Conversations with...Circuit Solutions' John Vaughan


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Dan Beaulieu recently met up with John Vaughan, an industry expert when it comes to military and defense electronics with a particularly interesting insight into the inner workings of Washington’s beltway.

Vaughan is the president of Circuit Solutions L.L.C. which is based in the Washington D.C. metro military market. His company is a provider of integrated supply chain and program management solutions to the military C4ISR, unmanned systems, and IED detect and defeat communities. Vaughan is the right person to check in with to discover what's going on in that market segment.

Beaulieu was especially anxious to talk with Vaughan to find out about his new column, “Mil/Aero Markets” he'll be contributing to The PCB Magazine.

Dan Beaulieu: John, it's good to talk with you again. I just read your recent article in The PCB Magazine and found it fascinating. I know that you attended the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) 2013--can you tell us about that event and what goes on there?

John Vaughan: It was truly awesome, Dan. It was such a confluence of advanced electronic technology design and packaging--primarily revolving around robotics, miniaturized electronics, and some very unique unmanned platforms.

Beaulieu: What companies would benefit from attending this year’s event?

Vaughan: All of the Unmanned Systems platforms have a very high electronic content ratio and they all also have payloads that are primarily electronic in nature--meaning lots of circuit boards across all technologies. There's a particular emphasis on SWaP, so flex circuits, rigid-flex circuits, and advanced interconnect package circuit board manufacturers should consider attending this year’s event. AUVSI 2014 will be held this year May 12-15 in Orlando, Florida.

Beaulieu: One of the things I found encouraging in your article was the fact that young people were involved. In fact, you described participating in an event with students. Tell us more about that.

Vaughan: The AUVSI Foundation Student Competition Pavilion showcased student teams competing in the Foundations autonomous robotic competitions. Included were the International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC), International Ground Vehicle Competition (IARC), RoboBoat Competition, RoboSub Competition, and the Student Unmanned Air Systems Competition (SUAS). There was also a focus on even younger future technologists, as the pavilion also hosted a live demonstration of SeaPerch. Directed at middle and high school students, SeaPerch is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and is a great hands-on, interactive format where the students actually construct a remote operated vehicle (ROV) complete with underwater cameras and sensor suites. It was certainly one of the highest energy areas of the show.

Beaulieu: What are you are up to these days?

Vaughan: Well, 2013 was a very challenging year to say the least. Our business is primarily focused on military programs so, with both the looming sequestration and the government shutdown, there was a lot of navigating through the unknown in 2013. We were very fortunate in that most of our programs emerged unscathed. Ultimately, 2013 ended up being very successful. Our firm focuses on military C4ISR program capture for our principals and supply chain/program management for our clients. It is a vertically integrated model, so the goal is to participate very early on in the program development process (at the design stage) and leverage all our principals’ collective capabilities throughout the supply chain to include: Circuit layout, flex, rigid-flex and rigid circuit fabrication, SMT assembly and test, cable assembly and wire harness manufacture, unit level test, integration and reliability analysis. With all of our supply chain partners collaborating on our clients’ programs concurrently, it's a very robust solution providing vision, value, and velocity for new product development and life cycle management.

Beaulieu: Can you tell us about your journey? How did you get to where you are today?

Vaughan: I’m a lifer in the printed circuit industry and have been involved in military PCB manufacturing in one form or another my entire, nearly 40-year career. I grew up in the business as my father operated a Navy radar contract manufacturing business, Dynamic Electro Systems, in Alexandria, Virginia. The business was vertically integrated and self-sufficient, as were most military-related businesses in those days. And, of course, there were no child labor laws back then, so I got a pretty early start at around age 14. We manufactured the PCBs, wiring harnesses, component assembly, testing, metal fabrication, and final finishes all under one roof. It was quite the opportunity to learn everything about military electronics manufacturing by working in all areas. I was still a young man, around 20, when my father passed, and in what would become a career-defining for me, he had the forethought to arrange my future employment prior to his passing with a good friend of his, Joe Laliberte, at an outfit many will remember--Trans/Circuits. In the early 80s, the company was the top gun in military multilayer manufacturing on the East Coast--a breeding ground for many that are still leaders in the PCB industry today. I was very fortunate to be under Mr. Laliberte's tutelage for a number of years. He taught me the business side of the business.

Beaulieu: How did you get involved in this particular end of the business?

Vaughan: It was a natural migration. Like many other U.S.-based printed circuit manufacturers, Trans/Circuits hit the skids right around the time of the personal computer revolution, as that industry in many ways spawned the creation of the offshoring model. Concurrent with that, there was a cyclical drawback in military spending, so shops were closing at a rapid pace in the U.S. Like everyone else, I had to scramble around the country to stay in the business I loved, working at some great facilities, interfacing with a lot of smart people, and learning every step along the way. As the electronics industry business model moved from the military OEM manufactured in-house/vertical integration model to an outsourced contract manufacturer model, my PCB background became very valuable in contract manufacturing and I wound up managing supply chains at the Tier 1 CM level. When the Telecom bubble burst for domestic CMs in 2002, our facility was shuttered and it became time to re-invent myself once again. I decided to leverage all the printed circuit manufacturing experience, the component supply chain management, sales and operational management experience with my developed client base and formed my own business, Circuit Solutions, LLC.

