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Kodiak Assembly Solutions
'Doing it Right' in the USA
An Austin, Texas-based electronics contract manufacturer offers a rare combination of speed and consistently high quality, along with engineering support and responsive customer service
Kodiak Assembly Solutions (www.kodiakassembly.com) is an electronic manufacturing services company that provides printed circuit board assembly, test, and integration services to companies throughout the United States. The ISO 9001:2008 certified and RoHS compliant company prides itself on its consistent high quality and responsive customer service. Each customer has a dedicated program manager with back up contact information, according to Kodiak Assembly Vice President Mike Harlow, who adds that component substitutions are not allowed without written authorization from the customer.
"We are very responsive to customer requested changes to the product, often times even as the product is a 'work in progress," he said in an e-mail response. "Our on time delivery record is consistently above 97% on time."
Mike Harlow talked with Design2Part Magazine recently about Kodiak Assembly's capabilities, the markets in which the company operates, and how it's been able to thrive in an industry that's been hit particularly hard by offshoring.
D2P: Can you briefly describe what you offer in assembly, test, and integration services?
Mike Harlow: As an electronics contract manufacturer, our core competency is printed circuit board assembly, specifically surface mount technology printed circuit boards. We assemble everything from low technology boards, meaning all through-hole components, which have been around for decades, to some very complex surface mount printed circuit board assemblies. Our surface mount lines here can place some of the smallest packages that are available in the semiconductor industry today, so that is our core competency, and we have a very wide range of technologies that we can deal with there.
From a test standpoint, we have two Flying Probe test platforms in house and one automated optical inspection test platform that's also known as AOI. Then we have in-circuit tests available that we do for some customers; however, we do outsource that to some companies [where] that's all they do, is have the various types of in-circuit testers and fixtures that they can build for them.
From an integration standpoint, most contract manufacturers try to add as much value to the customer as they can, not only doing the printed circuit board assemblies and testing them, but integrating them into some sort of an enclosure. Pretty much every printed circuit board assembly goes into some sort of enclosure, and so we do that—from small plastic type enclosures, everything up to large metal, computer-looking type chassis.
Then we're loading software, power supplies, cable, custom cable assemblies, and those kinds of things, into those assemblies. We're usually doing some sort of functional test on the completed system after it's all integrated together. That's what most of our production customers require. They want us to take it from soup to nuts, from beginning to end, and deliver a tested, working finished product to them.
D2P: The markets that you serve are pretty diverse, and many of them are high-tech, including everything from radio frequency solutions to solar and renewable energy systems. Is there any particular market or markets that you're most involved in at this point?
MH: We do a lot of prototyping and new product introduction for those types of products for some of our customers. But many of those things do end up getting outsourced to the Asian countries because of the volume. The same thing with desktop computers and laptops; those are commodities.
Over the last couple of years, our business has kind of taken a turn more towards the mobile type devices. As you know, hand held devices, be they cell phones, PDAs, e-Books: all those kind of hand held devices have become pretty invasive into everybody's world these days. In that area, once again, we're pretty much involved in the first year of development of those types of things.
One industry that's really blown up in the last year is the oil and gas exploration. You see in the news all the time about how the oil and gas industry has got some new life breathed into it in the last year or two, technology like fracking and those kinds of things. We've had a lot of companies, especially coming out of the Houston area, and the Central Texas area, that have come to us with all kinds of needs for their industry. So we've seen a real upside in those types of opportunities from those kinds of customers.
RF [applications] has been around for quite a while now and continues, as everything continues to go wireless. Those types of customers are very active. And, of course, the solar/ renewable energy push is still alive and well as companies are getting some money from the government to kind of push those industries forward and try and get away from the dependence on foreign oil, in particular. We've seen a lot of activity there as well.
D2P: How would you describe the success of your business over the past year?
MH: We're entering our eighth year of business, and for the first seven years, we have consistently grown 20 to 25 percent per year. In 2011, the second half of our year slowed down just a little bit. So we're going to end up being about flat from 2010 to 2011. The forecasts that we've been given from our current customer base, combined with the forecasts of some of our new production customers that we've just recently engaged with, have allowed us to forecast once again a 20 to 25 percent growth for 2012.
D2P: How has Kodiak Assembly managed to not only stay afloat, but to thrive at the same time that unfavorable competitive conditions are happening around you?
