Catching up with Gardien’s Rick Meraw
There are companies out there who are truly changing the world—companies who are making a dent in the universe, to quote the late Steve Jobs. Gardien is one of those companies. So much so that I like to catch up with them on a regular basis because they’re always adding something to their repertoire and it’s typically something that helps improve the way we handle quality assurance in our industry.
With that in mind, I sat down with Gardien’s recently appointed Global Vice President for Quality, Rick Meraw.
Dan Beaulieu: Tell me something about your background. How did you get into this industry and how long have you been with Gardien?
Rick Meraw: I got into the industry straight out of college after graduating with an Electronic Engineering Technologist degree in 1992. My first job was working in the electrical test department of a PCB fabricator and from there I progressed over to the service industry in 1993. With Gardien I’ve held various positions from service/quality manager, general manager, director of operations, VP of USA operations, to my current position of VP of Global Quality.
Beaulieu: What does this new position encompass?
Meraw: As the only printed circuit board quality company with a global footprint, we’ve got 25 service centers in seven countries, and these pretty much cover the main PCB fabrication markets. With this kind of global dimension comes a great deal of responsibility. Our goal is to make sure that all our quality measurements are consistent and universal, so that regardless of whether a customer’s board was tested in Taipei, Toronto, Shenzhen or Singapore, a Gardien test is a Gardien test.
Beaulieu: So you’re like the McDonald’s of consistency…a Big Mac is a Big Mac regardless of which market you bought it in.
Meraw: Yes, for our customers it means that regardless of where they use a Gardien solution they know they’ll receive the same high quality of service that they have come to expect from us.
Beaulieu: So you have taken the word “assurance” to mean just that…the customer, the end-user, knows that a supplier using Gardien will deliver a PCB of consistent quality.
Meraw: Yes, and the important thing, the most important thing is the end customer knows that if he has multiple PCB vendors in multiple locations using Gardien, they will all produce PCBs with the same high level of quality.
Beaulieu: And how can you guarantee this uniform global consistency?
Meraw: Because we have developed a proprietary IT system called OnTrack to ensure we deliver on the promise. OnTrack is an in-house developed ERP solution that was written from the ground up to manage PCB quality assurance; we leverage it extensively throughout the entire Gardien Group. The system is broken down into a number of modules: cam, test and AVI. There’s also one for planning, costing, KPI reporting, training, quality, maintenance and even sales. In effect, these modules make up an entire business ecosystem and everyone in our group, around the world, is trained in the application of these modules.
Beaulieu: So by having everyone work on the same system you can have everyone work in the same way, to the same standard
Meraw: Exactly; our internal goal here is that we should be able to take an employee from any of our facilities, place them in another Gardien operation, and they can hit the ground running. The processing of jobs should be uniformly consistent, as should any associated data entry. The only thing that might be a little different is that OnTrack may be in a different language, since it is a multilingual system.
Beaulieu: I can see how it makes for a lean and efficient operation. What benefits do your customers get?
Meraw: We believe it delivers significant benefits to our customers, particularly those operating multiple facilities or cross-border operations. They are assured of consistent quality and data.
Beaulieu: Please tell me more about data collection. What are you doing with that?
Meraw: At a customer level we can provide information such as KPI dashboards tailored to our clients’ needs. Obviously, many of our clients operate their own ERP systems, but what we offer is information from an alternative viewpoint—a fresh set of eyes, if you will. The OnTrack system is built for one very specific purpose, PCB quality assurance, so all its outputs are centered on that. We can generate reports on specification conformity, certification, and job yield histories; for our American clients, it even handles things like ITAR compliance.
Beaulieu: What do you mean by job yield histories?
Meraw: If the client has previously fabricated the same PCBs, we compare the job with historical first pass yield rates so that we can quickly alert them to any potential process variations.
Beaulieu: Given that you have so many operations and you must be capturing significant amounts of quality related data, do you think the information is useful at an industry level?
Meraw: That’s something we are striving toward—being able to track quality trends that are happening in the industry all over the world. We also use the information to improve the quality of service we offer. Lessons learned in one service center are collated so that we can apply the knowledge in other markets. As an example, we capture numerous data points around any RMAs that we encounter and enter this into a knowledge base. If we see a similar issue elsewhere we have the experience to work towards a solution.
Beaulieu: This is truly “dent making” stuff, but I’m just a marketing guy, so let’s slow down a bit and tackle this one thing at a time: First of all, you are arriving at global quality assurance by using OnTrack, which is a system made up of specific PCB quality assurance modules. Your use of this makes it possible to apply the same system principles to all of your installations, thus providing solid, consistent, reliable and repeatable processes with every single company you work with no matter where in the world they are.
