Less is more for Canby manufacturing company
In a small industrial building on the edge of the Portland metro area, an Oregon company is changing the world of electronics hardware manufacturing, one circuit board at a time. Literally.
Electronics hardware manufacturing has a long-running history of favoring big hardware companies as customers with deep pockets willing to sign years-long contracts for high-volume production runs. Smaller start-ups usually don't have the money or the order size to compete for a traditional manufacturer's attention, especially when it can take weeks for quotes and cost tens of thousands of dollars in engineering fees even before a single circuit board is produced.
But at Screaming Circuits in Canby, less is more. The manufacturer has thrown out the traditional rule book and created processes that enable it to produce small runs of circuit boards with quick turnaround times. Quotes, which are based on a unique "close enough" philosophy, are handed to clients within hours. Orders are usually handled in a single day. And jobs are scheduled based on a client's needs rather than when a manufacturer can find room on its calendar.
"What we've done is, we've helped start this new type of manufacturing for (circuit boards)," Duane Benson, Screaming Circuit's marketing manager and chief technology officer, said. "We call it manufacturing on-demand."
The comeback kids
Oregon's electronics hardware industry traces its roots back to the early 1980s, when a company called Tektronix gave rise to a handful of spin off companies. Those companies then gave rise to even more spinoff companies.
"Out in mostly the Beaverton-Hillsboro area, we had a pretty rich hardware electronics industry," Benson said.
But an economic downturn in the late 1980s took a toll. Even as Internet and software companies eventually began to bloom in the state, hardware companies remained few and far between, according to Benson.
Then, about 10 years ago, Oregon's hardware landscape started to show signs of new life.
Open-source hardware began to gain ground, allowing people to share both designs and ideas. Having that access to designs allowed people to build foundations to start companies more easily.
"It lowered the barrier to entry for hardware companies significantly," Benson said.
Around that same time, the tools used to actually design hardware also became more accessible as companies began offering free or low-cost software.
Adding to the mix was the rise of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, making it easier for entrepreneurs, engineers and designers to obtain small amounts of capital to start up hardware companies.
"It made it much, much easier to get a small amount of capital to start up a hardware company," Benson said.
But while electronics hardware companies were beginning to make a comeback, there was still the problem of getting the actual hardware manufactured. Many of those companies were startups working on prototypes using capital from crowdfunded campaigns, which meant they usually needed a handful of circuit boards rather than the high quantities traditional manufacturers were set up to provide
That's where Screaming Circuits found its niche.
A 'close enough' philosophy
The company is a division of a Wisconsin-based company called Milwaukee Electronics. In the late 1990s, the company acquired a small electronics company in Milwaukie, Oregon, and used it to establish a West Coast manufacturing presence.
In 2003, Milwaukee Electronics was asked by a customer to produce a batch of circuit boards smaller than the company usually turned out. Sensing an opportunity, the company started a new division called Screaming Circuits, and based it in its Milwaukie facility in the Portland metro area. The company moved its Portland area operations, including Screaming Circuits, to Canby in 2005.
Agreeing to manufacture orders as small as a single circuit board required Screaming Circuit to basically start from scratch, throwing out all of manufacturing's traditional rules.
When it came to providing quotes for clients, the company decided it needed to streamline and shorten the process. The company also laid claim to being the first hardware manufacturer to move its ordering process online.
"We literally took a multi-week, multi-page quote process and turned it into, at the time, six questions," Benson said.
Automated manufacturing equipment is made to produce high-volume runs of circuit boards. In order to use those same machines for smaller runs, Screaming Circuits had to make customized changes.
"We modified the surface-mount assembly robots to work with small quantities of parts," Benson said. "We took what was out there and we added some small, but critical, modifications to them."
The company also adopted its "close enough" philosophy when providing quotes for a job. The goal is to come as close as possible to an accurate cost to cover the job with a profit while moving the work onto the manufacturing floor as quickly as possible.
"We're going to be too expensive in some cases," Benson said. "We'll make it up in others, but it will all average out in the end."
The right fit
In its earliest days in business, Screaming Circuits handled one or two jobs per week. But as word spread about the company's willingness to fill orders as small as a single circuit board, the client list grew.
These days, on average, the company serves between 100 and 200 customers per week, or one to two orders per hour, according to senior marketing specialist Megan Lammers. Orders range from one board to a couple hundred.
The majority of customers are based in the U.S., but the company has shipped orders to more than 20 different countries. The range of products they've built circuit boards for is equally as far reaching, from the mundane to the extreme.
"We've seen everything," Lammers said. "Nothing's too weird. Nothing scares (our) guys — they just grab it and go …We have one engineer who's been here 10 years. He's seen it all, from down under the ocean to up in space to everything between."
Her statement isn't an exaggeration. One of the boards that Screaming Circuits produced ended up in a donut-shaped camera that National Geographic used to photograph sea life deep in the ocean. When the camera's work was done, a chain that held it anchored to the ocean bottom rusted through and released the camera, which floated to the surface, where it was recovered.
More often, though, while Screaming Circuit and its employees know the names of their clients — a recent glance at boards waiting to be built revealed an order from The Walt Disney Co. as well as from smaller local companies — they often never find out where the boards they produce end up. And they're fine with that, according to Lammers. For the company's engineers and floor techs, it's more about the unique challenge that comes with each order.
"There's a philosophy on the floor that the harder (a job is), the better," Lammers said. "There's a little bit of a nerd factor — our engineers really like those kinds of projects."
"You want consistency (in most manufacturing environments); you want everything to always be predicable," Benson said. "(At Screaming Circuits), we live, survive and thrive on variability and chaos.
"It's a fairly high-pressure job. What we want to do is make an engineer's life easier, and that means we take their stress and throw it on ourselves."
Like other industries in Oregon, manufacturing is struggling to find workers. In a recent State of Manufacturing in the Pacific Northwest report conducted for Aldrich CPAs + Advisors and Portland law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, more than 80 percent of the 100 manufacturing companies in Oregon and Washington surveyed said hiring and retaining a skilled workforce was their biggest hurdle.
Screaming Circuits has managed to find talented staff from as far north as Vancouver, as far east as Gresham and even as far south as Scio, a small rural community in Linn County. But keeping positions filled as the company grows is still a top challenge, Benson said.
Holding the lead
Shortly after Screaming Circuits started, a handful of competitors popped up. They disappeared almost as quickly because they tried to make traditional approaches to quoting and turnaround times work with the on-demand model rather than create new processes, Benson said.
There have been plenty of other companies that have stepped in to take their places.
"A lot of start-up companies will say, 'We don't have competition.' We've got competition everywhere," Benson said.
Those competitors range in size from a single engineer-turned-entrepreneur who wants to hand-build boards to multi-billion-dollar, blue-chip manufacturers looking to grab a share of the on-demand customer market. Then there are a couple of thousand mid-size manufacturers looking to create on-demand divisions the way Milwaukee Electronics did with Screaming Circuits.
More recently, a new type of on-demand manufacturer has appeared on the scene — internet-based competitors backed by venture capital.
While Screaming Circuits keeps an eye on the competition, the company prefers to focus the majority of its time and effort on doing what it's always done best — pushing the boundaries of traditional manufacturing to continue to shape and define the world of on-demand production.
"There's really a lot more to the manufacturing business in this country than most people think of. There has been for a long time," Benson said. "But because of (our) philosophy, we're thriving in such a heavily competitive environment."