Anyone who’s visited Mini-Circuits’ Neptune Avenue facility in Brooklyn will tell you it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know your way around. The byzantine floorplan maps a network of narrow corridors connecting different cells in the production line from the machine shop to manufacturing automation and robotic test, pick-and-place, mechanical switch assembly and many others. The arsenal of complex instruments and fixtures in each work area eludes outsiders’ comprehension even more than the building layout, each machine precisely tuned for a specialized function, many designed and built in house.
Past a row of offices, through a doorway, one enters a large, brightly lit space with rows of test benches on either side of the main walkway. On one side is Engineering Test where Mini-Circuits parts are characterized to define the performance specifications that go on product datasheets. On the opposite side is Production Test, one of the largest departments in New York operations. Virtually every product assembled in North America passes through the department, many thousands of units in a typical week. Every production run must meet strict test requirements to ensure consistent performance and reliability across lots, and team members are equipped with the technical skills and state-of-the-art equipment to ensure our parts do what we say they do.
Baker’s racks on wheels stand parked along marked passageways, each stacked with clamshell packaging containing various production runs. Members in static-proof lab coats attend to their work on the bench, studying network analyzer displays and data readouts. Each workstation is set up for a different test procedure, and the space is optimized for the dizzying array of devices arriving every day for processing. But despite the apparent complexity and kinetic buzz, it’s a well-oiled machine with everything in its right place.
General test line in the Neptune Avenue Production Test department.
One of the department’s biggest challenges, according to Darwin Narain, who has led Production Test since 1987, is the low-volume, high-mix nature of Mini-Circuits’ product line. Mastering the test process for a single electronic device at scale requires well defined procedures, strict process control and a lot of training. But Mini-Circuits develops an entire alphabet of different devices, each with a different matrix of parameters that need testing. The Production Test team has hundreds of procedures for the dozens of different types of devices coming off the assembly line, and they need to be agile in constantly reorganizing resources to keep up with demand without ever compromising quality.
By some alchemy of industrial genius, they have it down to a science. Even through demand surges and staffing shortages over the past few years, at the last quarterly company town hall meeting, President Ted Heil reported on-time delivery and DMR rates far outperforming company targets and even the highest industry benchmarks. Those results are a direct reflection of the strength of our test program and the people behind it.
Always a Next Step – Product Test as Career Training Ground
Darwin explains that cross training is vital for his team’s success, pointing to a spreadsheet he maintains documenting which members are qualified to perform which tasks – some with more than 20 different procedures under their belts.
“Learning more test procedures is one-way members can advance within the department,” Darwin says. “So, there’s always a next stage they can reach.”
The more procedures each member masters, the more flexible the department is in adapting to the ever-changing workload. Many members rise through the ranks within Production Test, eventually training junior colleagues themselves. Others may enter the department with prior education in electronics engineering or earn those credentials concurrently while working. The practical experience they gain in the Production Test gives them technical skills needed in other areas of the company, and they move on to roles in engineering test or design.
Whether team members pursue career paths within the department or move elsewhere in the organization, the production test lab is an ideal hands-on learning environment to gain a deep understanding of all Mini-Circuits’ products and how they work.
Organized and clearly-labelled bins for tools is one part of the Lean initiative.
Recent improvements in the Production Test department at Neptune Avenue are immediately evident in the physical layout of the space. A department-wide initiative to implement Lean manufacturing practices can be seen in the color-coded markings on the floor denoting walkways and designated zones for raw materials, work in progress, inspection areas and more. This technique ensures unobstructed movement through space and eliminates wasted time locating materials due to disorganization. Cabinets have been reorganized with clearly labelled bins, so team members never have to search for adapters, cables, or the dozens of other tiny components they need on a daily basis on the bench.
On a walking tour of the department, Darwin pointed out a workstation on the amplifier line. Specs for amplifier products were previously measured at four separate workstations, he explained. Acquiring a more advanced network analyzer allowed all measurements to be performed with a single instrument at the same station saving precious time and workspace.
That extra space was needed to accommodate new test requirements for our growing product line. Mini-Circuits’ new line of high-power amplifiers for RF and microwave energy applications, for example, operates at much higher power levels than anything the company previously developed. These models also incorporate digital control circuitry, which requires programming. Special equipment and a newly designed test fixture were set up specifically to support the test requirements for these products. Production Test also assumed responsibility for programming the devices on arrival to streamline production routing.
Another new rig was recently set up to perform extended DC leakage testing for LTCC parts. This is a reliability requirement for many customers using these products where DC current is present on the transmission line. Military and aerospace customers are particularly sensitive to these failure modes and require 100% of the units in a run to undergo the test.
These are only a few examples of how the department has developed new capabilities to adapt to internal and external customer needs. Bulletproof procedural rigor and quality control often seem at odds with the flexibility needed for innovation, but here at least, both forces seem to coexist in harmony.
High-power amplifier test setup.
Breaking Down Barriers
Successful organizations foster a culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing both within and between different areas of business. Accordingly, Darwin and his team are working with teams in other locations to replicate the best practices they’ve perfected over the years. They’re also partnering with adjacent teams to create efficiencies in their workflow.
Failure Analysis, for example, is a critical partner to Production Test in the goal to eliminate risks to product quality in the production process while minimizing turnaround time for each run. Typically, when parts from a run fail a test, the failed units and test data are sent to failure analysis to determine the failure mode and appropriate response. When things are busy (which is pretty much always), that process can take several days. Meanwhile the run sits idle in Production Test while the clock is ticking.
Earlier this year, the two teams organized to eliminate the lag by bringing senior QA engineer, Wei Pan into the Production Test area. That new synergy has allowed Wei Pan to address failures in the test process in real time as they occur, ultimately move production runs through the department faster.
As Mini-Circuits Florida scales up as an assembly site for more products, the logistics of transporting production runs between Hialeah and Brooklyn for testing become a major process inefficiency. The solution currently underway is to establish a production test function on-site in Florida with a qualified engineer to oversee the operation under Darwin’s leadership. Darwin is constantly interfacing with the growing team in Florida via chat and video conference and says he’s pleased with how he’s been able to instill conformity in test procedures and quality standards across locations in a short time using digital communication tools.
Quality Culture at Every Level
Perpetuating a culture of quality is one of Mini-Circuits’ core values. For over 50 years, the company has earned customers’ trust by delivering products that perform as expected and don’t fail in the field. At a high level, our ISO 9001 and AS9100 certifications and the many awards we receive from customers each year for quality excellence serve as proof of the organization’s commitment. At the ground level, it’s the skill, experience and personal conviction team members in Production Test bring into work every day that should give customers confidence that they’re in good hands.
Production Test team members in the lab at Mini-Circuits’ Neptune Avenue facility.
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