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Telecom Parts Manufacturers Step Up to Provide Fast Turnarounds for Critical Applications
Expertise in specialty materials and new product introductions are valued strengths in an industry defined by speed to market and strict quality control
Whether they function as electrical conductors or insulators, heat dissipaters, or protectors of sensitive circuitry, telecommunications parts and components have critical roles to play in today's increasingly connected world. Along with the pressures of getting to market quickly, manufacturers of telecom parts face a variety of challenging requirements relating to heat management, material strength, flame retardance, cable management, and ease of assembly, as well as style and aesthetics. Today, as communications technology--whether it's a mobile phone antenna or a wireless networking device--quickly reaches every corner of the globe, American contract manufacturers are gearing up for the increased production and stringent quality requirements.
One company that's well aware of the requirements for precision telecom parts is Freetech Plastics (www.freetechplastics.com), a Fremont, Calif.-based company that pressure forms and machines parts from a variety of high-tech plastics. Freetech's primary manufacturing process is pressure forming, but the company also handles complex machining, fabrication, and assembly. Most of its work is plastic fabrication, machining components, and then bonding them into other parts to make an assembly. A finished telecom part, such as a bezel, for example, may incorporate several individual parts. Some parts have multiple light pipes--maybe a dozen or more. These precision parts might need labels, ball studs, and threaded inserts. In a large telecom rack system, there could be anywhere from four to ten parts, says Jack Stritch, vice president of business development for Freetech Plastics.
"Style always seems to be important to telecom companies, especially for up-and-coming telecom companies that want to make an impression in their marketplace," says Stritch. "But it can't be all about style and miss out on functionality. Heat management, heat dissipation, cable management, and cleanliness are all important aspects in combination with the style that we can provide. Also important is ease of assembly: Many of the parts that we do are going into assemblies that ship all over the globe. These parts are going to be used in combination with multiple parts and pieces, so color needs to be maintained, especially if the OEM is getting parts from multiple sources."
Tobar Industries (www.tobar-ind.com) of San Jose, Calif., has been providing its customers with solutions for integrated manufacturing for more than 30 years, combining electro-mechanical assembly with sheet metal fabrication. In the telecommunications market, the company produces precision parts and components that include 1U, 2U, and larger rack mount enclosures, custom enclosures and frames, card guides, and assorted custom brackets.
With telecom technology changing rapidly, Tobar Industries has quickened its response to customer requirements for fast turnarounds of prototypes and production parts. This speed requires closer coordination, on virtually any type of CAD file, with OEM engineers and designers working in an electronic paperless environment.
"Oftentimes, we will get a call on Monday asking us if we can make a prototype by Wednesday, which is a very fast turnaround," says Brian Eugeni, director of sales and marketing at Tobar Industries. "There has to be full collaboration in the midst of all this. We constantly adjust our labor and schedules, and leave a portion of our capacity open while maintaining a ready supply of standard materials and hardware to accommodate most designs. We've also bolstered our staff of manufacturing engineers, and we do a lot of production planning."
Wright Engineered Plastics (www.wepmolding.com), an ISO 9001:2000 registered, custom injection molding company in Santa Rosa, Calif., molds a variety of critical telecommunications parts and components from high-tech plastics. Telecom parts produced by Wright include printed circuit board (PCB) ejectors, card guides, and covers for PCBs inside telecom switching equipment.
"Some of our parts are used to manage the circuit board components and cables inside the enclosures," says Barbara Roberts, president and CEO of Wright Engineered Plastics. "We also make LED light pipes--highly-polished plastic parts in a variety of shapes that transmit light; they're usually only about one to three inches long. Sometimes our telecom parts have critical applications: Examples are insulator bushings and the light pipes, which transmit functional information from the boards to the user of the equipment."
The insulator bushings molded by Wright have special electrical properties that are critical to the function of telecom instruments. They have tolerances to within 0.0007 inch, Roberts says, and "many other specifications that must be measured to assure quality." The bushing, made from Noryl®, acts as an insulator to dampen the electrical field. Noryl® is a blend of polyphenylene oxide (PPO) and polystyrene (PS) that was developed by GE Plastics in 1966. "Noryl is important because of its special electrical properties," says Roberts. "When we receive a new lot of material, we must re-qualify the electrical function of the molded part. "If the new lot fails to qualify, we have to go back to where we purchased the material, buy another lot of plastic, and try again.
"We've also worked with some other specialized plastic materials that are designed for telecom equipment. We make an ejector for Cisco that's a steel-fiber filled material that has static dissipative properties. So when a technician touches the ejector, the static electricity that's in the body will be dissipated and the circuit board is not damaged."