Beaulieu: How is working in the beltway different from working in other areas of the country? I would assume you have much more of an insider’s view of things, right?

Vaughan: What I refer to as the Mid-Atlantic Pentagon Market is not for the faint of heart or for companies thinking they can simply attend a military trade show, put up a booth, and start immediately booking business. While it is a target-rich and an enticing market from the outside looking in, every single major military prime has either their corporate headquarters here, with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin as examples, or, at a minimum, they have a major presence. The sales cycle is fairly long at the program level (12 to 18 months) and you need feet on the ground in territory to track all the players and activities and maintain a persistent presence. It’s a highly competitive market, typically requiring leading edge technologies--and all the large, mil-focused circuit manufacturers have a local presence and are here to compete every day. Speaking of this market, and on a much more somber note, it is not possible to discuss the Mil/Aero market here without letting everyone know that we lost one of our leaders late last month with the passing of Roland Murphy. He operated Colonial Assembly and Design for 30-plus years and was loved by many and will be missed by all. At different times during my career, he was a customer, competitor, mentor, and supplier and was a man that had great influence on me and all those involved in military electronics manufacturing in the D.C. market.

Beaulieu: What is your opinion of government spending of programs?

Vaughan: Dan, if I could answer that one I would have a much bigger office here in D.C. in a pentagonal shaped building. Seriously, I was very pleasantly surprised a few weeks back when the $1.1 trillion FY 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Bill sailed through, effectively blunting sequestration by providing the Pentagon funding to a level above their request and above the level that would have been in place if sequestration had been allowed to go into full effect. Spending year over year will now be flat overall, as opposed to being greatly reduced, and will no longer be indiscriminately cut across the board.

Beaulieu: Can you talk about new and innovative products the government is working on? Unmanned vehicles for example?

Vaughan: In addition to the unmanned systems, there's real critical mass developing around wearable electronics. If you build flex circuits, pay careful attention to this developing market as it will transcend military applications and will absolutely cross over in a big way to commercial applications. We are seeing it happen already in many markets. The market should scale into reasonably high volumes, and with a resurgence in U.S. competitiveness, there's a very real chance we can keep the manufacturing piece here in the U.S.

Beaulieu: Tell me about your new column.

Vaughan: The title will be “Mil/Aero Markets” and the hope is that I will be able to share experiences, insight, and relevant information to keep readers of The PCB Magazine abreast of what's going on in the largest defense market in the U.S.

Beaulieu: When can we expect to see the first installment?

Vaughan: March 2014.

Beaulieu: Where do you see the North American electronics industry in five years?

Vaughan: It’s an exciting time to be in the electronics business in the United States. I have been active for a couple years in the “Reshoring Initiative.” Founded and led by Harry Moser, who was inducted into Industry Week’s Manufacturing Hall of Fame in 2010, the initiative provides an interactive total cost of ownership (TCO) calculator and extensive educational information for OEMs to consider as they make their point of manufacture choices. If interested, you may learn more at www.reshorenow.org. If you are attending IPC APEX EX{P 2014 and are a PCB executive, consider signing up for the IPC PCB Supply Chain Leadership Meeting to hear Moser walk through the Reshoring Initiative’s progress and process, while gaining access to the toolsets that can help your company be successful in reshoring electronics business to the U.S. Walt Custer and many others are also presenting at the Leadership Meeting--meaning there will be a lot to learn in that room. Our business has enjoyed success in pulling back electronics manufacturing opportunities from other countries to the U.S. In fact, one of my principals, Zentech Manufacturing, Inc., a Baltimore-based CM, was recently featured in Inc. magazine for their accomplishments in the reshoring arena, so I know first-hand it's happening. Like any process, it works if you work it. And while it may seem counter-intuitive for a military electronics-focused person such as myself to be involved in the reshoring piece--bigger picture--I recognize it is vitally important to help sustain a robust defense industrial base of PCB manufacturers and electronics contract manufacturers to support our Department of Defense. The key to effectively supporting the defense industrial base is having a strong backlog of business and the cash flow required to invest in capital equipment for manufacturing the leading edge technologies, having a financially sustainable business model for board manufacturers, and acquiring and retaining highly-skilled manufacturing personnel. Building more electronics product in the U.S. accomplishes many of these goals that together we can leverage to grow and best support the DoD requirements.

Beaulieu: What about technology?

Vaughan: Like many others, I am on the sidelines with a business plan waiting to jump in whenever the printed electronics market materializes. I have seen some R&D efforts in the military arena primarily as relates to RFID technologies and batteries that are encouraging. One of my primary reasons for attending IPC APEX EXPO will be to learn more about the technology and current applications.

Beaulieu: John, it's been a pleasure talking with you. You always bring fresh insight to the conversation. I look forward to reading your column.

For more information about Vauchan and his company, visit www.circuit-solutions.com. Read his new column, “Mil/Aero Markets” in the March 2014 issue of The PCB Magazine.

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