Reading time ( words)
Niche Electronics is one of my favorite companies to check in on, not only because I like them, but I believe they exemplify what a good PCBA company has been doing the past few years. They have two locations on the cutting edge of technology; this is a company on the way up, which is particularly exciting to watch. Sean McConville, Niche’s vice president of business development, is an old friend from my PCB sales days who has moved over to assembly. I was eager to see how he was doing, especially with this past year of COVID 19 restrictions.
Enjoy our talk.
Dan Beaulieu: We have not talked to you guys in a while. How are things going these days?
Sean McConville: Things are going very well. 2021 has started off with a bang. From a sales perspective, our bookings are way up early this year, and we have a good amount of product already in our manufacturing queue. In addition, we are now in the process of receiving and putting in place some brand new manufacturing lines in both our Pennsylvania and Florida locations.
Beaulieu: How are you faring through COVID-19?
McConville: 2020 was a tough year for many companies around the world. We have been fortunate, as most of the companies in the electronics industry were deemed essential businesses. Many of us build military and medical devices that must be manufactured. Our early adoption of safety protocols by our management team was paramount in how we moved forward. This was done with lightning speed. This kept our factory open and gave us the opportunity to have an excellent year.
Beaulieu: Tell us a little bit about the company.
McConville: Niche Electronics started back in 1997 by several engineers who came from a local manufacturer in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. They put everything they had right up front and put the most advance equipment in place. They were very successful and began to build leading edge technology right out of the gate when the dot com explosion began. Six years ago, the owners retired and sold their business to a forward-thinking private equity company. The new owners infused us with additional capital that catapulted us to the next task of building on the prior success of Niche. This included putting in place robust systems, procedures, and equipment. Additionally, they purchased a company in Florida, QCMS, which is also overseen by Niche’s president. So, we have two factories in two geographies that are being groomed under the same standards. These are exciting times.
Beaulieu: What’s your story? Tell us about your journey.
McConville: I have been in the electronics industry for over 40 years. It is a long story, but here’s a short synopsis. My first job was delivering bare printed circuit boards for a small company called Proto Circuits when I was very young. Today, ironically, I still deliver product to our customers. This industry has always been about service to the customers. So, that seemingly small job blossomed into an early sales career. Delivering product on time was always on my mind. And, I found this satisfying, as did the customer. It became my mantra. Relationships and trust was paramount. As time went on, I became a sales manager and a general manager. Later, I moved on to a much larger circuit board manufacturer called Automata, which I felt was on the cutting edge of circuit board technology. They were the first to do laser drilling for microvias in production in the U.S. and the first to be licensed for buried capacitance. This engineering-driven company had no equal. Today, they are a division of TTM.
That was where I met Frank Bowman, a process engineer for one of our customers, and now president of Niche Electronics. Early on we worked on a project together for Motorola on the first wireless generation of the Nintendo Game Boy. Automata did the bare boards and Niche built the assemblies. The customer was serviced well, and the wireless Game Boy was successful. Over the next few years, we worked on many other projects together, even though I worked at several other companies along the way. About five years ago, Frank called me with an opportunity to work at Niche, as it had just been acquired by an energetic private equity company. So here we are today on a solid path to develop and grow Niche Electronics.
Beaulieu: Let’s talk about the PCBA business in general. I know your background has been in PCBs and now you are on the other side of that proverbial desk. What is that like? What are the differences, if any, selling PCBAs vs. PCBs?
McConville: As you know the bare board is most often one of the most critical and expensive parts of any electronics assembly. It is literally the foundation of every other part that goes into the product. As there are many processes that go into a printed circuits, it is also true for the PCBA manufacturers. When you add them together, the logistics of the processes and the number of parts that go into final product, it can be staggering. So, good PCBA manufacturers need good PCB manufacturers. Being on the PCBA side now, the key is patience. Gaining new customers that are willing to add a new manufacturer to build their entire product takes a little longer than bare boards. Timing is everything. The customer, OEM, has to be in a position where they are actively thinking about or looking for a new manufacturer. You can be the best manufacturer in the world, but the potential customer may be perfectly happy with their incumbent supplier. After all, we are often building their whole product. The customer has to put a lot of trust into their supplier. The more complex the product, the more difficult it is to get an opportunity to build. This is especially true if they are currently serviced well, and it’s true for bare boards as well.