Wright also molds bezels and plastic fascias for the outside of telecom switching equipment. One of the company's projects involves the molding of an exterior door and long fascia for the Calix C7 Multiservice Access Platform (MSAP), an advanced IP/Ethernet platform that supports optical and electrical domains, allowing networks to transition from copper to fiber and narrowband to broadband.
Thermoforming Company Manufactures a Variety of Telecom Parts
Freetech Plastics manufactures a variety of parts, components, and assemblies--including cosmetic covers and formed bezels for rack mount units--used in the telecommunications industry. Depending on the type of switch or router, customers often request a cosmetic exterior to prevent exposure of the circuit board. "We'll install things like light pipes and switches or buttons, or a light panel that will give the status of the unit," says Stritch. "And we've done a lot of vent grilles that assist in dissipating heat that's generated inside the unit. We've also made cable management systems for optical devices."
In addition to handling forming and fabrication for its customers, Freetech provides post-forming operations, such as machining for part clean-up, shaping, hole-drilling, and threading. In many cases, the company will handle finishing operations, such as painting, silk screening, assembly, and specialized packaging. When the covers, enclosures, and other parts go out the door, they are completely finished parts that will be ready for the installation of complex electronics.
Thermoforming encompasses pressure forming and vacuum forming, Stritch points out. Pressure forming is primarily performed in female cavities, where the cosmetic surface will be against the tool side--a necessity when producing high-value cosmetic parts. In vacuum forming, a male tool is used. Pressure forming uses high-pressure air to form the part; therefore, greater detail is possible. "When you're using high-pressure air and very good tooling, you can replicate an injection molded part without having to go into the cost of injection mold tooling, which can be expensive," says Stritch. "So we have this limited production volume that makes it very desirable for many different types of parts. We can get very fine detail and close tolerances when we use our CNC molding machines."
Because telecommunications companies, like those in other industries, are seeking to become more competitive on a global scale, cost reduction becomes an important issue.
"Some OEMs are managing their vendors differently than in the past," Stritch explains, "and other OEMs are asking vendors to take on more responsibility for assemblies. We do some assemblies in-house, such as making complete kits, and we also use 3-axis and 5-axis machining for greater precision."
Rack Mount Enclosures Keep Fabrication Company's Plant Rolling
Tobar Industries offers sheet metal fabrication processes that include punching, forming, complex radii, deburring, spot welding or riveting, hardware installation, plating, painting, and silkscreening. Some products also require TIG or MIG welding, secondary operation machining, and electro-mechanical assembly. One particular telecom application--rack mount enclosures--has become a mainstay of Tobar's production schedule.
"Some rack mount enclosures are used for wireless networking applications, some for telecommunications switching devices, or they could be used for power amplifiers," Eugeni explains. "Most rack mounts have both standardized and non-standard configurations, like a 1U or a 2U, depending on the functionality of components housed within them."
Various processes are required to completely manufacture a telecom rack mount enclosure. "Typically, we start with flat piece of sheet metal after reviewing the design knowing its finished condition, and put it into one of our punch turrets or laser to make holes or cut out the features," Eugeni says. "We'll form it into the correct shape and remove any sharp edges. Any cosmetic grain that is required is processed at this time, along with installation of various types of fasteners, such as PEM hardware."
Where very tight tolerances are required, machining with CNC mills and lathes is incorporated into the manufacturing build plan. As much as possible, within the design requirements, the product is completed as a sheet metal fabrication, as this provides the largest cost savings for the customer, according to Eugeni.
During finishing operations, many products are plated with zinc, anodize, and other processes that include exotic colors and materials. "We can handle wet painting or powder coating," says Eugeni, "but more products are moving to powder coating because of its enhanced durability and appearance. We may silk screen for labeling purposes on the front or back panels."
Custom Molder Brings Materials Expertise to Telecom Parts
In its work for the telecommunications industry, Wright Engineered Plastics works with plastics ranging from ordinary thermoplastics and thermoset polymers to high-tech, engineered plastics. The engineered plastics are chemically formulated to build in specific properties. A flame retardant, for example, may be added to the formula because telecom switching equipment has to be able to survive a fire for a specific period of time. And steel fibers are sometimes incorporated into engineered plastics for added strength.
"Many of the telecom parts need engineered plastics with special properties to handle specific situations, like antistatic and RFI (radio frequency interference)," Roberts explains. "Sometimes we'll need a high level of strength, so we'll use a polycarbonate plastic. Bullet-proof glass comes from this material, so it has to be strong. Toughness is important in telecom parts to keep the electronics safe inside the enclosures."
