Rethinking Captive Manufacturing

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Alex Stepinski and Whelen Engineering caught everyone’s attention a few years ago when they opted to make their own PCBs in an innovative captive facility: GreenSource Fabrication. Now, with the recent purchase of an equipment manufacturer, Alex is helping to design whole factory solutions for OEMs who are interested in bringing PCB fabrication in-house.

Barry Matties: Alex, why don’t you give us your take on what’s going on with the mindset from captive facilities?

Alex Stepinski: Everybody probably knows our story, so I won’t rehash it, but we were kind of the prototype. And the reason Whelen did it was that our visionary COO at the time thought there would be a better way; there was, and we did it. But now we have this case study in North America with Whelen and GreenSource, and other people are looking at us. I see a lot of interest from folks in doing something similar, and this is driven primarily by people who can’t find a fit for their product in the market.

Job shops are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none, and they have to set up a shop that handles a lot of different customers, in most cases, to provide some safety and diversity to their business. There are some that specialize in broad categories, like flex or microwave. But generally, you see this in Asia more than in the U.S. In the U.S., people tend to do a lot of different things because there’s not enough business.

The OEMs in the U.S. market have a tough time finding a fit because they have a lot of specialty products, and there’s hardly anybody that’s a good fit. In Asia, you can find a better fit, but there are a lot of OEMs that don’t have enough volume to get their attention. Everybody is at the mercy of the supply chain. Having your own captive fab gives you control of your capacity and priority. You get 100% of the attention because you control it. And if you wanted to, you could customize this fab for your product design philosophy and get a lot of efficiencies out of that. That’s what we did here, and now that we’ve taken the next step, we’ve become a job shop to some extent. We’re doing third-party work primarily for the defense and aerospace sector, focusing on technologies that weren’t historically represented in the U.S.

We’re doing a lot of semi-additive processing work for different applications. We’re doing high-stack microvias with very good reliability. This was also something lacking in the U.S. market. We brought this over here, and with these capabilities, we got interest from OEMs. “How do I get something like this for myself? How do I use you as a third party?” We’ve also had interest where OEMs asked us to take advantage of the equipment company we bought and offer them a whole factory solution.

We have a couple of projects where we’re designing factories for OEMs—one on the East Coast, and one on the West Coast—and then a couple that we’re having preliminary discussions with right now. This seems to be a nice niche that no one is covering right now. You could go to an OEM and say, “I can give you a factory customized to your products. It’s a 21st century mindset. It’s green, automated, and flexible. You can run rigid, flex, and backplanes in the same line. It’s a holistic approach to things.” There’s a lot of interest in this, so we’re moving our equipment business to focus on this market.

To read this entire interview, which appeared in the July 2020 issue of PCB007 Magazine, click here.



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