telephone office or a cross-connect box on sidewalks or suspended from power line poles. As the world shifts into cell phone use and away from copper wires, CAI is working toward a similar shift.
Today, CAI allows hardware and software to makes sense of thousands of wires and thousands of phones so that people can stay connected. It also assembles, machines, solders, welds, and custom designs products and parts for other customers. The company employs about 20 people, depending on customer orders.
"We want to be in the next industry, fiber optics or wireless. We're using our connections in telecom to shift with the market," said Kevin Hogie, who founded CAI in 1995. Hogie and CAI Engineering Manager Daryl Andrews spoke to D2P in a telephone interview and submitted written answers to survey questions. "Our strength at CAI is in manufacturing low volume, mechanically based products."
One of CAI's custom products is the NoDoc™ trucking ladder, a portable and durable "ladder assembly for safe, easy entry into and out of trailers used in local, regional, and over-the-road trucking industries." Custom Assembly took that product from concept to shipping. Bumper attachments are available for all common trailer truck bumpers. It attaches to all flatbeds and it also works as a step-stool.
Hogie explained that the ladder locks to the back of a trailer when the truck isn't parked at a loading dock. The 15-pound ladder folds up into a 36-inch by 7-inch by 16-inch rectangle.
Hogie founded CAI after working for a military supplier for nearly 20 years and for a start-up for two. He said the 20-year stint at one company gave him a core group of co-workers, now his friends, who were willing to try out a new opportunity. Some people on CAI's team have worked together for 40 years.
Seeking New Markets
Because the U.S. telecom market is rapidly shifting away from the use of copper, CAI is working on other products in addition to Front Tap Shoes. The company is building a market overseas for its telecom products, and is currently working on South Africa. The company is producing products for New Zealand, Colombia, the Netherlands, and others.
The Front Tap Shoes that CAI produces for telecommunications are each designed to fit with the equipment made by a particular manufacturer. To start, each Front Tap Shoe is designed to allow access to 10, or 25, or 50 or 100 pairs of wires. Telephone pairs are designated either transmit (tip) or receive (ring) lines. Each home has one pair per line. The Front Tap Shoes are designed to allow access to test those lines without mixing them up.
A 100-line block has 200 connections. Each line attaches to the Front Tap Shoes through a pin. The pin could be flat and simply inserted, or it could be a moving pin that is spring-loaded, called a pogo pin. Pogo pins make a connection by a spring-loaded action that allows movement of about ? inch to allow for variation in the test field.
Daryl Andrews, an engineer with CAI, said that a Front Tap Shoe made with 100 pairs of pogo connectors requires extra clamping hardware because the spring action of the pogo pins wants to push the Front Tap Shoe away from the block. "If you're designing for a contact that requires a solid pin, you can usually get by without clamping it because the contact itself will hold the connectors in place," Andrews said.
CAI receives an order and starts designing the Front Tap Shoe with its CAD system. "We do the layout and the configuration before we can manufacture it," Andrews said. The design includes the connectors, the enclosure, the clamps, if required, and the cable ins and outs. Once the design is complete, the company runs the design through the CAM software for making the necessary machine tool programs. Once the tools are approved, CAI makes a prototype and tests it themselves. "If we designed it and we like the prototype, we send it to our customer," Andrews said.
This part of CAI's business comes under engineering services, which consist of research, custom design, fabrication, and numerous steps in between, including re-design of obsolete products, new design and revision, and re-manufacture. Custom Assembly provides prototypes and field trials, as required.
The company has designed and built custom products for the big guys, Hogie said, including AT&T, 3M, and TE, calling the products either problems or opportunities it could assist with.
"TE had a telecom connector block that required a specialized tester. We worked with their engineers and designed a testing product. We have worked with a few inventors on various ideas."
"We are a technically advanced, vertically integrated supplier, but more importantly, we pride ourselves on our commitment to our customers via our skilled and loyal employees. We offer machining, turning, mechanical assembly, light electrical assembly, soldering, sheet metal, and general assembly, to name a few," Hogie responded in a D2P survey.
A core, tried-and-true principle of CAI is to give customers high quality service from start to finish – from the first call, all the way on through consulting, designing, fabricating, prototyping, pricing, manufacturing, shipping, and, finally, debriefing. "It's almost always reciprocated with repeat business. We wholeheartedly believe in, and follow, the Golden Rule," said Hogie.
Customer's Variation Leads to Product Redesign
As one example, one customer took a typical CAI telecom tester, but used it in an "atypical use of testing position," leading to issues with the tester.
Custom Assembly's engineers asked the customer for an example of the equipment they were testing to figure out the issue. The engineers worked with the company's field technicians, the end users, until everyone understood the issue. Custom Assembly custom-designed and manufactured a new tester to reflect the new equipment the company was testing. The wear plate was manufactured 0.032-inch deeper, and a new stop position was added to the stop handle.
The fixes required aluminum, nylon, and stainless steel. Custom Assembly also created an illustrated installation training brochure for the customer's techs.
"We provided the modifications at no cost to the customer, although CAI was not at fault," Hogie said. The customer was apparently very satisfied with the results.
"I just wanted to give you quick feedback on the TP1010 fixtures that were modified," the customer wrote in an email to the company. "I can't even begin to tell you how happy the operators were this past month to have a fixture that functions correctly. As you know, less time fussing means more units being tested and delivered to our customers. These definitely did the job for us in the month of March."
The "fix" involved redesigning the tool's lock, reconfiguring the wear plate, and educating the customer in proper procedures for utilizing the product properly, Hogie said. The company used a CNC machining center, CNC turning center, and custom assembly.
Custom Assembly's mission is to provide "superior quality products or service, timely delivery, customer satisfaction, and competitive pricing." All this comes with the following caveat: "If we do not complete any of these to your approval, we will work with you until you’re satisfied!"
"We believe that developing solid, long term relationships with our vendors and suppliers transfers to our customers," Hogie said. "When our suppliers trust us and deliver honest, fair pricing, we directly transfer that onto our customers."
For more on Custom Assembly, Inc., visit CustomAssemblyinc.com.
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