Wright Engineered Plastics' custom molding services include two-color molding and insert molding. "We can insert metal parts or pieces of hardware into the mold, and then mold around it," says Roberts. "As the plastic cools, it shrinks around the part and encapsulates it. This is a really good technique that eliminates the need for assembly. It's very cost-effective because you're already molding the main part. But it takes a special technique so that you don't damage the mold, and you get the results you want."
In addition, the company offers secondary operations, such as hand assembly and in-process testing; ultrasonic bonding and inserting; heat staking; and adhesive application. According to Roberts, ultrasonic bonding is used to bond pieces of plastic together, usually threaded inserts.
"For example, if you have a plastic housing that you need to assemble, you can bond two pieces of plastic together," she explains. "It essentially melts the plastic a little bit. You might use it to enclose two pieces of plastic so they don't pop open. It's a good way of bonding two or more things together because you don't need to use epoxy or other adhesives, and they are more apt to stay together.
"Heat staking is also a process of melting the plastic around something, but instead of putting it inside of the mold, you wait until the parts are being assembled, and then you apply heat to melt the plastic around whatever you're trying to encapsulate. You can use it for subassemblies. Let's say you want to assemble several items together and maybe put a metal plate over the back. You can melt the part in four spots that will hold the plate on.
"The adhesives are used for the categories where we can't use the heat staking. We use specialized adhesives to make bonds between metals and plastic, ceramics and plastic, glass to plastic, and other materials."
Materials and Design Considerations Drive Performance Requirements
Freetech Plastics' Jack Stritch says that several performance requirements are necessary from a materials and a design standpoint. Heat management is one of the requirements, as well as ease of assembly for the end user. Also important are modern styling, a good overall look, and light weight to keep costs down during shipping. Parts require high durability when in harsh operating environments, and some end users still demand a very high level of fit and finish. Some enclosed telecom switching devices operate outdoors, subject to a high volume of moisture and dirt, while others are located in broom closets, where heat dissipation is difficult.
"One area to be considered is how difficult it is to take one of these units apart to do repair work," Stritch insists. "These products have to be durable, yet provide ease of use and maintenance for end users. You also have to have functionality, because if the cable management system doesn't provide for the proper handling of some of the optical cables, you can end up with a unit that's not functioning as designed."
Often, a great deal of research and development is needed to come up with the most manufacturable design. Some of these challenges are material-related, while others are related to the design intent of the engineers. In essence, can a particular material provide a level of style and functionality and properties that an OEM needs?
Freetech Plastics does a great deal of work with ABS and polycarbonate plastics because of the requirements of the work for the telecom industry. Polycarbonate is used for style considerations, as well as durability for telecom parts. In addition, ABS plastics are the workhorse of the industry for electronics enclosures.
"We have to do our research and development to make sure we're working with our manufacturing partners to provide them exactly what they want," says Stritch. "The intent of the OEM designers requires out-of-the-box thinking on our part. We can recommend materials, and we can help them design those materials to look like the designer wants them to look. And we can help them design parts that function properly and last a long time, the way the mechanical engineers would like them to."
Testing, measuring, checking, and production control are functions that Tobar Industries employs consistently to increase production and cost efficiencies. "We are constantly reviewing and enhancing our capabilities to ensure product consistency while increasing throughput and yields," Eugeni discloses. "We purchased a state-of-the-art nesting software, resulting in significant improvements in material usage. Finish coupons are created and shared with the customer to ensure finish matches on different manufacturing lots. And when custom tooling is considered, a tool justification worksheet is completed and shared with the customer to determine if a tooling purchase is warranted."
Tobar's nesting software has already helped the company save money and has resulted in reduced rates for its customers, due to a reduction in material scrap. "This is what our nesting software does," says Eugeni. "We're really starting to see a savings in material, at least 10%, so we've probably saved thousands of dollars already."
Two new pieces of equipment have enabled Tobar Industries to greatly enhance the company's production cycles. Eugeni says that years ago, after a part was punched, it would be necessary to make a flat pattern layout--which could be very time consuming--and then wait for an inspector to check the first article parts. "It could take a few hours to do this," he added. "Then, with flat bed scanner technology, the time was reduced somewhat. Now there are laser scanners like the one we just purchased--the Amada Fabrivision-Laser--that can do the process sometimes in just seconds. This allows us to keep our punch presses from sitting idle; it minimizes labor and virtually eliminates human error, and we have electronic data stored for our quality records. It's a big help in streamlining the first article process."
