Catching up with PNC
PNC, headquartered in Nutley, New Jersey, is a unique company. Started in 1968, and then taken over by Sam Sangani in 1996, it has evolved into one of the premier PCB companies on the East Coast, if not the country. Over the years, the company has grown to the point where it now offers circuit design, layout, fabrication and assembly to its customers, making it one of the few total concept under one roof companies in North America.
If there is one word that sums up the company’s philosophy, that word would be convenience. They strive to be as convenient as possible to their customers, always making sure that they are providing their customers with everything they need to succeed. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Calvin Switzer, VP of PNC.
Dan Beaulieu: Calvin, tell me a little bit about the company.
Calvin Switzer: The company was actually started in 1968 by a gentleman named Rene Gabbai, and then in 1996 we bought the company. We saw an opportunity with the current business of original ownership and felt we could increase business by studying each process and upgrading them systematically to increase our technology with new equipment.
Our vision was to become one of, if not the best printed circuit board shops in the Northeast, which we feel we have achieved. Since then, our vision has changed slightly by integrating a circuit design, started in 2004, and assembly division, begun in 2010. These changes were driven by our customer base, especially our assembly division. Over time, when POs were being placed, we were always asked, can we have the PCBs assembled and delivered as a final product? With such a high level of interest, we decided collectively to go in that direction.
Beaulieu: So you provide what I like to call total concept: circuit design, layout, fabrication and assembly?
Switzer: Yes absolutely. So many of our customers were asking us to provide the complete service package that it was an obvious decision to start doing just that. Our President, Sam Sangani, likes to say that we sell convenience, and I think he is correct.
Beaulieu: I agree with Sam. I think today our customers are looking for a more convenient way of doing business and certainly offering total concept under one roof provides convenience, to say the least.
Switzer: PNC’s total concept company makes us very unique in the industry. For those customers looking for efficient and expedited turn times, it’s become a big advantage over our competitors. I’d say most competitors who advertise the same practices actually have to subcontract portions of that work out, which makes turn time efficiency and quality control more difficult to control.
Beaulieu: I consider it a true service for the future, and you have it here today. I am quite sure that in a few years many others are going to follow your lead. Let’s talk some more about your technology. What capabilities do you have at PNC?
Switzer: Our PCB manufacturing capabilities increase with technology demands yearly, including 3/3 trace space; .250 thickness panels; blind and buried vias; controlled depth routing and drilling; controlled impedance; filled vias both conductive and non-conductive; PTH down to .006, using an array of materials from FR-4 to polyimide to Rogers ceramic and PTFF, aluminum clad and a number of hybrids. With regard to controlled impedance, we are seeing the demand for that increasing all the time.
Beaulieu: You pretty much cover the gamut of technologies and laminates. Tell me what you are best at. What makes you outstanding?
Switzer: I would have to say being a total concept company is our single biggest differentiator. There are not many companies that can do that. That allows us to offer our customers a much more streamlined process where we can take them from literally an idea to reality. Besides being so much more efficient, all of this can be done with just one phone call, and it is much more economical for them. This is where the convenience factor comes into play with our customer base. They only have to cut one PO, making their jobs more efficient and easier since they can communicate with one source instead of multiple sources to get one final product task completed.
Beaulieu: Can you tell me a little bit more about your circuit design capabilities?
Switzer: We started that portion of the business in 2004 with one highly experienced EE, and due to design standards, our staff has grown to 15 engineers. We can work from ideas and concepts to having existing schematics and performing the layouts. The area of design that is evolving at a frantic pace is altering existing designs. Many existing products in the market need to be updated due to technology changes over time. We can take an existing designs and incorporate new technology, such as Wi-Fi, or even write new software. Our engineers have experience in the medical, automotive, aviation, industrial and commercial sectors.
Beaulieu: That’s pretty impressive. Especially at this time when there is much more new product development than ever. So let’s talk some of the special boards you build at PNC.
