An Interview with Gardien Group’s Jason Fraser
I like talking to companies who matter—companies who are making a difference in the way we do business today. This includes companies who are in the business of making other companies better, like Gardien Group. I recently sat down with Gardien’s CEO, Jason Fraser, to talk about where the company is today and where it is headed in the future.
Gardien has been talking to its customers from around the world and listening to what their needs are and what they expect them to become in the future; in response, they are developing programs designed to meet and exceed those expectations.
Gardien’s headquarters are in Singapore, its COO is German, and the company has a network of service bureaus in North America and Asia. The company also has embedded service centers inside some of their customers’ facilities. Fraser himself is British and lives in Dubai; talk about not being able to walk down the hall to talk to your fellow managers! Somehow it all works, which makes them a truly connected 21st century corporation.
Dan Beaulieu: Jason, thanks for spending the time with me today. First of all let’s talk about the company. What does Gardien do?
Jason Fraser: Ah, the elevator pitch. Well, we are a global provider of quality assurance solutions for the PCB industry, and in one form or another, we’ve been answering those quality needs for well over 30 years. To give you a little history, our company began as Mania, which developed some of the first electrical grid testers used by PCB fabricators to check the quality of their boards. From these humble origins we've evolved into a business that validates the quality of literally millions of PCB boards a month, on behalf of customers throughout the world.
Dan: Tell us about the company’s growth; I understand that it has been significant in the past several years.
Jason: The Gardien team has done a fantastic job in growing the business and it’s certainly something I’m really proud to talk about. We’ve consistently outperformed the PCB industry’s typical annual growth rates and in the last couple of years we’ve opened additional operations in the U.S. and Japan, as well as significantly expanded our premises in Germany.
In fact, we currently operate 26 facilities and employ about 600 staff, who are located across seven countries in Asia, North America and Europe. In Asia, for example, we’re present in China, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, and in North America we have a total of 10 facilities—9 in the U.S. and a Canadian operation in Toronto.
Dan: You also have a sister company in the group—Ucamco. Can you tell me about this other division?
Jason: Ucamco is one of the industry’s largest suppliers of PCB CAM and pre-CAM software solutions with its Ucam and Integr8tor packages, and it’s also a front-end software provider to a number of OEM manufacturers of electrical test, automated optical inspection (AOI), and direct imaging equipment.
The software is custom-developed for our clients in line with their requirements and specifications. Like Gardien, Ucamco has a long history in the industry, and, interestingly, it is also the owner of the Gerber format, which as some of your readers may know, is the de facto standard for PCB image data transfer.
On the hardware side, the company is the market leader in laser photo-plotters with its Calibr8tor and Silverwriter equipment. I believe we have an installed base of well over 1000 machines.
Dan: With regard to photo-plotters, that brings up a question. Does it concern you that the market appears to be moving away from photo-plotters and towards direct imaging?
Jason: I think you’re right that the industry is heading in the direction of DI and the competitive landscape has become pretty crowded with DI machines over the last 18 months or so, but our photo-plotters are really targeted towards customers who demand the finest features and highest plot speed, which aren’t necessarily where DI’s strengths currently lie.
Dan: And do you have an answer to that—a DI solution?
Jason: We do, indeed. We are Dainippon Screen’s European distributor for the Ledia direct imaging system, which is one of the premier DI machines currently available. We’re extremely pleased with how well it’s been received by the European marketplace and we’ve already delivered several machines to various clients.
Dan: Turning our attention back to Gardien for a moment, tell us about the scope of your services.
Jason: We primarily offer two types of service: Gardien OnDemand and Gardien Integrated Services.
Our OnDemand service, as the name suggests, allows our customers to call us when they have a specific QA need, be it electrical testing, CAM work, fixture building, 4-wire Kelvin test, etc. It pretty much follows the traditional ‘outsource’ business model utilized by the PCB Industry. Although, you’ll never hear anyone at Gardien call it outsourced. I’m really not a fan of the word at all as it seems to have taken on a negative connotation. Gardien provides an independent verification of quality, something that we believe is absolutely a best business practice.
Our Integrated Service offering takes care of 100% of our clients’ tail-end QA needs, whether it’s testing, final inspection, or a combination of the two. It’s a totally bespoke offering that caters precisely to our customer’s QA needs. We can provide the service in one of our test centers or fully integrate within our client’s facility.
Dan: What about their existing equipment or personnel—how do you address these factors?