MH: We serve a niche here at Kodiak and in Texas. We purposely don't try to compete with the guys that are making cell phones and laptops and desktop computers over there. The margins in those industries are so thin; a nickel and a dime makes sometimes all the difference to them. We're just not interested in competing in those markets. We try to stay in a niche that is a good fit for us, and where we know we can serve the customers' needs better than the offshore companies. (See Kodiak's reshoring example in "Harry Moser Wants You to Join the Reshoring Movement")
D2P: Could you tell us how the flying probe testers and other technologies contribute to your quality-centered processes?
MH: Sure. The flying probe testers and the automated optical inspection machines help flush out any sort of manufacturing issues that might have occurred during the manufacturing process. And that can be from numerous things, from the customer data being wrong, to us getting a reel of parts that may have some wrong parts dispersed throughout the 500,000-piece reel.
So when you have hundreds of thousands of components on a printed circuit board, that represents tens of thousands of solder joints on that board, where each component may have 10 to 100 leads on it to get soldered down. You have a lot of opportunities for things to happen, right? So those machines, the flying probe testers and the AOI machines, even though they go about it in a different way, flush out any sort of manufacturing issues that might have occurred here in our processes, so that we catch them, fix them, retest the board, and then those sort of issues never leave our building. That's how we've earned a reputation for very high first pass yields and consistent quality.
D2P: One of the company's strengths is its flexible precision equipment. Can you tell us what it is about the Fuji line that gives you the flexibility for a high-mix environment, as well as scalability to ramp up?
MH: Yes. The footprint of these new pick and place machines, surface mount lines, is about a third the size that it used to be. They have feeders on both sides; they can be programmed offline, meaning our programmers can be sitting in their offices, program the machine to populate a particular circuit board from their office, upload that program onto our internal network here in the building to that machine within minutes. The feeders, residing on both sides of the machine, can quickly be loaded with reels of components. And from the time we start setting up and programming a machine for a particular printed circuit board, we can be running that board within hours.
Whereas, in the older days, and with similar equipment still being used today by many contract manufacturers, it could take a day or more to do that. So that's why they allow us to be so flexible in doing prototyping for customers. But because they are high-speed, world class type pick and place machines, chip shooters that will place 40, 50,000 parts per hour (and the machines behind them will place 10 or 20,000 parts per hour), obviously, they can handle some pretty high production needs as well.
D2P: Can you talk a little bit about the engineering support and how that helps customers?
MH: Sure. One thing that we do for our customers is what we call DFM and DFT. That stands for Design for Manufacturability, and Design for Test. What that means is, I tell our customers, "As you design your printed circuit board, before you have us go off and buy your raw fabricated boards and all the components and everything, send us your data for your board, electronically. We will have our process engineers go over your data and look for any improvements that we could offer to you for you to make that would save you some time and money in our manufacturing process.
Sometimes our customers have very good engineering departments, but they've never really worked in a manufacturing facility and know what all the processes are that we go through to populate a printed circuit board. So, there are many times when we can look at their data before any money gets spent, and make some suggestions to them that are typically pretty simple suggestions. And by making those changes, it will save them time and money in the manufacturing process. That's one area that we offer to our customers that, I think, some contract manufacturers our size don't have the ability to offer.
We do custom thermal profiles for every printed circuit board that we do. Some companies just kind of have a small, medium, and large sort of setup, and we don't do that. We take a raw printed circuit board, the raw board itself, and we use something called a mole that has thermocouplers with wires, and we tape those thermocouplers down on the pads on the board and run it through our reflow ovens and develop a custom profile that can involve anywhere from seven to 10 zones during the reflow process. And we do that for every single board, a custom profile.
On the front end of that process, we also do custom designed solder stencils. Many of our competitors just send the customer data off and say, "Make a stencil." We have our process engineers look at that data, and, in some cases, because of some of the complex integrated circuits and the packages on there, we might change up the apertures on the solder stencils—make them a little smaller, a little bigger, to allow for some anomalies that we think are going to occur in that reflow process that I just talked about. We design the stencil, send it off to the stencil company, and then have them make it to our specifications, not necessarily what the customer sent. So those are some of the engineering support things that we do that we feel differentiates our company from some others.
David Gaines contributed to this story.
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