RICHARDSON, TX -- The phone rang. It was 11:45 p.m. Scott Fillebrown, not nearly awake, answered to learn the caller was reporting the building his EMS company had called home for 19 years might be on fire. Not long after, a second call confirmed the disaster in the making. Driving to the plant, he could see the sky alit from a mile away.
It took more than six hours to extinguish the blaze, which remains the largest ever handled by the Richardson, TX, fire department. The building was decimated; the equipment – including a placement machine so new the company hadn’t even made the first payment – completely wiped out.
Some $2 million worth of equipment was lost that night. But the Automated Circuit Design workers did something unexpected. They collected all the PCs they could, took them home, cleaned them up, and started working again. By the end of the weekend, the servers were brought back online, and the company was again designing and hand soldering boards. Relocated to a site across the street, they quickly upgraded the power and other facilities and were completely up and running with 90 days.
Each June since, on the anniversary of the fire, the company holds a picnic. “You can mope, or understand the blessing and pick up the pieces,” says Fillebrown, the company CEO and co-owner since 1995. Most of the workers from that summer, he adds, are still with the company.
Fast forward to today, and the pluck and determination ACD showed in spades in the aftermath of the fire are showing returns even an optimist like Fillebrown couldn’t have conceived of. 2010 proved a record year in sales for ACD, and through June 2011 was shaping up to be even better – a run rate on pace to top $30 million, good for 25% growth, well ahead of the industry average. The company had further reason to celebrate: An expansion completed earlier this year added 13,500 sq. ft. to the now 52,800 sq. ft. facility, which, coupled with the recent addition of two high-speed lines, gives the plant the capacity to more than double 2010’s sales.
Company and owner have, to great degree, grown up together. Fillebrown, a gregarious Texan in his early 40s, but who looks more youthful, has spent nearly his entire career with ACD. Armed with a degree in business, he joined as a salesman in 1990, having previously worked with the wife of one of the then-owners. After two years, he left for Trend Circuits, but returned as head of sales in 1993, with a pending deal to become an owner. At the time, ACD was primarily a design service bureau that was slowly making the jump into assembly. With no technical background, one of Fillebrown’s first moves was to bring aboard Steve Schwaebler as technical manager. Schwaebler, who previously had managed an operation of some 50 designers, was well-suited for the task. Within a year, he too had bought into the ownership, forming the core of the management and ownership team that exists to this day.
From VARs to Stars
Under Fillebrown and Schwaebler, ACD has made the leap from primarily a frontend printed circuit board design to a full-fledged EMS company. The company for a time even dabbled as a value-added reseller for boundary scan software and other engineering software. Even now, Fillebrown says the firm could easily have taken another path.
“We never intended to be an assembly house,” he says. “But we wanted our own product. Being in the services business didn’t give us the control over our future. So much of services is tied up in a few personnel.”
At one point, ACD was asked to handle prototype bare boards, but struggled finding the right partner. Even then, assembly came about as much by accident as by design. The first hand soldering job the company was ever offered, Fillebrown recalls, came before they even knew how to use the equipment.
Even today, with five full SMT lines and extensive hand soldering and test capabilities, ACD retains its design roots. Design services is a $2 million business and the centerpiece of the company’s turnkey offerings. It’s clearly a point of pride for Fillebrown, who touts the firm’s seven IPC CID designers, with an average of nearly 10 years’ experience at ACD.
“We get a lot of boards that have errors because the electrical engineer laid out the board. We did a study and found 75% of the boards on our floor were ACD designs, but only 10% of the errors were on boards we designed.”
While at most EMS companies designers sit in cubicles or a bullpen, at ACD they have their own offices. There are two reasons for breaking with tradition, says Schwaebler: “One is to allow them to really concentrate on their work. Also, if a customer comes in and wants to work on the design, it gives them the space to do so.” Schwaebler, a former designer who came up in a bullpen setting, also acknowledges the prestige the office gives.
Within the past year, however, ACD began to see customers attracted as much for the board assembly as for the design services. ACD handles four to five new part numbers per day, and has 300 to 400 individual product builds in progress at any given time. A dedicated user of Mentor Graphics’ Valor tools, ACD offers lifetime design for assembly analysis for a specific part number for a one-time charge. The firm also uses Valor tools for stencil design, and runs a paperless factory thanks to CircuitCAM. Several large touchscreen monitors are prominently featured throughout the factory, showing the status of work in progress.
The monitors aren’t the first thing one notices, however. Rather, it’s the ceiling and flooring. The ceilings in most places are low by most EMS company standards. But Fillebrown says that, at 10 ft., they are tall enough to accommodate the largest equipment in the factory, and the company saves immensely on heating and cooling, not to mention the reduced noise.
The floor, meanwhile, is carpeted throughout, which jolts some unwitting customers who do not realize it is completely ESD-proof.
On the floor are five SMT lines, all with DEK printers and Heller 1809 reflow ovens. Three higher mix, lower-speed lines use Mydata MY15e placement machines, one line being a Synergy Dual 15e, while the high-speed lines use four recently purchased Juki FX-3XL and two KE 3020XL pick-and-place machines. Handlers are from Nutek, and a YesTech YTX-3000 x-ray is also present. An Electrovert wave soldering machine is on order.
ACD offers full design to box build capability, including bare board procurement, which is typically sourced through DDi, TTM Technologies or Marcel Electronics Inc. (MEI). While ACD tries to keep inventories lean, Fillebrown has been known to suggest customers buy up to a year’s worth of boards in advance, pointing out the time to market advantage, and adding that the price breaks for the additional volume could conceivably pay for any unused boards up to three times over.
Most of the floor space – 30,000 sq. ft. – is occupied by QA inspectors and prototype PCB soldering using Metcal irons. ACD designs to IPC-2221, inspects to IPC-A-600 and IPC-A-610, and all operators are cross-trained on IPC-A-600 and in hand soldering they are trained to J-STD-001.
Selective soldering and cleaning are performed in a small room off the hand-soldering floor. ACD uses two ACE selective machines, a KISS 102 and KISS 104, with ProMation loaders. Cleaning is performed on a four-batch Aqueous Technologies Trident defluxer, and an older Asymtek conformal coater is available too.
The test area is another point of pride for ACD. There, four machines run constantly, including two Seica S40 Pilots and two Acculogic Flying Scorpion FLS8100 double-sided flying probes, performing boundary scan, functional test and ICT.
A small box-build operation completes the picture.
Fillebrown is bullish on the company’s prospects, though he notes that much of the recent growth has come from market share gains instead of greater demand. Although in-state orders make up 90% of ACD’s revenue, medical has become its second-largest end-market, at about 25%. Not surprisingly, given the proximity to several major semiconductor companies, semi is the firm’s largest market, and ATE is third. Defense and aerospace is fourth, but somewhat cyclical.
A 27-year-old with no technical background buys a PCB business. A design services bureau jumps into electronics assembly, and just as the industry was pulling out of its worst recession and a company literally in cinders makes the decision to rebuild. Three game-changing decisions, all with the best possible outcome.
Automated Circuit Design is on fire again, but this time it’s by design.
Mike Buetow is editor in chief of CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY (circuitsassembly.com); firstname.lastname@example.org.
Figure 1. CEO Scott Fillebrown demonstrates how the large touchscreen monitors track WIP throughout the factory, while VP Steve Schwaebler (right) looks on.
Figure 2. All ACD’s operators are cross-trained on IPC-A-600 for inspection (shown) and J-STD-001 for hand soldering.
Figure 3. ACD features extensive testing capabilities, including unit and system-level functional test.