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When searching for companies to interview, I always look for something unique and that makes the company special. Truth be told, I am a collector of stories about good, well-run, unique companies that we can learn something from. Nova Engineering is one of those companies. It really was started in a garage and they have just grown from there. The thing I like about this company is their customer focus. Many companies talk about being customer focused but as I get to know them better, I soon realized that they are not. This is not the case with Nova. Their focus is always on the customer, and it is reflected in the way they developed their processes and set up their facility—even in the very equipment they buy. This company is led by two of the most genuine and well-meaning people I have ever met: Manhar Karsanbhai and his wife, Bindu. I hope you will enjoy meeting them as much as I have.
Dan Beaulieu: Let’s start at the beginning. How and when was the company started?
Manhar Karsanbhai: The company was started in 1984 by Brian Schubert and, yes, it was actually started in a garage!
Beaulieu: What was the plan? Take me through some of the purposes for starting this business.
Manhar: At first the company was very small. It was started in Pine, Colorado, and all their work was for acquaintances, really. The company worked for small companies and consultants, and all the components were consigned. They did not even want to buy components. They did not have any OEM customers. Obviously, everything was paper-based. There was no WiFi. It was almost a mom-and-pop business.
Beaulieu: And when did you come in?
Bindu Karsanbhai: When the business started to grow, the owner decided to sell. We had been looking to start or acquire a business but did not know which way to go. We wanted to own a business, to work for ourselves. Fortunately, this company showed up in our search, and we felt that this particular business was a good fit for us considering Manhar’s background in electrical engineering.
Beaulieu: What was your plan, your vision, upon acquiring the company?
Manhar: The first thing we wanted to do was add structure to the business. We wanted to put processes in place for efficiency and make the company much more scalable. We planned on spending the first five years making it a real business, and then planned to move to a larger, more expandable location, which we did in our sixth year.
Bindu: We found this facility we are currently in, which was more than three times larger than the one in Pine. It also had all the power that we would need to grow.
Manhar: Having a bigger place has allowed us to have a better flow and be more organized. This allowed for proper arrangement of the inventory area as well as proper arrangement of equipment in individual lines. Our vision was to diversify the customer base over many different industries.
Beaulieu: What were the industries that you wanted to serve, or are serving now?
Manhar: We are often asked this question, and I find this to be interesting. We do not want to be known to serve any particular industry as we believe that that is what will allow us to diversify. A large percentage of our business is medical devices; however, we would like to serve any industry, individual, or entity that requires electronic circuits or builds enclosures.
Bindu: One of the things that was important to us was to be a well-qualified supplier. Our primary goal since we acquired the business was to become ISO9001 certified—which we have been since 2014—and obtain other certifications as well. We have obtained ISO13485 certification with the goal of eventually becoming AS9100 certified—which we expect to do in the next 12 months. When the time comes that demand for the business, we will also become ITAR registered.
Beaulieu: What are some of the other things you have done since buying the business?
Manhar: One of the major endeavors that we undertook since the acquisition is the major capital investment in all the equipment that we use today. This has given Nova the state-of-the-art capabilities to serve both our existing and new customers. We have found, as a matter of fact, that the more we invest in our company, the more our customer base grows. Often, we have learned from our customers that they came to us from other companies because the companies they had been working with were not keeping up. They did not have the equipment to meet their needs today, never mind in the future.
Bindu: Here are some of the things we have done, all of which have helped us become a better supplier. Nova has also implemented an ERP system as well as other software systems that have allowed the team much better visibility into our manufacturing process and a much more organized processing of orders from receipt of PO to purchasing, to kitting and production. These are all key factors in allowing us to serve more customers and significantly increase the number of PCBAs that we build.
Manhar: Since our goal is to double our business in five years, we feel it has been important to invest in the right things now. We are always planning for the future.
Beaulieu: From what I know of you, you are very good and hardworking people. Your business is a family business. What are the advantages of being a family business, and being smaller?
Manhar: That’s easy—it allows us to be closer to our customers. It allows us to respond to their needs much more effectively and rapidly. It allows for better communication with customers at various phases of the process. We’ve learned that this is a key differentiator.
Bindu: We also have instituted specific in-process checks such as generating and providing a DFM report for all new assemblies. This enables customers to implement design changes that make their PCBAs more manufacturable, thereby reducing possible defects.
