In an interview with I-Connect007, Alden Lewis, vice president of sales at Transition Automation, discusses how their squeegee technologies address the manufacturing defects caused mostly by solder paste printers. He also talks about their activities at the SMT Hybrid Packaging 2016 event in Nuremberg, Germany this week.
Stephen Las Marias: Alden, please explain a bit about Transition Automation for our readers who may not be familiar with the company.
Alden Lewis: Transition Automation has been in business for almost 30 years. I think it was 1989 when we started out building manual and semiautomatic stencil printers. From that, we developed a part called Permalex, and these are metal squeegee blades made from spring steel and they have a tempered nickel infusion on the edge of the blade. These blades last a lot longer than the typical metal squeegee blades in the industry, and we were the first company to ever build metal squeegee blades for stenciling. Prior to that, companies used polyurethane squeegees.
The metal squeegees provide better deposits of solder paste on the circuit boards, which is necessary of course for fine pitch devices and small devices that are now used regularly on the circuit boards. We build squeegees not only the squeegee blades, but we build the holder and blade assemblies to fit many of the major printer manufacturers in the industry.
Las Marias: How was business last year?
Lewis: We had a very good year. Sales were up over the previous years. I would say especially the second and third, and the first part of the fourth quarter were excellent with much higher sales volumes. I would attribute that to a growth in the automotive industry. We do a lot of squeegees for the automotive industry.
Las Marias: How about 2016?
Lewis: This year has been very good so far. I would say it’s a little less than last year. The sales are down slightly, but still it looks like a very good year at this point.
Las Marias: I understand you will be exhibiting at the SMT Hybrid Packaging show in Nuremberg, Germany. Do you have any new product to showcase there? What will be your activities there?
Lewis: We actually do. We have just started a relationship with two different distributors. One distributor is primary focusing on two printer machines that they distribute in Germany. So they are buying the Permalex squeegees to utilize on their machines as they sell them, primarily due to costumers really liking Permalex squeegees for their quality and the long life of the squeegees. So we will be showing the Permalex squeegees that will fit the HIT large area printer that is sold by ANS, and that will be the first time that that squeegee has been exhibited in the industry.
Then we have another distributor that we have appointed that will handle all the other squeegees for the other stencil printers in the industry. It's a company that has been in business for a very long time. So we are establishing new relationships with two different distributors. This distributor is Microtronics.
Las Marias: How important is the European market for Transition Automation?
Lewis: The European market is actually quite important for us. We have done very well in the European market for the life of the company, and we've got an expansive distribution network throughout Europe, as well as other countries including Israel, South Africa and throughout Asia.
European business is a big part of our market and a big part of our sales; and Germany, being the largest market in the European Union, is very important to us to have good distribution and good visibility.
Las Marias: Alden, the solder paste printer still provides the majority of the manufacturing defects on the SMT line. Where does Transition Automation come in to help the industry or the customers address that particular issue?
Lewis: I think that is one of the primary benefits of the Permalex being a metal squeegee with a tempered nickel edge. It provides better deposits of solder paste and you can depend on the Permalex squeegees to last a long time and give the same quality of print throughout the life of the blade, because it does not degrade over time.
The whole main thrust of the Permalex is to improve the quality and it takes that out of the equation to obtain better stencil printing results.
Las Marias: And precision and accuracy are among the key features of the products, right?
Lewis: Correct. We provide a number of options for our customers in order to get the best results. We build several different thicknesses of squeegee blades and we provide print angle options on the squeegee so the customer can get the best results that they can for their process.
Las Marias: Other than automotive, what other markets are driving growth for the company?
Lewis: Well, obviously we do a lot in the contract assembly marketplace which services the full market, but we do a lot of aerospace, military, industrial controls and high reliability electronics. Medical is another field we have been doing a lot of business in as well. We cover the full range in the industry. We do a lot of enclosed squeegee blades. Speedline builds stencil printers that have enclosed squeegee heads and we do all of the blades for their enclosed print heads.
Las Marias: Alden, how do you work with partners to drive innovation to the market?
Lewis: Usually companies will come to us should they require a high-quality squeegee based on what they need for their design. For instance, Speedline approached us because they wanted a high quality squeegee blade that would basically fit their desire to have high-quality printing. So they approached us and we designed the appropriate blade with the appropriate thickness to get the results they were looking for. Like I said, we have options, so we can vary some of the specifications of squeegee blades in order to get the results that the customer is looking for as far as the thickness, width variations, etc.
We also build squeegees to fit OEM holders. Not only do we build holder blade assemblies, which have benefits over the OEM holders, but we build our blades to fit the OEM holders. That can mean having blades with hole patterns to match the original equipment manufacturer’s hole patterns, and we keep a record of all those so that when customers need to buy a specific squeegee blade, we have all the specifications and they just have to tell us what model of printer and we can provide them the appropriate blade. They give us the length of the blade required and we've got all the specifications. So we make the job easier for our customers as well.
It’s not a difficult task to buy from us because we have obtained a lot of information over the years, and as new printers come out we obtain information on the new printers in order to stay up to date on the squeegees required for those printers.
