Advance Your Company Through Automation

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During IPC APEX EXPO 2019, Yash Sutariya discusses the labor shortage he has experienced in the Detroit area, the impact automation can have in the manufacturing process, and other strategies to advance your company.

Patty Goldman: Yash, it’s good to see you again this year. Let’s start with a bit about yourself and your company.

Yash Sutariya: I run two companies in Detroit: Saturn Electronics, which is rigid PCB manufacturing, and Saturn Flex, which is rigid-flex. I’ve been in the business since I was 14, I believe. I grew up in the back of my father’s shop. I left after college and said I’m never coming back, but my mom made me come back. Since 2001, I’ve been in management. I saw the downfall of our entire industry, which is when I came back, so apparently it was my fault back in ‘01 (laughs). Since coming back, we’re bigger than we used to be, but instead of making boards for automotive, we’re in everything else, including production as well as prototype for what seems like the whole world.

Goldman: We were talking yesterday about automation and the labor shortage, and I found your perspective on that very interesting. I’d like you to share that with our readers.

Sutariya: Sure. Especially being in the Detroit area, when automotive gets a cold, we all get sick. We’ve never really had a big shortage of labor. With the rebound that started in late 2009 and early 2010, I’ve been expecting a recession since 2014 or 2015, and it’s getting stronger and stronger to the point where we never thought it would happen in Detroit, but we have a labor shortage. We can’t find people, and the people you do find should not have been found in the first place. There’s a reason there is chronic unemployment—because some people just aren’t made to work.

I read about Alex Stepinski’s work at Whelen [now GreenSource Fabrication] and he invited me to see what he’d done. It was a big inspiration—his vision of making circuit boards without people. I think the way he explains it now is, “Take out the labor but let’s also gain huge leaps in terms of the knowledge and data we can get from the process. Let’s learn what we can about materials and make everything more accurate.” That really inspired me, not necessarily from the data standpoint or a cutting costs standpoint, but because it focuses on consistently making product. I’ve had days where I couldn’t run lines because an operator decided not to show up, they quit, etc.

So, we started taking a look at automation to keep a process running regardless of available operators because my machines don’t have bad days. They don’t get sick, they don’t have sick relatives, and they’re not lazy. We have contacts in our work with Glory Faith, a large overseas manufacturer that we support, and they return that favor by supporting us at finding vendors and sources. We’ve been working for the past two years to identify overseas manufacturers of automation because, quite frankly, everybody’s gone here. You have some European options to choose from, and some domestic companies offer automation, but it’s the same Chinese stuff marked up by two to three times.

By having these resources, we’ve been able to establish contacts and do development work with automation manufacturers out of Asia. We brought in some units, put them by our worst processes like hot air leveling and etching to see how bad we could beat them up, gave feedback, made revisions, and then made different size loaders and unloaders. That’s where we see our future because as we’ve implemented one set after another, it has smoothed out production; mishandling has also gone down, and it’s put a little bit of fear into people at the factory so that they’re not as complacent. We’re taking it a step further. It’s a shame more of our industry doesn’t support IPC APEX EXPO because of what you can learn with the vendors on our side. We represent maybe 15% of the entire floor space.

Goldman: And if you’re talking about PCB companies, I’m saying even less than 15%. But if you’re talking about the suppliers, that adds a lot to it.

Sutariya: Yes, the suppliers. The lack of PCB fabricators exhibiting this year shows you the nearsightedness of our industry. At what other venue are you going to be able to get in front of 200–500 individual companies? And even if you get a 1% close rate, that’s probably more new customers than most companies in our industry have gotten in the past 12 months, and it costs you a few thousand dollars.

But let’s talk about our supply base; they still struggle to come out here, they’re doing their thing, and they might get five visitors, and that’s it because we fabricators don’t come out here. But if you did come out here, you’d see some new vendors. When it comes to my next focus—wet processes—everybody has done this and said, “We have materials. If you even have a loader, let it load, convey through, and catch it at the other side.” But how many people struggle with thin materials?

And I’m not talking one-mil cores; for some companies, even eight-mil cores get chewed up in their lines. Even if you’re the most rudimentary shop, you’re seeing layer counts go up for the most basic product. So, what do we do? We pull the materials—tape them to leaders, have one person in the front loading them one at a time, one person at the end unloading them one at a time and untaping them, and you’ve more than doubled your labor content for that process. What I’m looking to do is making my shop leaderless. Alex talked a lot about that, but he’s talking about 25-micron substrates. I’m talking about four- or five-mil cores. I need it dumbed down a little bit.

Historically, we had lots of vendors to choose from in the U.S. and Europe, but now we have two U.S. companies left and maybe one or two wet process manufacturers left in Europe. But in Asia, there are tons of suppliers with rough pricing of 50,000–60,000 RMB per meter. If you convert that out, that’s wet process lines for under $200,000 where you’d have to pay $500,000 stateside. For under $150,000–200,000, overseas companies are fully thin-core capable and often have advanced features like vacuum etching, ultra-thin core handling, and can customize the build to what you want.

There are so many things you can do to advance your shop by taking advantage of suppliers. Whenever I find a supplier in Asia, the first thing I do is introduce them to one of my vendors that sells or services equipment because now I’m creating my own supply chain. I don’t need the sales part, but I sure do need the service and parts supply chain. I get them factory trained here and say, “Go sell to everybody else,” because I need to have competition in this industry. We can’t survive if everybody goes out of business. If there aren’t more domestic options, there’s no point for us to exist because it’s all the more reason for buyers to go overseas if we can’t support competitively.


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