Catching up With Niche Electronics
I am constantly looking for interesting companies, particularly ones that are doing well. I now have a number of people who tell me about companies they like dealing with and also admire. Thus, when my friend, Sean McConville, went to work at Niche Electronics a few years ago and mentioned how well-run the company was, he got my attention. I finally had the time to sit down with Niche Electronics President Frank Bowman. Read on for the full conversation.
Dan Beaulieu: Frank, we’re finally able to have our talk. Thanks for doing this. I know you’re a busy person.
Frank Bowman: It’s no problem, Dan. I’m looking forward to it.
Dan: First, can you tell me a little bit about Niche Electronics?
Frank: A team of experienced engineers and technicians joined together and founded Niche Electronics in 1997 after having worked with other companies and feeling like they could do a better job than the companies with which they were dealing. Their goal was to provide the best prototype through volume cradle-to-grave manufacturing services to select high-technology companies and industries. They focused the company specifically on providing assembly services to both commercial and military. With that as the mission, we have grown over the years so that now Niche specializes in prototype through volume production and high-complexity circuit board assembly, including system-level integration and test.
Dan: What would you say is your specialty? What makes your company outstanding?
Frank: We are a solutions-driven manufacturer that specializes in developing efficient, repeatable processes resulting in high-quality, cost-effective assemblies. Our entire company is focused on making sure that we give our customers what they need today as well as anticipating what they will need in the future. There are many choices out there, and we have many competitors; thus, to win our customers’ business, we have to be not only the best that not only we can be but also the best in the market today. We work hard to know our customers well and gain a complete understanding of their needs. We recognize that we are building their products. They are trusting us with their products and their future; that is a big responsibility, and we take it very seriously. We are small enough to maintain flexibility, but large enough to utilize advanced technologies and equipment.
Dan: What are some of the special things you do that help you be that special solutions provider for your customers?
Frank: We try to do everything in-house so that we can be in complete control of our processes and products at all times. For example, we like to create our own fixturing in-house. We use cell creation for high-volume assembly opportunities. We find that it is by far the best, most efficient, and most consistently repeatable way to handle large-volume assemblies going through our factory. We also use a fairly sophisticated software system to produce our work instructions and generate programs; this allows us to not only track everything in our system but also have traceability on everything, even rework. We know where everything is in our system at all times, which makes it so much easier to give our customers instant feedback.
Dan: That sounds great. What services do you offer?
Frank: We provide a number of services, ranging from bare board assembly through final systems integration. We can also do special services, such as conformal coating, functional test, cable harness assembly, and BTD rework. We feel it is our responsibility to provide our customers with whatever solution they require. If it’s something that we don’t normally do, we’ll try to find a way to accommodate our customers’ needs by utilizing strategic partnerships.
Dan: You talked about preparing for your customers’ future needs. How do you do that?
Frank: We work closely with our customers. This is the true sense of having a partnership with them. We feel we need to understand their current and future needs to ensure success for both of our companies. So, we ask them, and they tell us. Once you establish a circle of trust with your customers, they realize that you have their best interests in mind and will generally open up to you because they realize that the more information they share with you, the better you will be able to service them.
Dan: And what are you learning from your customers? Give us some insight on what we can expect in the future.
Frank: Continued miniaturization and high density are hot topics. Everything is becoming smaller and more concentrated, which means higher-density designs in smaller spaces; that is a given, and it is happening as we speak. We also see thermal management and exotic materials, creating manufacturing challenges, which is why we are always investing in the future. There are two things you have to do in this industry, and many other industries, to survive: you must keep growing and invest in technology, or you will die. It’s as simple as that.
Dan: What are some of the technologies in which you have invested?
Frank: We’ve invested in 3D inspection, selective soldering, and sophisticated manufacturing software to increase efficiencies and reduce the human element from the manufacturing process; that is the future. The more systems and processes we can have in place, the more consistent and repeatable our results will be. It’s about the first assembly and the ten-thousandth one all looking exactly the same. Automation is the key to that, so we recently invested in another facility as well in November of 2016: Quality Contract Manufacturing Services.
Dan: Is the new facility an add-on to your Pennsylvania facility, or does it provide different services?
Frank: It’s a separate entity with similar capabilities. Automated conformal coating and wire preparation are two additional competencies that we can now offer.
Dan: What are some of the advantages of having another facility?
Frank: With two facilities, we are able to cover more territories, add additional capabilities, and further diversify our customer base.
Dan: That makes a lot of sense. Do you plan to add any other facilities?
Frank: Only time will tell.
Dan: Sounds good. Now, let’s talk a little about quality.
Frank: Sure. Our quality manager comes from the automotive industry, which is a bonus since his background is steeped in all the of super-rigid quality requirements of that industry; he is a real asset to the organization. He leads us in blending high reliability while maintaining flexibility. We are also ISO 9001/2015-certified and ITAR-registered and adhere to in-house IPC and J-Standard certified training using our own certified trainers.
Dan: What are your plans for the future?
Frank: A lot of that is based on our customers’ needs. As is the case with all contract manufacturers, we serve at the pleasure of our customers; they guide us when it comes to the future. We have to be prepared to keep ahead of all of their needs. Our goal is to make our process as consistent and reliable as possible for our customers. In the next five years, we will be working toward more standardization of both equipment and procedures across multiple platforms and multiple facilities.
Dan: What is your idea of great customer service?
Frank: I believe that great service starts and ends with communication. To serve your customers, you have to listen and hear what they need. You must understand their business and market, and as a true partner, do everything you can to make your customers succeed in their own markets. If your customers are successful, you will be too.
Dan: Let’s move over to customer acquisitions. How do you get new customers?
Frank: First, we focus on targeting potential customers that are in our wheelhouse—companies that we know we can help. Our prospecting method is to create an ideal customer profile, find companies that fit that profile, and start prospecting with them. We know we can help them, which means that we have to get in front of them and tell our story. We also attend trade shows and technical forums and reach out to customers through face-to-face customer interactions with online tools. We brand ourselves as solution providers, which pretty much sums up exactly who we are and what we do.
Dan: One more question before we wrap up: What do you see for the future of our industry?
Frank: I see technology getting more complex as well as an increase in miniaturization, of course. There are also some issues with parts availability and suspect parts and components as well as a much more competitive market moving forward.
Dan: Thanks for doing this. I appreciate it.
Frank: Thank you, Dan.