Switzer: We have refined our process over the years to allow us to manufacture an array of PCBs for multiple Industries. We still fabricate double-sided boards, but a majority of the boards manufactured at PNC are multilayers using FR-4 or polyamide.
For microwave/RF applications we typically build double-sided and multilayers using Rogers’s ceramic materials, and a few FR-4. A majority of the single-sided antenna boards are usually PTFE materials from Rogers. For double-sided antenna boards we also use the PTFE Rogers material and plate through from a strip line to the antenna.
Aluminum clad boards have become very popular in the last few years for LED applications. We fabricate single-sided aluminum boards from .02 to .125. We can also do HI-pot testing on all aluminum clad PCBs as well.
Another technology that we have been manufacturing for some time are hybrids. Most of the hybrids we see use aluminum laminated to either Rogers ceramic or FR-4.
Beaulieu: Where would you rate PNC in terms of technology?
Switzer: In terms of technology, I would rate PNC, on a scale of 1 to 10, somewhere around 9. In saying that, we are only a few process upgrades away from being a solid 10. One of those processes would be plating. Currently, we are plating at an aspect ratio of around 10 to 1. With a new plating line we can increase that aspect ratio immensely. We are looking to install our new plating line in the fourth quarter of 2016. With the tolerances becoming tighter and tighter, LDI would really help us with registration. This technology is also under review, but the return on investment is not there yet to justify it.
PNC has spent more than $2 million in the last three to four years upgrading capital equipment such as new routing machines, new drilling machines, new scoring, horizontal brown oxide, etching, primary developing, micro sectioning, reverse osmosis for DI water, inner layer cleaning, LPI, resist strip, tin strip, two ET machines, and video inspection.
Beaulieu: I have to mention quality. Do you have all of the registrations and specifications that your customers require these days?
Switzer: Yes, absolutely. We have all of them including ISO, 55110, 31032, ITAR, UL MBE, DBE, SBA, and NMSDC; and of course, for our employee certs, we have IPC-A-600, IPC-A-610 and J-STD-001.
We take these things very seriously at PNC. We feel that multiple certs/registrations can be a big advantage for our existing and prospective customer base. It builds flexibility to our customers who are looking to break into new markets or industries, such as bidding on DBE projects, knowing that we are a registered DBE. This is only one scenario in which we can say we have the advantage over our competition.
Beaulieu: Do you do any R&D work at the company?
Switzer: Yes—many R&D projects. Over the last two to three years, there has been a big push for new and different materials. Examples would be board-on-board, hybrids, carbon and resistive polymer inks, and controlled depth routing to create ledges or cavities in the PCBs. We participate in an array of R&D, in fact we welcome the opportunity to work with our customers on their future projects to help them with the process and make sure they are building the best products possible.
Beaulieu: A while ago you mentioned a large investment in the company. Can you go into detail on how much you spent and on what?
Switzer: I certainly can, because this is something we are very proud of. During the past few years we have invested more than $2 million on the board side of our business and more than $1 million on the assembly side. Some of the equipment we purchased were: A new screen printer; a universal pick and place machine; and eight-zone reflow oven; a BGA rework station; AOI and a selective soldering system. We also added 8,000 square feet of manufacturing space for additional SMT assembly lines.
Beaulieu: That’s a significant investment. What was your thinking on doing that?
Switzer: We also own an assembly facility in Chicago, which we use for production runs. But with that facility we could not compete with quick-turn turnkey projects so we decided to add additional lines in our Nutley facility. This has grown to the point where we had to add additional square footage here in Nutley. Our goal is to have four assembly shops throughout the U.S. in the next few years. We have accomplished two of those in the last 3-4 years.
Beaulieu: What types of companies as customers are you best suited to work for?
Switzer: Over the years, we have diversified our work with multiple industries. We currently work within the medical field, power supply, music, automotive, microwave /RF, and military. Can’t say that one is better suited for us over the other, since PNC’s model is to service all industries with printed circuit and electronic assembly needs.
Beaulieu: So tell me Calvin, what are your plans for the future?