On the other hand, the new CNC punch turret at Tobar, the Amada EMK-3610NT, has 64 loaded tools with auto-load and unload capabilities. This has refined the production of critical telecom parts, along with parts for multiple other industries that the company supports. "When we have both larger production and prototype orders, we can walk away at the end of the day and let the machine run all night by itself," notes Eugeni. "In the event of a machine or tool failure after normal work hours, the machine will text the code to one of our operators at their home, and he can resolve the code and restart and continue the turret punch processing."
Freetech Plastics is an ISO 9001:2008 registered manufacturer that uses its ISO program to make sure that the company's quality is top notch. The company has a very stringent quality control and improvement process in place, and has invested in new equipment and a great deal of training to make its employees work in concert with ISO dictates. "We've been in business doing pressure forming for more than 33 years, so we have a lot of experience working with high-value marketplaces," Stritch explains. "And we have a good understanding of the kind of high value that the telecom industry is looking for."
Freetech Plastics has been providing design and engineering assistance to customers for many years, preferring to get involved early on in the new product introduction (NPI) phase. By doing so, Freetech can work with the OEM's engineers and designers to not only provide quality parts with a good look and feel, but also help them design out a portion of the cost of the part.
"It's easy to do very early on, but it's more difficult to do as the design becomes more refined," says Stritch. "Our designs are almost exclusively coming in on 3D modeling design programs these days. We like to get involved at the design iteration phase, when rough sketches are being released and marketing decisions are being made, and options are still on the table. We like to be involved at this stage so that we can work with our customers to make sure that they get what they want, and they're not going to be overpaying for it. It also helps us with manufacturability; if we know we can design for the process up front, everybody wins. We also make recommendations on parts packaging, so that not only are parts built correctly, but they can also be delivered correctly."
Because of Freetech's ISO rating, Stritch says, its customers don't have to worry that parts won't function as intended when delivered. "The OEMs don't have to worry about getting back products that they ship all over the world," he claims. "And some of the things we do in terms of integrating assembly--which includes the finishing operations--with packaging and delivery help them out as well.
"I think the OEMs come to us because we are leading the way in high-style, high-design pressure forming, he adds. "We provide award-winning parts, and our experience allows us to speak more intelligently to a lot of the issues that customers may not be aware of. And we can head off a lot of issues before they become a problem. NPI (new product introduction) is one of our strong points, as well as the consistency and high quality of our parts."
Silicon Valley-based Tobar Industries has built its business on supporting the needs of high-tech customers with precision sheet metal fabrication and value-added engineering. Founded in 1976, Tobar serves OEMs in the telecommunications, medical, semiconductor, and contract manufacturing industries, providing services such as punching, forming, and machining. But the company also offers deburring, spot welding, riveting, hardware installation, plating, and painting. Some products, according to Tobar Director of Sales and Marketing, Brian Eugeni, also require TIG welding, secondary machining, and electro-mechanical assembly. Tobar, which also has customers in the public safety, construction, food services industries, employs approximately 50 at its 47,000-square-foot facility in San Jose, California.
"We manufacture products across a spectrum of size and complexity, from simple flat brackets to complex chassis assemblies," Eugeni wrote in an email to Design-2-Part. For the telecom industry, Tobar produces 1U/2U Rackmount enclosures, custom enclosures/frames, card guides, and assorted custom brackets.
One of the company's biggest selling points is its ability to provide OEMs with manufacturing engineering and design support that offers methods for reducing costs while improving manufacturability. Tobar's manufacturing engineers typically work closely with OEM mechanical engineers to reduce cost, improve yields, and increase throughput within the parameters established by the customer. "Our manufacturing engineers provide outstanding support and expertise to OEMs, explaining cost drivers and making suggestions for improvement whenever possible," says Eugeni. "This provides our OEM engineering counterparts with options during product design and ideally minimizes the number of revisions required prior to product launch."
Tobar's emphasis on manufacturing efficiency is evident in its use of nesting software to optimize material usage and minimize scrap; its recent addition of an Amada Fabrivision laser cutter, which helps minimize quality issues and avoid scrap; and its use of Just-in-Time manufacturing and Kanban deliveries. It all comes in handy at a time when manufacturers of telecom products have little--if any--margin of error in meeting increasingly strict delivery schedules. "We see products getting to market much more quickly, requiring us to be able to turn around prototypes very quickly and requiring close coordination with OEM engineering," Eugeni says. "We are capable of building product to customer forecast, even making daily deliveries if required to support customer demand. Our location in San Jose, the heart of the Silicon Valley, is certainly a big plus for some customers who prefer to have the opportunity for face-to-face interactions."
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