Silicon Valley Firm Provides Tech Clients with End-to-End Manufacturing

Sheet Metal Manufacturing
Value-added assembly: An Airtronics associate installs pressure regulators in a pneumatic controller box used in the fabrication of semiconductors
Photo courtesy of Airtronics

San Jose's Airtronics blends custom sheet metal design, engineering, and fabrication with value-added manufacturing

It takes just the right combination of highly-skilled employees, high-tech equipment and processes, robust software, and in-depth experience to succeed as a contract manufacturer in today's hyper-competitive global marketplace. But their success is even more impressive when you consider the fact that many contract manufacturers nowadays are taking on the role formerly performed by OEMs--that of manufacturing a precision product from start to finish. One Northern California sheet metal fabrication company, Airtronics Metal Products, Inc., is deftly riding this "wave of the present." Operating with 104 employees out of San Jose, Calif., Airtronics is the quintessence of the vertically-integrated, 21st Century contract manufacturer--one that handles complete projects in addition to producing precision, fully-finished parts and components.

At Airtronics, engineers manage the manufacturing process and perform intricate design work, as well as testing and quality assurance. Meanwhile, complex enterprise resource planning (ERP) software controls and maintains almost everything that happens on the plant floor and in engineering and administrative offices. Manufacturing machinery is monitored by an intricate SRP system, and some work areas are automated, using robots to load and unload press brakes.

In evidence everywhere at the company's 100,000-plus square-foot manufacturing facility is expensive, high-tech CNC production machinery, ranging from shearing and notching equipment to laser cutting and punching machinery. Airtronics also offers robotic and manual forming, spot welding and standard welding, deburring, graining, and machining. Additional services include hardware procurement, installation and assembly, painting (wet and powder), and silk-screening.

The company has a motto that "no job is too large or too small." Indeed, Airtronics handles a wide variety of different sheet metal parts and components, including card-cage chassis, racks, cases, and enclosures, as well as cabinets, mounting rails, brackets, weldments, and door skins. The company performs work on computer network equipment, consumer electronics cases, architectural panels, and enclosures for medical devices and food processing equipment. As a critical supplier, the fabrication company also manufactures a series of controller boxes for a maker of semiconductor fabrication equipment.

Machining is handled in an 8,000 square-foot machine shop, which operates in a clean-controlled environment with full shop floor controls and state-of-the-art CNC mills, lathes, and drills. Nearly 20% of the factory floor is devoted to accomplishing mechanical and electromechanical assembly (utilizing automated assembly and subassembly cells), quality assurance monitoring, and final testing and shipping.

"I think that one of the keys to handling a large variety of different sheet metal parts is the various types of equipment that we have," says Jeff Burke, the CEO and president of Airtronics. "For example, we have production cells in place for higher volume card cages and brackets. We also have an Amada Apelio machine to be quicker on the low-volume products, from one to ten pieces. The Apelio does CNC punching and CO2 laser cutting. We also have what's called a fast-track operation, where you have the Apelio machine with a press brake and some welding operations. This enables us to do the small, quick runs, as well as prototypes. We can also handle large parts: The biggest part that we can fit through our CNC equipment and our laser cutting machine is 60 inches x 144 inches."

One-Piece Card Guide Design Provides EMI Shielding

An area of particular importance to Airtronics is problem solving, which Jim Ellis, the company's vice president of engineering, demonstrated when he designed a patent-pending, one-piece card guide assembly for a client's network server system. "This is a router card, a slide-in computer board in a rack-mount assembly for network servers," Ellis explains. "In the rack-mount assembly are the guides that align the boards to the backplane. These one-piece card guides came up when we had a couple of customers who were having issues with EMI (electromagnetic interference) leakage on the board. They were trying to make a guide, put beryllium copper on it, and then add different material types or foam gasketing to try to seal it."

What Ellis came up with--inside the same card guide--are spring fingers that are formed at the same time, so electrical contact remains constant. As a result, the parts were able to hold conductivity all the way through, which created the shield that the client needed. "So we made the card guides conductive, top and bottom, without adding another piece of material or a different type of material," Ellis continues. "Quite often, they will mold them in plastic and then put metal on them. We were able to form this in one piece of metal."

