Daniel Gordon, Contributor at Large
It was 1998. “Armageddon” was the highest-grossing film worldwide. Google Inc. had just come into existence. Mini-Circuits Founder Harvey Kaylie and Urjita General Manager Guna Mandalap took a two-month trip to Chennai, India.
“That’s when Harvey said, ‘Okay, let’s go ahead,’” Guna recalled.
Guna joined Mini-Circuits in 1991 as an expeditor at the company’s Brooklyn headquarters, making sure production was keeping pace with sales. After a few months with the company, he met Harvey in the lunchroom, and the two began working closely together on various initiatives to improve efficiency and logistics across Mini Circuits’ many product lines.
In 1998, after a bit of convincing from Guna, Harvey tapped the future GM to begin vetting suppliers for what would soon become a design and manufacturing hub for one of Mini-Circuits’ largest and most successful product lines. On October 31, 1999, Mini-Circuits Urjita opened its doors in Chennai.
The Urjita we know today specializes in the design and manufacturing of Mini-Circuits’ filter products, though this wasn’t the case from day one. Early on, the facility produced simpler products like attenuators and helped redesign the housings of some existing designs for higher frequency operation. During one of Harvey’s early visits to the facility, Guna recalls his team manually winding ferrite core and wire components. It was a somewhat old-school process, and Guna was bullish to add additional technologies and expand Urjita’s capabilities, but Harvey pumped the brakes. He wanted the team to fully master quality and efficiency in the core and wire process as a foundation before moving on to more complex technologies. Looking back, Guna feels an admiration for Harvey’s judgement.
“He knew when to push you and when to hold you back.” Guna said. “And I think he was having fun with it. Because he had gone through that process way back, he could relate to what we were trying to do at the time.”
As Urjita’s in-house expertise and capabilities expanded, they advanced from winding and assembly to eventually designing new products of their own. The progression wasn’t without its obstacles; in the days before email and mobile phones were widely available worldwide, coordinating design and assembly across oceans and time zones proved to be more than a bit challenging — especially considering the large volume of documents associated with a given Mini-Circuits product.
“The fax machine would be running all night,” Guna recalled. “We used to print anywhere from 500 to 600 pages that we’d have to digest, then learn how to start making the product. So that’s how we started.”
Taking on New Challenges
When Guna first approached Harvey about manufacturing filters, the idea was met with hesitation. For one, filters are unique in that they are often specific to a particular design, which means they aren’t likely to sell much beyond that single need. There can also be a huge time pressure for filters; customers generally need them near the end of their design process, which strains production schedules. But Guna and his team were convinced that filters represented an opportunity to claim a niche in the market where larger semiconductor-based component suppliers hadn’t established high barriers to entry as they had for other component categories.
Equipped with a machine from Mini-Circuits’ New York headquarters that Guna arranged to have repurposed, he and his team were ready to take on the task. He threw an idea out to Harvey — “Give us a spec, and we’ll give you a sample that you like.” Harvey handed over the details during a breakfast meeting in Chennai, and he and Guna went to visit suppliers. By the time they returned to the facility that afternoon, the team had the filter ready to go.
“He was really very surprised and happy with that,” Guna said. “So, he gave us 10 different design specifications, and it took us about a year to get them to where they needed to be.”
Perseverance has long been a mainstay of Urjita’s operations. And while, historically, that applied largely to development and manufacturing challenges, recent events have proven this virtue goes far beyond the parameters of business.
A 100-Year Flood Puts Urjita to the Test
In 2015, severe flooding in Chennai caused widespread damage and displacement. At Urjita, nearly five feet of water had flooded the utility room, fully submerging the generator. The government had cut power to prevent electrocution, and phone systems were down across the region. With many members located in low-lying areas, some were forced to take refuge on rooftops, going days without food. Urjita was forced to halt operations. Production was temporarily rerouted through Mini-Circuits’ other global facilities, but team members’ welfare management’s greatest concern.
When the water finally receded enough to return to the facility and assess the damage, Mini-Circuits members got to work restoring operations — cleaning up broken glass and firing up coal to dry out the generator. Despite the fact that the region was still in the throes of natural disaster, remarkably, quite a few members had already returned to work.
“We asked if anyone needed help because no one was asking,” Guna said. “They were going about their work. We knew that most families had been apart for several days and didn’t even have food. We pulled together and started purchasing and packaging essentials — groceries, cooking gas, cots. We mobilized to help our fellow members.”
With ATMs unavailable due to no electricity, members in need were offered cash advances to get them through their immediate hardships.
“At that time, there was more relief work than actual production,” Guna said. “But that’s how we managed.”
Health, Safety and Productivity during COVID-19
Not five years after the infamous Chennai floods, another crisis — one with which the entire world was grappling — again put Urjita’s resilience to the test. On March 24, 2020, the Indian government ordered a nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many businesses worldwide, Urjita had no choice but to temporarily pause operations.
“We were cautious, but we also needed to run the business,” Guna said.
Six weeks later, on May 6, Urjita was granted special permission to reopen the facility at partial capacity due to their status as an essential manufacturing business. However, members who relied on public transit for commuting now needed their own means of transportation. Many walked miles to and from work each day, but management responded quickly, hiring a private bus service and designing an adequate route.
Transportation was far from the only challenge Urjita faced in navigating the pandemic. Getting adequate PPE to members and implementing rigorous testing and isolation protocols were a few critical considerations among many. Under Guna’s leadership, the company rented a separate apartment for members to quarantine if they were to fall ill, providing housekeeping services and supplying groceries — often delivered by fellow members — until they had recovered. Even once public transit resumed, Urjita continued to provide the bus service to protect the health and safety of members amid the ongoing pandemic.
As is par for the course at Urjita, business came back strong — by some measures, stronger than ever — following the disruption caused by the pandemic. Members worked overtime to clear out backlog of assembly projects and bring lead times back to normal. Despite the disruptions sales of Urjita-made products continued to grow — an achievement Guna largely credits to teamwork and many of the lean methodologies adopted during the pandemic.
“We had to change our assembly process to be extremely efficient,” he said. “The changes we experimented with during COVID worked, and now we are working on institutionalizing those changes into our manufacturing processes permanently.”
Great Work, Urjita!
Mini-Circuits members across our global organization have demonstrated great resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges — and our team in Urjita is a prime example of what makes our company great. Team Urjita, we’re extremely proud of, and grateful for, the hard work you put in day in and day out to make our filter business one of the best in the industry.