KCE Group: A Thailand-Based PCB Manufacturer with a Growing Global Footprint

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Recently, while at electronica in Munich, Germany I met KCE America President Rick Rhodes, and Joe Yeo of KCE Group, whose responsibilities include NAFTA sales and marketing. Both are based in the U.S. and are responsible for sales within the states for this long-standing player in the PCB manufacturing industry that has its base in Thailand. They discuss the unique challenges and opportunities that come with the rigorous automotive market, and explain why they continue to enjoy explosive growth. 

Judy Warner: Rick and Joe, it’s a delight to meet you both. Rick, can you tell us a little about KCE Group and what that encompasses?

Rhodes: KCE Electronics was established more than 30 years ago, in Bangkok, Thailand, as a printed circuit board manufacturer. KCE grew into the KCE Group, adding KCE America, KCE Singapore, KCE Europe, KCE Japan, and KCE Thailand, as well as Christian Enzmann, which is the distribution entity for KCE in Germany.

Warner: Okay, and your actual manufacturing facilities are all based in Thailand, correct?

Rhodes: We're all in Thailand. We operate four printed circuit board manufacturers and two laminate manufacturers in Thailand.

Warner: Do you have a specific market niche that you focus on?

Rhodes: Our niche has evolved into the automotive industry. Over 70% of the products that we build go into automotive electronics these days. It hasn't always been that way. We had a concentration on computer networking at one time for a number of years, back in the '90s. Also, we were quite big in set top boxes for televisions.

We developed our automotive electronics market and we found our niche. We're good at what we do. We are good at documentation, which automotive electronics demands, and we’ve found it's been a reasonably stable market for us to participate in.

Warner: These days it seems like there is so much electronics inside of cars, more than we could have imagined just 20 years ago. Joe, when you're putting electronics inside vehicles, I would imagine there are many thermal concerns for those boards to be able to handle engine heat. What things come into play for you as you address thermal concerns and manufacturing bare boards for that industry?

Joe Yeo: The laminates that we use are all pre-tested. We manufacture our own laminate and customers are comfortable using the same laminate that KCE manufactures. All the testing is done through the rigorous testing conditions of the automotive tier one suppliers. We either meet or exceed the expectation of their specs or certain specifications. It has been proven all these years that whatever KCE does, and the laminate we use, will all meet the requirements of the automobile industry.

Warner: What made you decide to go into developing your own laminates?

Yeo: I think the laminate is a very key component of PCB manufacturing. There are only a handful of guys in the world that manufacture their own laminates. Being one of the key components of PCB manufacturing, you want to be able to control that key ingredient.

Rhodes: Years ago, now, there was a laminate shortage and a shortage of resin in the industry for a time due to a fire in a major resin plant. It kind of spooked everybody in the business and I think it affected every printed circuit board manufacturer. This was back in the '90s. That's when we decided to embark on trying to understand laminate manufacturing and we hired some people from America to come over and help us. We started Thai Laminate Manufacturing at that point, which has grown since then.

We don't use exclusively our own laminate. We buy a lot of laminate on the open market from the traditional sources. But when we can, and when the customers allow us, we have equivalent laminates for almost every commercially available laminate on the market. Often because we own the facilities, we can provide that laminate at a lower price point than buying on the open market.

Warner: Other than thermal concerns, what are some things that are unique to the automotive printed circuit board these days?

Rhodes: There's testing and documentation, which I mentioned earlier. Documentation is enormous. There's ongoing reliability testing and you need to have the proper facility set up in real time. Our test chambers are full 24 hours a day—day in, day out. It's required by the automotive industry. The testing side and the lab support that you need all comes into play when you get into automotive electronics.

Warner: I met someone recently that was educating me a bit about this issue. They were talking about how on the automotive level things are almost traceable down to a chemical or cellular level, which I was very surprised to hear. Then, he explained the very tedious documentation required for full traceability. Is this what you are describing?

Rhodes: Absolutely. That's all part of the qualification process when you're qualifying for the tier one automotive electronics manufacturers. It's demanded. It's not something you can get around. It takes years to develop the discipline to get into this business successfully.

Warner: What compelled KCE to set up shop in Thailand?

Rhodes: Our founder, Bancha Ongkosit, is Thai, and he is a Thai national. He and his brother founded the company in 1983. His brother was educated in a U.S. university as an engineer and they started the company very small, almost like a garage operation. While a lot of the Taiwanese manufacturing has migrated to China, we've stayed in Thailand because that's where our financial support is. It's turned out to be a very good place for manufacturing.


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