Because the part has never been made in a single type of material, Airtronics's technology is proprietary and awaits a patent. "What it allows us to do, for cost effectiveness, is to make full guide plates and not have to add beryllium copper, or any other material, which increases the cost," says Ellis. "They were once about $2.50 per guide, and we were able to make them for 15 cents each. We were able to cut out all of the assembly time, because in the fabrication step, it's embedded in the process of making the card guides."

In one case, the company assisted a Menlo Park, Calif., research and development firm on a complex project that had Airtronics designing, engineering, and manufacturing a battery-service trailer (BST) that would be used to charge 2,048 GPS batteries during U.S. National Guard field training exercises. The job required Airtronics to modify and outfit a 48-foot refrigerated trailer that would eventually house lithium-ion batteries and other electronics equipment. A major portion of the project was the design, installation, and fabrication of the equipment racks.

After meeting with the client, Airtronics developed a series of eight card racks to house the charging stations. "We created ΒΌ-inch thick air plenums to hold the racks to run the refrigerated air system down below, so we could have positive draw-down through the charging," Ellis remembers. "They had to be able to charge 2,048 batteries overnight. So we designed a complete structure, with the help of Chris Sattler, our electrical engineer. It was an added plus to have him on the staff."

Besides all of the electrical design, Airtronics also handled all of the mechanical design work. The company installed all of the electrical systems, all of the charging stations, and plumbed the entire cooling system. In addition, company engineers and installers had to change the hydraulics on the trailer's air ride system on the first unit.

"We had to install four new 4-foot x 3-foot holding cabinets that each hold about 70 feet of cable," says Ellis. "We had the first unit out in eight weeks, from the initial design concept all the way through to final production. Originally, we had four months to build it, but then they had to get it to one of the sites very quickly. The first one was sent to a base in Huntsville, Alabama, and one of them is in California at Fort Hunter-Liggett, and they've now been sent all over the U.S."

Last year, Airtronics was awarded a contract by Chicago-based Vacant Property Security (VPS) to manufacture components of a new steel reinforcement system that's being used to secure vacant properties in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Houston (see Airtronics to Manufacture Steel System Components to Protect Vacant Properties). The system consists of modular window guards, steel doors, and adjustable steel sheeting, which VPS technicians fit externally over property openings to eliminate leverage points where a thief could use a crowbar to break in. In a statement announcing the contract, VPS Director of U.S. Operations Timothy McMahon described working with Airtronics as a very positive experience. "Their sense of urgency, innovative approach to exceeding our specifications, and proactively solving problems is extraordinary," he said.

Automation, Tooling Library Help Customers Reduce Costs

One of the keys to cost-effectively operating a modern contract manufacturing plant involves utilizing automation and computerized production systems. The CNC punch press area at Airtronics consists of two CNC press brakes--an 8-foot and a 10-foot model--that utilize robotic loaders and unloaders.

"What these pieces of equipment allow us to do, once we get any type of volume--anywhere from 200 to thousands of parts--is to run the parts on the CNC press brakes in a fully-automated fashion, so there is no labor on either one," Burke explains. "This helps us compete with some of the offshore pricing. We also have an automated wash line and primering line for our paint department. The two lines prep all of our parts prior to painting or powder coating. The number one advantage is that it makes us more competitive with the offshore companies. We did an ROI on these areas when we first got the equipment, and I think that within six months, the equipment paid for itself."

Airtronics also maintains an online tooling library, which enables clients to download tools for their own SolidWorks model designs. "We've created an extensive tooling library that offers special part features that we design and develop in SolidWorks," says Ellis. "Ninety percent of this tooling is for the punch presses, but we also have press brake tooling. From our standpoint, the clients are kind of designing themselves into our company. We put the library on our website, so it's easy access for everyone."