Jason: That’s the beauty of a totally customized solution. We listen to our customers’ needs and tailor a package around them. So to answer your question, let’s look at equipment first. Whenever we put an Integrated Services package together, we undertake a full site survey, listen to what our customers’ drivers are, and review the nature of the product being manufactured, such as technology level, volumes, etc., and look at the suitability of the existing equipment. Typically, we take over the client’s machines and either buy them or pay rent for their use; where necessary, we’ll install our own equipment to ensure we have a fit-for-purpose test floor.
Similarly, when it comes to personnel, we work with the customer to find the most appropriate way of moving forward with their existing employees and provide additional support from our side to drive best practices and productivity. Dan: Jason, tell me about the company’s global reach. I believe as the world gets smaller, this is where we are going.
Jason: Gardien’s global footprint is the company’s single biggest point of differentiation. The industry has fundamentally transformed over the last ten to fifteen years, both in terms of geographic concentration and market consolidation, and as a result, it’s not unusual for many of our customers to run cross-border operations.
This uniquely positions Gardien to support international fabricators with their QA needs. We recently created a new position within the Group, VP for Global Quality, and have committed considerable resources to ensure that we deliver a globally consistent level of service. I think the value a client will see from this is the ability to enjoy the benefits of low-cost country production without jeopardizing quality, reputation or customer retention.
Dan: Tell me about your customers. Who are they, and are they mostly big companies?
Jason: No, not at all. We operate on a global basis, but with a local presence, so we cover a whole range of customers, from small, family owned PCB shops to large international fabricators—and everything in-between. Our customers cover the entirety of the industry, supplying product to military, aerospace and medical industries, as well as consumer electronics such as iPad and iPhone. Obviously, in support of this, we carry the necessary certifications for working within those industries.
Here are some numbers I think you’ll find interesting: In a typical month we make an average of 680 fixtures, test more than 4,300 new jobs, handle more than 17,000 orders, and perform more than 4.5 million tests.
Dan: And what services do you offer? Of what are those 4.5 million tests are comprised?
Jason: We provide a whole host of tests, including electrical, flying probe/fixtureless, universal grid, dedicated, 4-wire Kelvin (low resistance), high-voltage, hipot, and embedded resistance and capacitance. And we support those tests with a variety of services, including fault identification and repair, fixturing, CAM services, AOI, manual and automated visual inspection, equipment sales and customer care, and consulting.
Dan: So Gardien could be described as an international electrical testing company to the PCB industry?
Jason: Yes, ET testing is certainly one of the many services we offer, but it’s not the true value we deliver to our customers.
Dan: Okay, so what is the value of Gardien’s service?
Jason: Partnering with Gardien allows clients to free up resources that they currently commit to QA and repurpose them to value-add areas of PCB fabrication.
Dan: What does that mean, exactly?
Jason: Gardien works with its clients to understand their drivers and needs and from this we can generate a fully customized QA solution that not only enhances their quality reputation, it actually provides relief for resources they would like more control of, such as financial, labor, knowledge and time. They know they are getting the finest product QA available in the market today, overseen by what we believe are some of the best-trained experts in the industry.
Dan: Jason, can you give me some examples of the different types of companies that you work with?
Jason: Of course. First of all let’s talk about one of our U.S. clients who runs a small family PCB shop. He needed to increase capacity but didn’t have the capital to invest in both fabrication and ET equipment. We were able to support the increased QA requirements, which allowed him to commit the capital to fabrication CAPEX.
Gardien offers management of the entire QA process, allowing clients to remove it from CAPEX & payroll. They also benefit from economies of scale due to the size of our global footprint.
We also have a large international client who runs a cross-border facility in China. Prior to our involvement, they often utilized their production staff to meet increased demand in QA/FQA. We provided our Integrated Services solution that addressed output volatility in QA through a combination of better-suited equipment, optimised staffing levels, and more effective process control. This allowed our client’s employees to focus on what they do best, the manufacture of PCBs, and for us to independently validate the excellence of their product.
Dan: Full disclosure here: I’ve known you and Gardien for a few years now, but I have to say that every time I talk with you I am pleasantly surprised. Can you tell me what you are working on for the future?
Jason: Well thanks, Dan. Here’s what I think the future holds for the industry and for Gardien. The PCB industry is growing. IPC reports that we are quickly approaching $60 billion and are headed for $100 billion by the end of this decade. Obviously, this bodes well for companies like ours and to the fact that the technology is becoming more sophisticated with board parameters getting tighter all the time. We are reaching a point where your average board fabricator will need a company like Gardien to provide the services that we offer in order to keep ahead of both these growth and technology curves. It’s our plan, our mission actually, to be ready to help them not only keep up with those demands but to stay ahead of them as well.
Dan: Jason, thank you for taking the time out to speak with me today.
Jason: Dan, it’s always a pleasure.