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Marge Laney, founder and CEO of Alert Tech SMT, a Houston-based EMS company, shares her thoughts on bringing young people into manufacturing—a sector she’s convinced may be headed toward big growth. At the SMTA Houston Expo & Tech Forum, Marge invited a group of young students from a local technology school into her facility for a tour.
Barry Matties: Marge, why was it important for you to invite these students into your facility?
Marge Laney: Right now, we’re in an environment in which a lot of kids graduating high school don’t know what to do, what to study, whether to go to college and come out with a lot of debt, or not go to college at all. There’s so much opportunity regarding reshoring of PCBAs. Young students coming out of high school are interested in electronics. We can bring them in through internships.
My goal is to bring them into the production process at a very low level and expose them to this industry so they can learn from us. Maybe they’ll say, “Wow, this is great. I want to be an engineer.” It gives them an opportunity to decide on a career without going to college. I went to college and did okay, but I certainly didn’t learn anything about what I’m doing today. It’s important for our company, and for me, to help these kids.
Matties: Describe what your company does.
Laney: We’re an electronics manufacturing services company. We do printed circuit board assembly, and box builds for all kinds of companies—oil and gas, NASA contractors, and internet security businesses. We build products. For about 40 years, we’ve been making our own products through our OEM division.
Matties: What kind of products?
Laney: We developed a retail communications product for customer service. We design, build, install and service it. It’s how we got into the business. When COVID hit, we decided to reshore our PCBAs. We were already doing our box builds here. It was an eye-opening decision, and the best thing that ever happened to us.
Laney: First, it was about the money. You often hear that we can’t manufacture things here in an economic way. Well, we can. It was more profitable for us to do it here. Quality just skyrocketed, as did on-time delivery.
Matties: What was your customers’ attitude and response toward this move?
Laney: Oh, they love it. I’m just a real U.S. patriot with a can-do attitude. That’s important.
Matties: We need more of that.
Laney: I’m reading a lot on reshoring. We’ve added approximately 350,000 manufacturing jobs, which was way more than they expected us to do. It’s just gaining momentum. People are saying, “No, we can’t unwind, we can’t do this.” But we can.
Matties: How much does automation play into your future growth?
Laney: I think it’s very important. For quality purposes, we want to start out with the best machines, the best software, and then bring in the best people to operate everything. Our capacity can grow by adding more people and more advanced technology.
Matties: It also brings new opportunities to market, right?
Laney: Yes, it does. Absolutely. As our capabilities improve, our capacity will increase.
Matties: What do you think the greatest challenges are for the industry today?
Laney: Part of the challenge is expanding manufacturing facilities. The real estate community is very focused on distribution centers, not on building the manufacturing sector. They are interested in building big warehouses that have a little bit of office space and no air-conditioning. We’re planning on becoming a manufacturing powerhouse. That’s where we’re headed. We have to get back to building manufacturing facilities and bringing young people along, through high schools and into trade schools. That’s a good thing to do, and it’s a challenge.
Matties: Well, thank you so much. I greatly appreciate your insight and your time.
Laney: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.