Transline Technology is Bullish on Design Engineers
At the International Microwave Symposium, I met with Chris Savalia, vice president and co-owner of Transline Technology. We discussed the California-based fabricator’s philosophy, the challenges of the RF and microwave markets, and the need to engage with young design engineers now.
Barry Matties: Chris, tell me a little bit about Transline and what the company does.
Chris Savalia: Transline Technology is a manufacturer of RF and microwave circuit boards. We also manufacture flex, rigid-flex, and we do metal etching and photochemical etching. Approximately 60–70% of our work is RF and microwave.
The company was started in 1982, so we've been in the business for about 25 years, and in '96 we moved to Anaheim into a 20,000 square-foot facility, where we have all processes in-house. The metal etching part of our business we acquired from another company about five years ago, and so that falls under the same umbrella.
Matties: What is your position at Transline?
Savalia: I'm vice president and co-owner of the Transline Technology, and my partner’s name is Larry Padmani.
Matties: What's your background?
Savalia: I got my degree in chemical engineering in India and then I continued in computer science here in the USA, so I have both a computer science and chemical background.
Matties: The FR-4 and flex market is a very large market and a challenging one too I think.
Savalia: It is challenging, but that's why in the late '90s we changed our focus to RF and microwave as well as flex and rigid-flex. There is less competition in this space. Mostly we use Rogers, Taconic and other PTFE material—specialized, high-speed laminates. The industries we serve are RF/microwave, wireless telecom, antennas, satellites, medical and many more. We also work with primes and sub-primes.
Matties: What kinds of people do you usually see here at the IMS show? Are they typically system-level designers or OEMs?
Savalia: We've been attending this show for about seven years, and this is the most important show for us every year. We connect with a lot of OEMs and design engineers here. They come by and we discuss what hurdles they are facing and how we can help. This show also has a lot of university students who are studying RF and microwave engineering in U.S. cities and all over the world. We enjoy interacting with them, because they will drive the technology forward and they will be our future customers.
Matties: Is the design engineer you’re talking to typically a circuit board designer or a system-level designer?
Savalia: Both. Most people here talk mainly about the RF and microwave boards. Depending on what kind of material they want or need to use—we work closely with material suppliers like Rogers and Taconic to help get their product built. If they need any information, we work together.
Matties: Do you offer design services as well?
Savalia: No. We don't have that at our facility, but we work with a selected few designers and outsource that service.
Matties: Now on the rigid side, do you offer metal backboards?
Savalia: Yes, metal backboards and also metal etching—aluminum, stainless steel, brass…many more.
Matties: How is that marketplace?
Savalia: That market is very good since most RF and microwave boards require shielding or metal back-boards, and so it's a part of that package.
Matties: From a buyer's perspective, is it difficult to find a supplier capable of doing this, or is this something that's becoming more commonplace?
Savalia: It’s becoming more and more commonplace, but we’ve offered it for a long time. It’s not for amateurs! We make it easier for the buyers to go to just one place.
Matties: Are you only doing low volume, or do you do any high volume?
Savalia: Right now we do mostly low to medium volume, lots of prototypes, but we only work one shift currently; however, we do have the capacity, equipment, and everything we need to start a second shift and do higher volume when the opportunity presents itself.
Matties: How do you do your sales, direct or through reps?
Savalia: We have sales reps all around the USA, on the East Coast, Florida, the Midwest, California, as well as two inside salespeople, and a customer service person.
Matties: As a circuit board fabricator, what's the most challenging thing you face?
Savalia: It's the competition, and since it's a specialized circuit board there's material lead time and special processing. To help our customers we stock almost all Rogers’, Taconic's, Isola’s and other material.
Matties: Aside from materials, what are the other challenges that you might face?
Savalia: I'd say it’s mostly processing and the competition.
Matties: When you say "competition," in what regard?
Savalia: Definitely the price. Especially in Southern California, where there are many circuit board fabricators.
Matties: Do buyers come in and really beat you up on price?
Savalia: Some of them, yes.
Matties: Do they understand that if they erode the supply chain from a financial point of view that the service for them goes down?
Savalia: Some of the customers leave because of the price, but many times they come back because of the quality and service.
Matties: Because I would think that if you're in the high-end marketplace and you’re doing this kind of work, especially if it's in a military situation, that price won't be a big issue and they would be more interested in capability and qualifications.
Savalia: Yes. We work with the Navy and defense; they do appreciate specialty boards.
Matties: In the 25 years that you've been around, what's the greatest surprise that's come your way?
Savalia: The greatest surprise is overseas competition.
Matties: That almost took us by surprise, didn't it?
Savalia: Yeah. It started back in the early '90s.
Matties: We saw a trend starting, but didn't pay attention until 2000–2001, when the crash came.
Savalia: That's when people realized.
Matties: It was like a light switch.
Savalia: Yes. That's why in '96 and '97 we changed our strategy to high-end RF/microwave. Our business still went down until 2007, but from 2007 on our revenue has been growing a minimum of 10% a year.
Matties: When you look at capital investment into your facility, what sort of technology do you look at to carry you to the future?
Savalia: Last year we changed our chemical processing equipment, and we also invested in an AOI. This year at IPC APEX EXPO, we were reviewing new LDI machines.
Matties: When you look at a supplier for that, what are the important characteristics you look for? Is it just the technology, or is it the reputation of the company behind it?
Savalia: The reputation, technology, everything. Because we work with RF and microwave material that shrinks and expands, the machine has to be flexible to adjust that technology.
Matties: When you talked about the chemistry earlier, what was the behind that change?
Savalia: We didn’t change the chemistry, but the machine itself. We have four different etchers for the different metals and different chemistry in each.
Matties: Who did you choose for your equipment?
Savalia: Chemcut. Now we're looking at Orbotech for LDI.
Matties: There's also some new technology for LDIs from companies like Schmoll and a few others, have you looked at those?
Savalia: Yes, at APEX I saw them at three or four different vendors. It was quite a few. We're not 100% sure yet. There are some good machines to choose from.
Matties: Any final advice you would give buyers about buying RF and microwave circuit boards?
Savalia: Mostly look at the quality and service, not only price, especially for the high-end product. When design engineers design the circuit board and they go for a cheap board, then the product fails and they have to go to another place while the engineer is still waiting for the product.
Matties: Chris, I appreciate your spending time with me today.
Savalia: Thank you very much.