Another one that we've recently developed in the last year has been the squeegees for the EKRA Serio 4000 printer, and another one has been the MPM Speedline Momentum printer with the high-performance head. We designed the squeegees to fit the holders and blades, as well as our own holders. One of the advantages of using the Permalex holders is we are usually about one-third of the weight of the OEM holders because we use anodized aluminum which is a smaller profile, and that makes the squeegees easier to hold and change out and install for the operators. If it’s easier for them and lighter for them to handle, than there's less opportunity to be dropped in the process, where a lot of the damage comes from.
Furthermore, we also offer different colors for the holders for identification purposes. Lead free is very important so we offer squeegees that are green in color to recognize for lead free. Then we have blue as a standard and an optional color of red, which some customers will use for adhesive printing or for other applications.
Las Marias: Can you tell us some of the product development initiatives that are in the pipeline?
Lewis: Well, we introduced the manual and semiautomatic stencil printer, primarily because the marketplace had changed a number of years ago. We discontinued a product around 2000 because it was high volume manufacturing here, but now it is a lot of low volume development work that is being done. So we decided to reintroduce the PrinTEK. The PrinTEK is a manual bench top printer that has vertical separation, which a lot of the manual printers do not have. It’s a high reliability printer as far as the accuracy and repeatability of printing with a manual printer. It features x, y, theta and z adjustments so you can do fine adjustments. You can adjust the height of the stencil from the board and it always separates vertically instead of on an arc like clam shell designs.
Then we always have continuous development introducing new squeegees to fit new printers or new printer models that have been designed. We constantly are looking in the industry to see what new printers are out there and seeing what we can do in order to provide squeegees that will fit that printer. When we build a squeegee for a specific printer, we want to be able to give that to the customer and have them to do an exchange. They can interchange an OEM squeegee with our squeegee and not have to make any adjustments; we don't want them to have to make a height adjustment or anything. We want their pain to be minimal, and especially no pain!
Las Marias: Would you say that that is how you stay ahead of your competition?
Lewis: Yes. We are probably the only company in the industry that focuses exclusively on squeegees, and we have a proprietary patented process. Our product was patented, so it’s a unique product. The other thing is maintaining continued growth as far as what printer models are out there, what's needed to fill the needs for those printer models, and just designing around that.
We always focus on high quality as far as manufacturing to make sure that each squeegee is top quality and that the customer is satisfied. We make it a point with any kind of customer, new or old, that we always follow up to make sure they are satisfied with the product and that it fits and is working the way they want it to. And if we have to do any adjustments, we talk to the customer, communicate with them and if we need to exchange squeegees to satisfy them, we do that.
Las Marias: Alden, what is the outlook for your industry?
Lewis: I think this year, from what I’ve read, is going to be kind of a non-growth year or a very low growth. But I think the electronics industry as a whole will continue to grow because there’s just so much you can do with electronics and we are seeing a lot more introduction of electronics in the automotive field as far as sensors and things of that nature. We know there's been a lot of discussion on self-driving automobiles. That's going to all be done by electronics. So you look at that, you look at the medical field and there's continual growth in those areas as they require electronics. Anything that's got a digital print out has electronics in it. So there looks to be continued growth for sure. It’s more controlled growth and mature growth than it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but still a very positive outlook on the industry.
Las Marias: Is there anything else that we haven't talked about that you think we should be talking about?
Lewis: Not that I can think of, but like I said, we supply a lot of the major manufacturers and some of these factories such as SpeedPrint out of England, EKRA out of Germany, Yamaha out of Japan and GKG, the Chinese printer. As new manufacturers pop up, we are there to provide the squeegees that the customers require.
Not only do we build squeegees for automation, but we do a significant number of handheld squeegees for manual printers. There are a lot of companies that want that for product development in low volume manufacturing where they have to run a few boards. We sell a lot of squeegees for that application around the world. After we returned from productronica, we immediately sold those squeegees to Romania that someone had seen it at the show.
You would think the handheld squeegee is not that important but it is to a lot of customers, because they want the results even in manual printing. We've been building handheld squeegees ever since we started building squeegees.
Las Marias: That is interesting because I know the trend is towards automated lines.
Lewis: That's right, and yet we sell a lot. Just today alone we have shipped six handheld squeegees; four of those were in the U.S. and two of them are going to Poland.
It’s amazing that we sell so many internationally. We sell a lot of handheld squeegees to Japan, Taiwan, and to Europe, which just shows that the new product development, R&D and low volume production area is very critical to customers. They want high quality squeegees even for that manual process.
Las Marias: Speaking of different markets or different regions. What can you say about Asia from your perspective?
Lewis: Asia typically has been lower cost. They want to keep the cost down for manufacturing. A lot of times I think companies will start out using lower cost squeegees as well, but as they grow into higher products and higher cost products, then they tend to investigate alternative products that will improve their process. We have been able to grow our sales in Asia, we do quite a bit in the Philippines, and then we sell the Speedline squeegees in China for their worldwide market.
But parts of Asia are a lot like the U.S. when the high volume manufacturing kind of left this area. In places like Japan and Singapore they don't do the high-volume manufacturing anymore. They are in the same boat as the U.S. and are focusing on high reliability and lower volume, high-mix products.
Las Marias: Alden, thank you very much for chatting with me today.
Lewis: Thank you. It's been good talking with you.