Not only has the tooling library expedited design time for clients, but they don't have to buy any additional tooling for special features. "So, for example, they can look at a vast display of card guides, lances, embosses, and all kinds of special features that we already have in our tooling inventory," Ellis explains. "Anytime you have to buy special tooling, it's about two weeks lead time, so this cuts costs. The minimal cost on special tooling is about $2,500, so if they can use our tooling library it diminishes the cost by at least that much."

ERP System Controls and Monitors Plant Processes

An enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, Epicor Vantage, allows the company to track production projects for efficiency, cost effectiveness, and quality control. "The ERP system allows us to track all of our work throughout all of our operations," Burke states proudly. "It's a very strong financial and manufacturing package. It covers everything: administration, manufacturing, engineering, and other related areas. We've added computer stations throughout the shop floor, so our machine operators can clock in and out of their jobs through the computer. All of the drawings that they require are online too. There is no traveler package that goes with the job; there is only a movement ticket. So this makes us a 95% paperless operation. This computer system has saved us a lot of time, effort, and money."

The company's CEO says that plant procedures are much more efficient because operators aren't always looking for drawings, they don't have to make sure they have all of the pages that go with the job, and, if there is a revision change, they can find it very easily. "If there is a revision change to the job, we can immediately shut the job down right where it sits, and operators can't get in or out of the job until we've made all of the necessary changes," says Burke. "We have this system hooked up on a central, networked server system; therefore, we can automatically send our CAD/CAM programs right out to the shop floor."

Another big benefit of the company's ERP system is that engineers and managers can walk to any workstation in the shop and see, in real-time, exactly what a part costs. "As an operator is signing on the job, all of the true job costs are added on immediately," Ellis says. "So if we see a job overrunning cost, we can make other moves to save money, either by running it on another machine or with a different process completely. And with this system, we can close out the month's expenses and revenue report within three days, instead of weeks."

Burke says that value-added manufacturing is an important part of the company's service offering. "It's primarily an area of assembly where we go beyond sheet metal fabrication," he explains. "We actually install circuit boards; we also insert wiring, power supplies, and fans. These are all value-added activities for the customer. We also handle painting and silk screening in-house, although we send out the plating and anodizing. Our OEMs like the fact that we handle some level of assembly before we send out the parts. We can make large assemblies or subassemblies. We also handle full mechanical and electronic design work for our clients."

Much of the company's value-added assembly work is performed in "clean-room-like" conditions, where electrostatic precautions and strict climate control are maintained. "This is the next level beyond sheet metal fabrication, so it needs to have a cleaner environment," Burke points out. "The area has a dropped ceiling, fluorescent lighting, specially-waxed floors, and separate work cells for each product. We make the room electro-statically sound so that we don't generate any static, which is important when we're dealing with PC boards. Everything needs to be grounded. So we use a special ESD wax on floor, we wear heel straps and wrist bands, and we wear smocks to keep dirt and dust off of the parts."

ISO 13485 Certification Opens New Doors

Earlier this year, Airtronics announced that it had received ISO 13485:2003 certification, a major milestone on its path to expanding into the medical device industry. At the same time, the company announced that it had upgraded its previous ISO 9001:2000 certification to the newer ISO 9001:2008 standard. To become ISO 13485 certified, companies must implement and maintain a medical device Quality Management System (QMS) that provides tight change control and full traceability, and which ensures that steps have been taken to identify, manage, and minimize the risks involved in the design, manufacture, and distribution of medical devices.

"We've been ISO 9001 certified for years," Burke noted. "We added the medical ISO 13485 certification so that we can expand more of our business into the medical parts area. Medical customers tend to stay with U.S. suppliers, because they don't like to go offshore with their parts. They need to get material certifications, and be able to trust those certifications. I think it's an industry that will always be in the U.S. If the parts are going to be used inside the body, the parts have to be inspected by the FDA. All of the medical parts that we make, however, are for machines used outside of the body."