Switzer: Our five-year plan is to have an electronic assembly facility on the East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, and the South. At this point we have SMT lines in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
Beaulieu: How do you see the market today?
Switzer: It’s constantly changing and we really do not compete in any single market. We attend different market trade shows to get leads as well as Internet leads, which can be from multiple markets. Regardless of the market, the most common and biggest challenge we see is pricing.
Beaulieu: Where do you see technology going in the future?
Switzer: There seems to be a lot of interest in flex and rigid-flex.
Beaulieu: Now let’s talk about service, what do you consider good service?
Switzer: Obviously, everything depends on how you execute when it comes to quick responses to RFQs, such as emails and phone calls, but it is actually much more than that. It is how you treat the customers and how you let them know that you are in business for them—if they succeed you will succeed. After all, the customer is why we are in business. I also feel that our responsiveness to all facets of the business—sales, production flexibility, support, and on-time delivery makes us a preferred service provider in the end.
Beaulieu: What do you think your customers are looking for when it comes to service?
Switzer: Unfortunately, many of them are just looking for the lowest price —with brokers involved in the PCB industry, they often use Asia manufacturing, which sets the target dollars for U.S. manufacturers. We try to show them the value that a company like ours can bring them. By using our complete package we can save them thousands of dollars in both time and real money. This is what we try to convey to them.
Beaulieu, Calvin as you have already proved, In order to stay at the top of the technology ladder you have to invest in the future. What are your capital investment plans for the near future?
Switzer: We are always looking to invest in the future. If you don’t keep up with capital investments you will fall behind in a big way, it’s as simple as that. So with that in mind we are looking to invest in a plating line that can produce higher aspect ratios for the board shop and additional assembly equipment for the additional 10,000 square foot assembly space we have added to our facility, which we are looking to do in the very near future. We are also looking at purchasing a new lamination press and LDI for the board shop and additional equipment for the assembly facility.
Beaulieu: And what new technologies and services are you looking at?
Switzer: We’re looking at continuous evaluation throughout the shop with ongoing upgrades as needed. We have completed most process areas over the past few years, but we are always evaluating. We also want to do more total concept from circuit design, layout, fabrication, electronic assembly, test, and box build.
Beaulieu: Let’s talk about the fact that you are in New Jersey. There are not many shops left on the East Coast today. How does this affect you?
Switzer: I think we get a fair amount of jobs from companies on the East Coast. OEM manufacturing in general on the East Coast is down over the years, which makes it tougher to develop new business. There seems to be an overabundance of CMs on the East Coast and those numbers keep increasing yearly, which means that we will be seeing new business opportunities through those companies.
Beaulieu: Does most of your business come from the East Coast?
Switzer: The majority of our business is within the East Coast, comprising the tri-state and New England area. Although a majority of new business opportunities are on the East Coast, we hired a dedicated salesperson to follow up all Internet and tradeshow leads, so our business has been expanding throughout the Midwest and West Coast.
Beaulieu: How do you compete with shops that are not from here?
Switzer: We compete very well in terms of pricing; we are not the lowest or the highest. As mentioned earlier, geography plays a role in the minds of some companies. The biggest hurdle to jump is persuading a prospective customer to change over from their current supplier, but once given the opportunity, they quickly realize that we stand behind what we say.
Beaulieu: Finally, what are your overall thoughts about our industry?
Switzer: I feel the PCB industry has been compromised with so many brokers out there who are taking away U.S. business and sending it to Asia. Now, just about every customer/prospective customer is used to Asia pricing and that makes it very difficult to compete when it’s only price driven.
Beaulieu: How do you see things in the future?
Switzer: We believe the future is bright with our total concept model and the amount of inquiries we are receiving. The message of total concept and convenience is what we need to get out to the industry. Companies need to know of all the advantages of having everything they need under one roof.
Beaulieu: I agree and I have to say that I think that you have gone in the right direction with your total concept offering. Let’s hope that this proves to be true. Calvin, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today; I truly do appreciate it.
Switzer: Thank you Dan, it’s been my pleasure