Mini-Circuits’ Hialeah, Florida location has been a major arm of the company’s U.S. manufacturing operations since it was first established in 1976, but in the last few years some big changes have come to bear. New talent and new technology have turned the 50,000 square-foot facility from a pure manufacturing center into a multi-disciplinary hub of innovation. The addition of an on-site manufacturing process engineering (MPE) team is a prime example of this progression and an enabling force for many improvements and new capabilities.
Manufacturing process engineer, Praveen Guthinabailu joined Mini-Circuits’ MPE team in Brooklyn in 2016. Five years later, he was the first MPE member to relocate permanently to the Sunshine State. In 2022 he was joined by another manufacturing process engineer, Chinmay Bagad and a calibration technician, Alfredo Arnaiz. In the relatively short time they’ve been on location, the small team has already made a significant impact. Praveen, Chinmay and Alfredo have a department goal to log at least two process improvements per member per quarter in addition to the hundreds of smaller, more routine actions they perform daily. They also have a running goal to achieve on-time calibration and preventative maintenance of all equipment on premises to avoid downtime and processing errors – not a small responsibility for an operation of this scale.
In a recent interview via video, Praveen’s explanations of the improvements he and his team have made called to mind episodes of ’80s television action series, MacGyver. In every case, careful observation of an existing process, analysis of failure modes and inefficiencies, and the application of specialized tools and machines reduced processing time by multiples and improved quality by eliminating errors and variations.
Take for instance the installation of an automated wire stripping machine used to process wires that go into the harnesses that connect the hardware in Mini-Circuits’ rack-mount test systems to the digital control circuitry. Done manually, MCFL general manager Ana Navarro estimates stripping a hundred wires might take around three hours. The new process cuts that time dramatically while virtually eliminating small variations in wire lengths inherent to manual handling. Going a step further, the MPE team noticed that wire crimping, another step in the same assembly process, required two operators – one to hold the wire in place, and another to depress the crimping tool with two hands because of the force required. MPE designed a fixture that allowed a single operator to place the wire and apply the crimp with a lever, effectively reducing the effort by half.
Such improvements have a direct impact on Mini-Circuits customers. Turnaround time is a critical selling point for the test equipment assembled at MCFL. For a customer with their own production deadline, speed is a big part of the decision to give Mini-Circuits their business. Outside suppliers of the harnesses used in these assemblies quote turnaround times in excess of six weeks; our customers sometimes need the equipment built and shipped in two weeks or less. Bringing production of these sub-components in-house already gives Mini-Circuits more control over supply-chain delays, and with the efficiencies the MPE team builds into the process, we can turn around a run of these parts in just a few days, says Director of Manufacturing Operations, Jogesh Anand.
Old wire-crimping process requiring two operators (left) vs. new process allowing a single operator to perform the same step in less time (right).
Beyond process improvements, the MPE team is introducing entirely new capabilities to support some of the company’s most sophisticated and strategic products. Mini-Circuits new line of solid state power products for RF and microwave energy applications has attracted an impressive list of sales opportunities, some even before products are officially released to market. With the product line still in its infancy, engineering, operations and QA had to determine the best option to manufacture these products, which are unlike anything else in the Mini-Circuits catalog. Working through contract manufacturers risked quality issues and unplanned production delays, especially amidst lingering supply-chain woes. Producing them in house meant navigating some thorny technical requirements and mounting a steep learning curve, but the team proved more than capable of rising to the challenge.
Because these RF energy products operate at such high power – well into the kilowatt range in some cases – they are especially sensitive to foreign matter like dust inside the assembly. That means they need to be assembled in a tightly controlled clean environment virtually free of airborne particles greater than one micrometer in diameter. Fortunately, the MPE team had encountered these constraints before. The mechanical switch assembly department at Mini-Circuits’ Neptune Avenue facility in Brooklyn already used a laminar flow clean air hood for handling of sensitive parts and materials. A similar setup would meet the requirements for assembly of RF energy products as well.
Praveen travelled to Brooklyn where he worked with MPE supervisor Gennady Simkin and the Brooklyn MPE team to design the workstation they would need in Florida to set up a production line for RF energy models. They started by building a small test run of a 1 kW waveguide combiner part in the clean environment on the mechanical switch line for qualification. After successful testing, they procured the new hood, built the special fixtures and prepared the equipment for shipping to Hialeah.
MCFL is now fully qualified to perform assembly in a portable clean air hood that provides an ISO 5 clean work environment. The area under the hood is continuously bathed with uniform HEPA-filtered laminar flow air to protect the product from airborne contamination. The hood also features an ionizing bar and static dissipating windows for ESD protection.
Clean air workstation at MCFL designed for handling sensitive parts for assembly of Mini-Circuits’ RF energy product line.
Three RF energy models have been successfully assembled at MCFL to date, two of which, the RFE-24M30M1K7X+ and the RFE-24M30M075X+, are already released and live on the Mini-Circuits website. This project is just one example of the collaboration taking place across the global organization to make the company faster, stronger and more successful. For the MPE team, it’s just another day living the dream.
I’m working on a different problem every day,” says Praveen. “One problem comes up, we tackle it and move on to the next one. It’s fun. The day goes by really quickly.”