EMS firm uses responsive lean manufacturing system to become customers’ electronic assembly arm.
A Firstronic employee conducts an in-circuit test of electronic assemblies.
“We’re just hitting our stride now,” Firstronic CEO Jon Sammut tells a visitor to the company’s facility in Grand Rapids, Mich. That’s a startling comment given that since 2011, Firstronic, a provider of electronic manufacturing services, has grown from a standalone job shop to developing a global footprint while increasing employment seven-fold and revenue five-fold. Why has this EMS manufacturer been so successful?
Experience. Sammut has been in electronics manufacturing 30 years. After cutting his teeth in electronic product development and production at Ford and Electrowire, he joined an entrepreneur’s management team and expanded Epic, an electronics business, from one plant in Detroit to five plants and $300 million in sales. Sammut brought several of his key managers at Epic to Firstronic. “We know how much preparation it takes to grow that fast,” says Tony Bellitto, director of Quality.
Customer Focus: Sammut freely admits the company has been “in the right place at the right time.” Its primary customers are automotive Tier 1 suppliers who are migrating from mechanical components to products with electronic controls. Firstronic targets firms with $5 million to $25 million spends, a sector it says is underserved, and offers them a combination of personalized service and advanced technology. Firstronic creates a customer focus team, with a program manager and cross-functional team members, for each customer. The teams hold structured weekly meetings in which they review any issues affecting that customer. Then in upper management meetings, a more strategic review is held for each account every other week. “It keeps everybody connected to the health and requirements of customers,” says Pat Blanzy, director of Sales & Marketing. “If there is a quality slip, the CEO isn’t hearing about it after there is a major issue down the road. He hears about it immediately.”
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Employees: 182, non-union
Total Square Footage: 35,000
Primary Product/Market: Electronic assemblies
Start-up Date: 2009
Achievements: 99.7% first-pass yield; 98.9% of supplier orders delivered on-time; over 500% growth in revenue.
Agile Manufacturing: Flexibility and responsiveness are essential to Firstronic’s competitive advantage. In an industry where turnaround on jobs is typically 4 to 6 weeks, Sammut says Firstronic can respond in a couple days if needed. The company relies on its lean manufacturing system and a 24/7 operations schedule to accomplish this. Incoming circuit boards are barcoded to provide complete traceability and inventory control. While Firstronic also employs printed through hole production, most boards are produced using a surface mount process in which screen printers apply an image of the circuitry to a raw board and a solder paste. Because the amount of solder paste is critical to the proper functioning of the board, explains Steve Fraser, vice president of Operations, the company uses a 3-D inspection system on each line to ensure there is proper solder deposition. Surface mount machines are used to place the components on the board. The highest speed machines can place up to 125,000 components an hour. The boards then go through a reflow oven where the parts are soldered to the board. Next, boards go through an optical inspection system to make sure the right components are in the right places. These sophisticated inspection systems on each line, which cost more than $300,000 in total, help to produce “awesome” quality, Fraser observes.
Workforce: “We know the foundation is a good, solid team,” says Sandy Kolp, the Grand Rapids plant manager. The company had all of its employees complete a survey and used that data to create a “profile” of the ideal candidate. Firstronic has every job applicant complete a profile before reviewing their application. The company only hires candidates that match the profile of its top performers. Firstronic says the result has been higher quality and lower turnover. The company couples that selectivity with a 60-day training program that includes pairing new hires with a mentor and utilizing an in-house trainer to help employees become certified in PCB production.
Firstronic’s savvy manufacturing practices are allowing the company not only to grow rapidly but to compete successfully with EMS firms in Asia. In fact, more than 75% of the products produced at the Grand Rapids plant are exported to Mexico, China, Korea, Hungary and India.