Beaulieu: Okay that’s great. Where do you stand when it comes to technology?
Manhar: One of the unique capabilities we have is a jet printer. This piece of equipment allows us to customize—down to the component level—the amount of paste deposited on the PCB. It allows us to build more challenging designs where you might have small fine pitch components on the same side, near large power components. Traditionally, this requires step stencils with many steps, which does not make it very practical.
Bindu: We also have a unique process where we can customize our equipment internally to accommodate unique components. We have laser-based placement as well as vision-based placement; this allows us to build PCBAs, from prototype to large volume builds. Our CAD software allows us to verify and prepare the paste print process and complete offline programing on all our lines without causing interruption of the production lines.
Manhar: Our offline programing software allows us to line balance and optimize the components per machine and across multiple machines.
Bindu: We have also homed in a unique process where we’ve created multiple opportunities to detect issues with each design. This allows us to offer quick first articles, testing, and verification by the customer, which really helps when it comes to NPI.
Beaulieu: What other pieces of equipment are you planning to buy soon?
Manhar: We will be looking at new AOI equipment that would allow the latest in technology for better inspection and avoiding false positives.
Beaulieu: Now let’s talk about quality. Describe your quality certifications.
Manhar: Sure. It looks like this:
- ISO 9001:2015 helps us follow processes and stay organized; this leads to accountability and forces the team to be all on the same page. This certification has attracted more customers.
- ISO 13485:2016 same as above. In addition, this certification is for medical companies and we have seen a significant interest from companies in this field.
- This month [April], we are going to have an internal certified trainer for IPC-A-610 and J-STD-001. We will then follow up with an internal certification program for all operators.
Beaulieu: How many lines do you have currently?
Manhar: We have three complete SMT lines at this time.
Beaulieu: What kind of equipment you have invested in?
Manhar: We have the jet printer as I mentioned before, which can be used in place of stencils. This works very well for quick turn and one-time jobs, so time is not wasted in ordering and receiving stencils. Besides the stencil lead time, the main advantage of this piece of equipment is implementing difficult designs with a wide range of components. We also invested in new pick and place and inspection equipment spread across three SMT lines, as well as a re-work machine for BGAs, etc. We have two new high precision selective solder machines for automation of soldering through-hole parts rather than hand soldering. One of these is a high-volume machine with individual stages for flux, pre-heat and soldering with top and bottom heat. These machines do not have an impeller pump but use state-of-the-art, magnetically controlled solder flow, making a much higher quality solder joint.
Beaulieu: Will you please talk about any R&D work you do?
Bindu: We focus on manufacturing. However, we have been able to provide additional value by troubleshooting customer designs and recommending corrections to the design which were successful. And we provide recommendations for circuit changes and search for alternate components.
Beaulieu: What do you think makes your company different?
Beaulieu: It’s all about the people. All business is a people-to-people business and we really put an accent on that. We have the right equipment and the right technology, and that’s all good. But in the end, it is all about how you treat your customers, how you make them feel. You want to be as easy and cooperative as possible to work with. That includes the level of communication we have with customers before, during, and after an assembly is completed. For example, we examine all details of each assembly and this allows us to uncover many anomalies that customers may have not uncovered. This allows for a better assembly process and higher quality product. Our low defect rate is a testament to the quality. Finally, one of the reasons we stand out is that we are constantly following up with our customers to get their feedback. We address rare issues with the assembly that may not always be related to manufacturing.
Beaulieu: Finally, what are your thoughts of our industry today?
Manhar: We see that our industry is strong and will be stronger with the latest push to onshore. We feel that there is a lot of business out there and part of our job (collectively) is to convince the customer that after 10 years or more we can provide more value than they might have perceived in the past. We also feel that a company like Nova can provide better value to many customers who might be used to working with a certain CM for many years.
Beaulieu: How do you see things in the future?
Manhar: In our opinion, this will depend in part on what the government and industry decide in encouraging OEMs to work with U.S. based manufacturers. There is a lot to be gained if the right decisions are made. The future also depends on what companies can provide customers in terms of technological capabilities and customer relationship. Our goal is to always be completely focused on our customers and their needs. So far, that has worked very well for us and we will continue in that direction.
Beaulieu: Manhar and Bindu, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. It was very interesting.
Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Management Group.