Meraw: That’s exactly right.
Beaulieu: And then the second part of this, and probably what will turn out to be the most important, is the by-product of your OnTrack system, which is the data collection. You are literally learning from everything you do with each of your customers and entering this knowledge into a universal and ever-growing data base. Then, you draw on that data base to not only follow global quality trends but also cross-pollinate this knowledge to create a problem-solving tool for all the companies you work with. Is that right?
Meraw: Yes, that’s correct. The lessons learned within one Gardien environment, be that at a customer site or service center, are shared with the rest of the group. I see my role as being the person who is responsible for transferring these lessons between our centers of excellence and making sure that nothing is lost in translation.
Beaulieu: Now that I know more about all of this I want to get back to your role as VP of Global Quality Assurance. In the realm of all that we have just talked about, how do you do all that it requires, which I now consider a pretty big job?
Meraw: Well, first of all there is the lesson distributor that we just talked about, but beyond that I am the person who makes sure that OnTrack and all of its modules are being effectively and consistently implemented and then followed. I have to make sure each location is doing the same thing in the same way. I spend a lot of time working on the processes and process improvement, getting them all in line and making sure our staff work in the exact same way. When I identify a process improvement I coordinate with our OnTrack programmers to make sure we effectively incorporate it within the system.
Beaulieu: So you are like the consistency police?
Meraw: Exactly—that’s why the title is Global Quality Assurance. If we go back to the previous example I gave on RMAs, I’m responsible for making sure that every center of excellence is processing them in the exact same way. I make sure that they are entering the defect codes correctly and that everyone is tying in with their certifications and that everything is handled in a timely manner. Another part of my role is being responsible for our own internal quality audits, making sure that equipment is calibrated regularly and that preventative maintenance programs are adhered to. Again, much of this is proactively handled within OnTrack.
Beaulieu: So what this all comes down to is consistent processes, data analysis, consolidation and communication.
Meraw: Yes, in a nutshell, that’s my job
Beaulieu: Since we’ve talked about data so much in this article can you address how you handle it? I know that companies are very sensitive as to how their information is handled and privacy maintained.
Meraw: Absolutely, and I’m glad you raised this point. We adhere to the strictest of privacy standards. When we consolidate data it is anonymized and aggregated. I want to make that very clear. We are not taking one company’s set of secrets and passing them on to another company. We are putting the data together in an objective, non-personal, and anonymous way so that we can provide a class leading service. The fact that OnTrack is ITAR compliant clearly demonstrates our understanding of confidentiality.
Confidentiality and discretion are hugely important to us. We literally work with hundreds of PCB fabricators and this is only possible if we maintain their trust.
Beaulieu: Without naming names, of course, can you share an actual example of something that worked using your system? Perhaps an instance when you have been able to leverage in one market and deliver in another with consistency across the board?
Meraw: I was recently in Japan performing a site survey on behalf of a client. This is where we basically conduct a QA review which ranges from a quick review all the way to a fully comprehensive analysis of procedures. With this particular client the area of focus was set up through test completion. A number of factors came to light. The test process was not being documented and the process itself was not formal in that every operator was doing something slightly different. As a result, a lot of the boards had test witness marks.
Beaulieu: What are those?
Meraw: These are the marks that are left on the boards from performing the electrical test process. We have significant experience gained from other customers and other markets in rectifying board witness mark issues. The solution was the introduction of a standardized procedure and process we utilize in order to minimize board marking. This was then rolled out to the client’s other facility.
Beaulieu: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are the only company doing this kind of thing, right?
Meraw: Yes, we are; we’re the only global quality assurance company in the world.
Beaulieu: So this means that any company, whether it be very large or small, receives the benefits from OnTrack if they work with you.
Meraw: Yes, that is exactly right, and quite frankly, it is the beauty of the system. If it’s of no interest to a client, not a problem. It seamlessly works in the background ensuring that they get world class quality assurance from Gardien. Similarly, if the client wants detailed documentation and quality analysis, OnTrack is available to provide it.
Beaulieu: Is there any thought of sharing some of this information with the industry as a whole?
Meraw: Well, we have been discussing doing that but we’re not there yet. Stay tuned because it might happen sometime in the future.
Beaulieu: I will. In fact let’s make a date right now for us to talk again one year from now so that I can hear the rest of the story.
Meraw: It’s a date.
Beaulieu: Thanks, Rick.
Meraw: Thank you, Dan.
For more information about The Gardien Group and especially their OnTrack system, click here.