Universal Instruments is a company that has outpaced others in the industry since 1919. Weathering a great sea of changes since that era, Universal has evolved into a global electronics productivity specialist, with an ample store of innovations and products for its customers, as Lorie Greenspan finds.
Click here to read the complete illustrated article as originally published or scroll down to read the text article.
The trend toward miniaturization has enabled the development of powerful complexity within the smallest components possible, particularly when it comes to consumer and implantable medical products. But when you manufacture elements that look more like ground pepper than the traditional resistors and capacitors, you know you’ve reached a new milestone in evolution.
Universal Instruments has hit many new levels since it was founded in 1919 as Universal Instruments and Metal Company, in Vestal, N.Y. but the company continues to advance its own business. In fact, it has become the polar opposite of the products it manufactures: While things keep getting smaller and more powerful, Universal expands its potential…universally.
Initially chartered to “purchase patents and manufacture implements and appliances of all kinds and descriptions,” Universal’s first products were “Nu-Hed” safety pins, but by 1921 Universal found safety pins “difficult to manufacture and impossible to sell.” That was OK, because that same year IBM, which had entered the punch-card information processing business, called upon the company to produce precise tool-and-die machining.
Universal produced the first auto-insertion machine for IBM, and then expanded to outside markets. Through Depression, war and resurgence, a change in location (the company moved to Binghamton, N.Y.) and many different configurations in leadership and employees, as well as size and shape of equipment, Universal maintained its edge with its constant attention to marketing the most advanced machinery available – even responding to a consumer trend with the purchase of its second SIP 6A Jig Borer in 1952: This was used to produce complex perforating dies for Eureka Specialty Printing of Scranton, Pa., for the manufacture of S&H Green Stamps. By 1977 it had closed the year with $40 million in sales.
Today, Universal Instruments is a global electronics productivity specialist, providing innovative circuit, semiconductor, and backend assembly technologies and equipment, integrated system solutions, and process expertise to manufacturers in every sector of the global electronics industry.
“We’ve always been a technologies based company,” says Todd Vick, vice president of marketing. The company’s major innovations have included the original SMT Platform concept, what Vick describes as “a truly generic platform that many configurations could be based from. Patented VRM linear motor technology was developed in house and continues to be manufactured locally. We use this high performance technology for our positioning systems as well as for head drives. There is no off-the-shelf motor that could deliver the performance characteristics we required. Recently the Lightning placement head has propelled us into the high volume markets. It is the ‘fastest placement head in the industry’.”
Other milestones that have put UIC on the map include the development of the GSM Platform in the early 1990s that gained UIC a market leading position in the high performance multi-function markets. “While our Japanese competitors focused on high speed passive assembly, UIC became the premier choice for placing the most complicated, odd, large and sensitive components,” Vick says.
Since 1990 UIC has enjoyed a very successful OEM agreement with Hitachi Hi-tech (previously Sanyo Electric) that provided high speed placement equipment to complement its own multifunction solutions. Other advances include the development of the rotary Lightning placement head. This head technology (based on a VRM drive) provided UIC with the highest speed placement head in the industry and allowed it to penetrate the high speed, high volume markets that had been dominated by its Japanese counterparts. “We have tripled our share in that market in under a year,” Vick says.
SMALLER IS BETTER
Explains Vick, UIC is currently responding to several more trends in the industry. “First and foremost is cost. As electronics products continue to degrade in price, the manufacturers of those products will continue to search for ways to reduce their cost base. Whoever thought you could buy memory modules for pennies; cell phones for under $30; DVD players for under $100, or laptops for less than $500? The consumer is forcing our industry to focus on cost at all times, while not sacrificing quality. Although UIC has been recognized in the past as a high end option, our products now are very value driven, and we now have multiple product lines to cater to every market segment.”
A second trend involves miniaturization. UIC’s Lightning head technologies provide the finest capabilities in the industry for handling very small components, and the company has been recognized by the largest names in the electronics world for these unique attributes.
“Environmental concerns are also a focus these days,” Vick adds. “Lead-free processes are the primary focus, and Universal has been at the forefront of this activity by not only providing equipment solutions to manage these unique challenges, but also by providing process guidelines and customer support through our world renowned SMT Lab.”
Universal achieves its milestones in design and production at its ISO: 9001-certified 250,000-square-foot facility in Conklin, N.Y., just outside of Binghamton.
“We are unique in the fact that we are not only the last remaining competitor based in North America, but we are also only one of two in the world that provides a full assembly product line from insertion mount, to surface mount, along with advanced semiconductor and box build,” Vick stresses.
Its newest product is the revolutionary GC-120Q, which Vick describes as the “fastest quad gantry style machine in the world, with most flexible placers (GX-11S), and a revolutionary Jumperwire machine. We also offer solutions for package-onpackage and system in package solutions.”
While the company focuses its efforts on speed and utilization, it also spends a considerable amount of resources on features and functions for the medium- to high-mix sectors, providing the most flexible machines in the industry, as well as tools to make their use easier worldwide. Its Graphical Icon based user interface is “extremely intuitive and non-language based,” Vick says, and its NPI software suite makes new product introduction or small batch size builds far less challenging.
In addition the company has partnered with Valor for a “data prep studio” of tools to ease the initial programming efforts. These tools make the CAD/Gerber data to machine program transition extremely efficient.
A PLATFORM FOR GROWTH
Universal traditionally has been partially vertically integrated, partnering with local suppliers for a high percentage of parts and assemblies. Over the past few years the company has continued to expand its vendor base to have the finest and most competitive global supply base.
Currently, Universal is in a growth position in the electronics assembly marketplace. “With our relatively new but highly competitive product introduction into the high volume end of the market, there is tremendous growth potential,” Vick says. “The GC-120Q competes in a $1.4 billion available market segment globally. As mentioned earlier we have tripled our market share in less than one years’ time in this segment, and are poised to continue this growth further.” Further proof of the company’s commitment is its reinvestment of approximately 15 percent of its revenue into future R&D efforts. “In the electronics industry you can never sit back and enjoy your successes. Our industry changes by the minute,” Vick says.
Other distinguishing factors include Universal’s true “Platform Concept.” Copied and mimicked by others, no-one else provides the same level of commonality across the entire product range: ease of development, testing, procurement and manufacturing, but also a stable product with longer life cycles for customers. This investment protection is a large factor in the buying process, Vick notes, “and with our core technology advantages our customers are purchasing equipment designed as much for tomorrow’s needs as today’s. Our inherent accuracies and repeatabilities, and highest reliability and product yields make our products a safe choice in an unknown future requirements market. Our modular platform interfaces also enable us to design new end affectors as required to easily handle future requirements as they come up.”
Universal also stands out in its development and implementation of technologies that enable customers to have the highest overall performance and utilizations as well as piece of mind. And its support structure, Vick maintains, “is second to none. We employ the most consistent infrastructure globally. This is a huge benefit to our multinational customers.
“Our ultimate priority is product and service quality. The entire team participates in the creation of quality products, confirmed by absolute customer satisfaction. Quality performance is achieved by continual improvement, adhering to robust design principles, world class manufacturing controls, supplier partnerships and alignment with our customers’ business roadmaps.”
With all of these activities and innovations under its belt Universal Instruments is well on its way to gaining universal success.