Huntsville, Alabama, 1961. The cradle of the contract electronics manufacturing industry. It’s where Space Craft Inc. was launched in a local entrepreneur’s basement, building assemblies on a contract basis for NASA.
Years later, when Olin King, the cofounder of Space Craft Inc. (better known as SCI), sold the company to Sanmina, the industry was far-flung, with thousands of operations across six continents. It even had a formal name: electronics manufacturing services.
What made SCI possible was its proximity to the father of the US space program, Dr. Werner Von Braun, who along with Albin Wittmann and other German scientists alit in Huntsville about five years after the end of World War II. It was there, as members of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, they developed the Jupiter-C rocket, which carried America’s first satellite into orbit.
It was also there that a young engineer named Jim Raby got his start, working for Wittmann, whom Raby credits for dreaming up the plan for a national solder school, which Raby and others eventually made a reality as the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, CA.
Fast-forward to 1982, when Raby brought some members of his team back east to Huntsville, where they formed Soldering Technology International, putting his knowledge gleaned from years as an offshoot of the Department of Defense into practice as a commercial entity.
Like one of the missiles he helped design and build, the company, now STI Electronics (stielectronicsinc.com), has never looked back. From humble beginnings in a 5,000 sq. ft. building, the company in February relocated into a new 54,000 sq. ft. facility, three times the size of its previous site.
STI president David Raby, Jim’s son, says when they opened the first plant in Madison, outside Huntsville, they wondered how they would fill it. The same reservations came up when they moved a few years later to an 18,000 sq. ft. building nearby. Thus far, those reservations have proved unfounded.
The operations the new plant houses reflect the gradual broadening of the company’s offerings, which now number three full-fledged businesses. During its 27 years, STI has grown into a full-service company for training, consulting, laboratory analysis, and low-to-mid-volume PCB assembly. The privately held company now has 50 employees and Circuits Assembly-estimated annual revenues of $15 million.
On the manufacturing floor sits two full SMT lines, one for volume work and the other for prototypes. The equipment set includes Speedline printers (Momentum) and dispensers (Camelot XyFlexPro), Juki placement machines (FX-3, KE-2080L), Heller ovens (1700 and 1900 EXL, plus a 12-zone 1913 MK III used for special projects), YesTech AOI (F1 and YTV-2000) and Technical Devices for wave soldering (Nu/Era). STI currently handles 38 to 45 part numbers per month, with volumes topping out at 6,000 pieces. Another capability is sputter-coating of nickel or gold. The manufacturing center is 24,000 sq. ft., much of which remains vacant, ready for future growth. Plans call for developing greater box-build and turnkey capabilities for medical, industrial and military products.
Just off the manufacturing floor is the most recent addition: a 1,000 sq. ft. Class 1000 clean room adjacent to a 700 sq. ft Class 10,000 clean room. It houses the microelectronics test lab, which includes, among other things, a vacuum bake oven, a nitrogen storage cabinet, a Plasma Etch etcher, Datacon die bonder/dispenser, a Dage die and ball shear tester, and a smattering of Leica microscopes. The Dage machine supports STI’s patented, imbedded component die technology, or ICDT (described in Circuits Assembly in February 2008). Overseen by Casey Cooper, STI’s electrical engineering manager, the clean room functions represent a distinct departure from the traditional EMS service model, whereby a contractor simply manufactures the novel ideas of other companies.
The failure analysis lab is clearly a point of pride. Capabilities center around finite element analysis, which makes up 60% to 70% of the work. Customers around the world often have STI on retainer, and samples range from boards to individual components and packages. Equipment includes Dionex ICS-2000 for ionic contamination, PerkinElmer Spectrum One for FTIR, Malcolm Instruments SWB-2 wetting balance, Alpha Metals Omegameter, Nikon optical microscopy, Hitachi S-3500N SEM, CamScan MV2300 SEM, and x-ray. STI maintains a database of residue-related defects tied to process type. The company also performs a variety of environmental tests as well. One area of growth: using chemical decap to remove leadframes and overmolds, which permits STI to look at die surfaces. “We can do a pure component counterfeit analysis,” explains Mark McMeen, vice president of engineering services. XRF was scheduled to be installed in March.
Thanks to his days at China Lake, “Raby” is synonymous with “electronics training,” and those services are part of STI’s core. The offerings include certification to J-STD-001, IPC-A-610, IPC-7711, IPC-7721 and NASA, as well as custom classes taught offsite at customer facilities. The new site has three classrooms, all of which are set for lectures, and a pair of which also handle hands-on instruction.
It’s the third leg of the triple service offerings that makes STI so unusual. Distribution is now a business the typical EMS firm takes on. With 15 years in that market under its belt, however, STI now boasts about 800 active customers for its range of solders and materials (AIM, Kester, Chemtronics), workbenches, soldering irons and rework equipment (Hakko, Hexacon, Metcal, JBC and others), dummy components, ESD materials, and all sorts of other hand tools and its own branded soldering kits. The ideal model, says electronic sales manager Sissie Eckstein, involves offering both high-end and midrange lines of each type of product sold.
Distribution makes up about 35% of the company’s sales, and is the only business that sources outside the electronics arena, as it services the industrial manufacturing sector as well. However, the company does admit having trouble convincing customers of the breadth of its offerings.
“We feel we’re stronger having all three businesses,” David Raby says. “The problem internally is marketing it. It’s difficult for customers to make that transition – that we offer all three.”
For most companies, it’s difficult to do one thing well. That STI exceeds at three distinct businesses makes for a fascinating company. It’s no doubt due in part to the extensive experience of its employees, many of whom date their relationship with the Rabys to China Lake. There, engineering lab manager Mel Scott, director of training materials Mel Parrish, Carl Buchanan, and others learned their craft under Jim Raby’s watchful eye. Along with such folks as vice president of operations/training resources Diana Bradford, the staff likely has more than 1000 years of soldering and training experience. Raby’s influence even stretches to STI suppliers like Doug Winther, the owner of Technical Devices, who gave a paper at one of China Lake’s famous soldering seminars in the 1970s, and Kathi Johnson, the president of Hexacon, whom Raby employed right out of college.
From Huntsville to China Lake and back, from building boards for rockets to training four generations of soldering technicians, it’s getting harder by the year to find someone STI Electronics hasn’t touched or influenced. The facility may be new, but the surroundings feel awfully familiar.
Mike Buetow is editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly; firstname.lastname@example.org.