Mark Devaney tells the entrepreneurial tale behind Omni-Circuits, Inc., a leading manufacturer of printed circuit boards.
Picture Jim Schwarz Sr.’s home in 1972: a small quiet street in suburban Illinois. More than a dozen cars in his driveway spilling onto the road. The Schwarz children handling chemical etching equipment. Inquiries from the local zoning board. Back then the biggest question in his neighborhood had to be: “What’s going on in the Schwarz’s garage?” Today, the answer to that question is simple — the birth of a $35 million circuit board business.
Not bad for a side job started with $245 and a work crew initially consisting of Schwarz’s wife Laurie and his six children. Nearly 30 years later, each family member still plays a critical role in the company. Schwarz Jr. is vice president of marketing. Corinne, the only girl in the family, who started out side by side with Schwarz Jr. in the garage working on chemical etchings, now is the comptroller. Raymond leads environmental controls. Thomas is in charge of MIS. Mark is responsible for all commodity purchases and shipping and receiving. And the youngest, Joseph, is the production manager.
“Considering that today you need about $5 million just to get into the circuit board business, we’re very proud to have played a part in growing the business,” says Schwarz Jr. “Yet in addition to our family’s efforts, we’ve been fortunate to have great employees over the years and solid relationships with long-time customers.”
Indeed the Schwarz family is far from alone at Omni-Circuits. More than 300 employees work in the 156,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Glenview facility. Omni-Circuits boasts some impressive manufacturing capabilities, including fully automated, high-speed plating, gold tab plating and clean lines, 100 percent electrical testing and CAM-Plotted drilling, ongoing statistical analysis of manufacturing processes, a six -opening multiplayer press, an immersion gold process for circuitry, and a flying-probe electrical test system.
Backed by Big Names
The early Omni-Circuits story is tied with the explosion of Motorola in the late 1970s and 1980s. In fact, it was a Motorola representative who approached Schwarz about building circuit boards for his then young, relatively unknown company. When the Motorola analog car phone business took off, Omni-Circuits went along for the ride as the first board supplier. At one point, Motorola represented more than 75 percent of Omni-Circuits’ business. Motorola selected Omni-Circuits for its “Partnership for Growth” program and made Omni-Circuits the first supplier to sit on an advisory board convened to develop and fine-tune Motorola’s purchasing policies. Schwarz himself was nominated “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Motorola.
The model of early involvement in a customer’s design process has since become a cornerstone of Omni-Circuits’ business, best exemplified by the Early Supplier Involvement (ESI) program. With ESI, an Omni-Circuits engineer is sent to work with customers at the design stage to ensure optimum manufacturability, improved turnaround, reduced costs and increased goodwill.
“Omni-Circuits is definitely a job shop — every product is custom-made to specific design, nothing is off the shelf,” says Schwarz Jr. “We’re also trying to be a full-system supplier to aid in improving our customers’ product time to market, which is why we’re considered very valuable.” So valuable, he notes, that a strong relationship with communications equipment manufacturer Lucent Technologies has been established, while relationships with Motorola and other companies remain intact.
What They Do Best
Today, Omni-Circuits is a leader in the manufacture of printed circuit boards, specializing in double-sided and multilayer (four-through 12-layer) boards. Its fully automated production system uses the panel-plate method in making solder masks over bare copper (SMOBC) boards. According to Schwarz Jr., this method surpasses pattern plating, the industry standard, in ease and efficiency and provides uniform plating thickness.
“This process also enables us to mask tighter lines and spaces than are achieved through traditional methods,” says Schwarz Jr. “It also allows for a more uniform finish in the Z-axis when used in combination with our electrostatically coated liquid photo solder mask.” Although SMOBC boards with hot-air solder leveling are Omni-Circuits’ specialty, carbon ink screening, nickel and gold plating and anti-tarnish treatment for bare copper also are available at customers’ request.
The applications of Omni-Circuits’ boards are as varied as the customers the company serves. Omni-Circuits’ boards can be found in industrial controls, automotive navigation devices, radios, telecommunications units and medical equipment, among other instruments. Computer-aided manufacturing has helped make it possible for the company to reach its quality goals. By putting boards through the application process before actually manufacturing the panel, Omni-Circuits is able to save its customers time and money. Currently, Omni-Circuits realistically is working toward achieving a goal of 6 sigma (3.4 ppm). The facility currently processes 8,000 square feet of laminate a day.
Staying Above Board
Although Omni-Circuits has experienced a meteoric rise, the industry for printed circuit boards is incredibly competitive. In Illinois alone, there are about 50 circuit board plants. And, of course, California and Taiwan are considered meccas of motherboard production. Therefore, Omni-Circuits must evolve to survive, let alone succeed.
“In this industry, there’s no such thing as stability — it’s grow or shrink and die,” says Schwarz Jr. “We expend an incredible amount of energy producing high-reliability products and plan to be known as the one company that never has a product failure out in the field.”
Another ambitious goal has Omni-Circuits reaching the $500 million mark in revenue, according to Schwarz Jr. “We’re planning for expansion in current markets, and through current technological capabilities, efficiency gains in overall manufacturing,” says Schwarz Jr. “More and more sophisticated custom automation will also be deployed. Omni-Circuits is highly automated now, but we will be taking it to the next level in order to reduce production cycle time from 8 days to less than 2 days.”