Beaulieu: What makes Niche outstanding?
McConville: Niche builds some rather complex assemblies. Some of them are extremely dense board level assemblies, some are full box builds with full integration and test, and some are a combination of both. Every assembly is unique. Like many outstanding companies, Niche is defined by the talent it has. From our frontline workers to our management staff, our team members go the extra mile every day to help deliver product to our customers. You can rest assured that we are working behind the scenes to do the best that we can.
Beaulieu: Why should customers buy your services?
McConville: Because we have our customers’ interest in mind. We are focused on finding an efficient and economical solution to every assembly that we build. We have robust equipment, systems, and procedures in place to assure a successful build for the most complex assemblies. One of our mottos is that we are solution driven. Our material team is second to none, doing real-time analysis on long lead items, and hard to find and obsolete parts. Our engineering and production team is always looking at ways to shorten manufacturing times by coming up with unique manufacturing solutions.
Beaulieu: Let’s focus on that. What do you think your customers say about your company?
McConville: What our customers say to us or about us is hugely important. Many changes in our processes and procedures at Niche are a result of what our customers have said to us. As we know, no company is perfect. We all stumble at times, but it’s how we recover that counts. I am hoping that customers say that we are true to our word, that we work hard to help them, and that we course correct when things don’t work out as planned. In the end I think that most of our customers would recommend us to others, and they would tell them that Niche would be a great supplier for them.
Beaulieu: I see more customers wanting a full package, what I call total concept (design, fab and assembly), all done by one company on one PO. Do you have partnerships that allow you to offer this service?
McConville: We never shy away from helping a customer in any way that we can. We have utilized multiple partners for engineering services, board design, and test design. We have been very fortunate that we have many connections in the industry that can provide services for us that we do not have in-house. We do this transparently with our customers, so that they can work directly with our partners if they choose.
Beaulieu: There is much talk about “onshoring,” bringing business back to the U.S. What are your thoughts on that?
McConville: I have always been an advocate of building product here in the U.S. Understandably, some companies at the turn of this century began to build product offshore. This was done to take advantage of low-cost labor areas and increase their profitability. The obvious problem with this is that we end up reducing our manufacturing capabilities here in U.S. and reducing our readiness as a country in the event of an international situation. Perhaps our public policy should be to mandate that we build a certain percentage of our products here in the U.S., so that we retain capability and readiness. I see the tide changing now, especially with this pandemic. We found ourselves inadequately prepared. Now, I think we all see that we must change this. I am optimistic we will see more product built here in the U.S.
Beaulieu: Where do you see Niche in five years?
McConville: Niche has a bright future ahead. At the moment we have two locations to service local markets in the Southeast and in the Mid-Atlantic. We see ourselves with multiple locations in other markets where we are collectively sharing our common processes, platforms, and procedures.
Beaulieu: How do you see the industry today and in the future?
McConville: From my perspective, the electronics industry appears strong. As 2020 created a new paradigm of how we work and live, innovation has been our path to work around this pandemic. Many of these innovations will be here to stay as we learn how more people can effectively work from home. Our dependence on the internet and connectivity has increased the need for more electronics infrastructure all over the world. As we move away from fossil fuel some of the major automobile companies have recently announced that they will be going totally electric. This means battery development will be going at a rapid rate. Electronic innovation will be key. There will be much to do. I see a bright future.
Beaulieu: As we wrap up, do you have any last comments?
McConville: As we are still in the midst of this world pandemic, we have to keep our eye on getting through this situation safely. We just need to stay the course for a short while longer. Our innovation, tenacity, and faith will get us through.
Beaulieu: Thanks, Sean. Always a pleasure.
McConville: Thank you, Dan.