To work on the medical parts, Burke says that the company has refined some of its production processes and added a couple of new processes, such as risk assessment. One measure was to add a wireless, statistical process control (SPC) system on the manufacturing floor. The system utilizes wireless router calipers that allow staff members to hit a button to transmit data to the company's computer network. "This SPC system allows us to track our dimensional qualities in real time," says Burke. "This is a wireless, digital caliper that sends the data right into our computer network. Instead of an old-style dial, it has an LCD screen. This is an important tool for doing the medical parts. The medical OEMs will give us the critical dimensions on their drawings, and we have to perform a specific SPC sampling plan. Without this type of a system in place, it would be very cumbersome to generate this data."

Airtronics also has plans to obtain AS9000 certification for aerospace parts and components. The certification would also allow the company to get more involved in manufacturing parts for military aerospace projects. The fabrication company has plans to start making ruggedized military parts for chassis, racks, and enclosures, and parts that go into military vehicles. "We're working on a ruggedized PC enclosure that will be a stand-alone product for the military," Ellis reported. "The PC has to have the ability to withstand high force in a plane and on the ground in a Hummer."

Company Recognized for Contributions to San Jose Economy

Last year, the City of San Jose, Calif., recognized Airtronics in a commendation that cited the benefits the company provides to the San Jose economy and community. The commendation recognized Airtronics "for its significant and continued contributions to the region's economic vitality through its participation in the Enterprise Zone Hiring Credit Program," which resulted in the creation of more than 70 jobs for economically and otherwise disadvantaged individuals. The commendation also recognized the company for its "focus on continuous improvement and exceptional quality;" as well as its "investment in the education of tomorrow's mechanical engineers" through an outreach program with California State University, San Jose.

"California has 45 Enterprise Zones, which were set up to encourage manufacturers to hire local employees," Burke explained. "Last year, through a merger with one of our competitors, we were able to increase our employee level. We went from 72 employees to about 104. We really improved our hiring credits, which is what you're trying to get from the Enterprise Zones."

Burke says that the hiring tax credits allow Airtronics to keep its business rooted in the Bay Area, but some politicians are trying to cut the program. "This could force a lot of businesses in the Enterprise Zones to go out of business or move out of state," says the company president. "It's hard to stay competitive in the Silicon Valley because of the high costs of doing business. If it is taken away, we will definitely not do business in California. And, it's not just the jobs we would take with us, it's also the jobs of all our suppliers in the area. So we think that the Enterprise Zones are very important."

Airtronics ( has partnered with two local universities: California State University-San Jose, and Stanford University. The fabrication company hosts class tours so professors and students can see how a fully-functioning manufacturing plant operates. "We provide shop tours, give classroom presentations, and offer students design assistance," says Burke. "We have alliances with professors at both colleges, and next year, we're going to offer an internship for one of the students."

Students are also invited to bring their own project ideas to the plant, where they can sit down and brainstorm with Airtronics's engineers, and get feedback on their ideas. "The students present the concept side of their ideas, while we go over the manufacturing side," says Ellis. "Our goal, by introducing ourselves early enough, is to get these engineering students to understand what it really takes to design and manufacture parts or a complete product. I don't think you see a lot of manufacturing firms doing this nowadays." 

Airtronics was contracted to design and equip a battery-service trailer (BST) capable of charging 2,048 lithium-ion batteries overnight. The batteries are used in the GPS systems worn by the soldiers during training exercises. The GPS system is used in concert with a laser tag-like system to create a 3-D model of every maneuver, so trainers can critique what went right and wrong.

The company's mission was to design, fabricate, and install 16 special equipment racks to house the charging units; fan tray and fire-suppression systems, HVAC and duct systems. Building the racks was the easy part; the challenges were designing and planning the electrical systems to allow powering the trailer from four separate external generators, and balancing the airflow through each rack. 

Jim Ellis, vice president of engineering, designed the racks, cooling system, and mechanical structures. Chris Sattler, quality service manager and electrical engineer, designed the electrical system and oversaw the installation of the electrical and cooling systems. Chris's prior military experience gave him first-hand knowledge of the field operations and environmental conditions he should factor into the system designs.

Airtronics delivered the trailer ahead of schedule and within budget. The customer was so pleased with the result that they ordered two more trailers.

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