Author Archives: Robert Simon

  1. Understanding the Types of Metal Finishes

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    Following fabrication many metal components undergo metal finishing, which entails treating the metal’s exterior surface with a thin layer of augmenting material. Metal finishing is an important part of the manufacturing process because it can enhance the metal product’s properties in different ways. At USTEK, we offer a variety of finishing services to make sure your metal components are prepared for assembly to your specifications.

    metal finishes

    Types of Metal Finishes

    Depending on your application, there are several types of finishes to choose from that have different effects on various metal substrates. The following are some of the metal finishes we offer at USTEK.

    Anodizing

    Anodizing involves converting a metal’s surface into a thin oxide layer. The resulting oxide layer is thinner than other types of finishes for metal, but it offers superior durability and corrosion resistance. Aluminum substrates most commonly undergo anodizing.

    Black Oxide (Hot Blackening)

    Hot blackening adds a thin black oxide layer to the surface of a metal product, creating a matte black finish that resists abrasion. The metal is put through multiple tanks containing coolants, caustics, and cleaners that perform the hot finishing process. Many steel firearms, tools, and auto parts rely on hot blackening to protect them from corrosion.

    Electro-Polishing

    The process of electro-polishing removes metal ions from substrates. The metal is submerged in an electrolyte bath with an electrical current, which removes ions, rust, and defects. The final product has a clean, smooth appearance.

    Painting

    Painting entails applying liquid paint to metal surfaces. A paint finish typically consists of pigment, resin, and solvent. The pigment lends color to the finish, while the resin helps bind the coating to the surface and enhances part durability.

    Plating

    Also known as electroplating, plating applies a finish made of another type of metal such as tin, copper, chromium, or zinc. The process first coats the substrate with a negatively charged electric current, then puts it into a positively charged solution containing the desired metal ions. Metal plating enhances the metal’s corrosion resistance, coefficient of friction, durability, and aesthetic appearance.

    Polishing

    The polishing process reduces the metal surface’s roughness while increasing its luster, since light scatters less when it is reflected on smooth surfaces. Polishing can be done automatically or manually with different types of abrasives, depending on the condition of the metal substrate. Generally, a rougher abrasive removes larger surface imperfections, and then a finer abrasive smooths out smaller details.

    Powder Coating

    Some applications may use powder coating in lieu of liquid coating. The process involves electrostatically charging the substrate, attracting the powered particles to the surface. Powder coating creates a thicker layer of paint compared to liquid coating. It also features different curatives, pigments, flow modifiers, level agents, and other additives that provide additional protection and visual appeal.

    High-Quality Metal Finishes from USTEK

    All of the above finishes are available at USTEK, where you can find a high-quality part finish for nearly any type of metal component. Based on the needs of your specific application, we’ll help you select the right finishing service for your products. To learn more about our finishing solutions and other capabilities, contact us today.

  2. Top 10 Benefits of Using Aluminum for Metal Parts

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    Aluminum is one of the most abundant and versatile metals, recognizable for its soft texture and silvery-white coloring. Its malleable nature and strength at a lightweight make it advantageous in manufacturing in a variety of shapes and applications. This naturally occurring metal has become increasingly popular in both complex designs with many finishes and everyday products as a safe, cost-effective material for metal parts.

    Top 10 Benefits:

    Benefits of Using Aluminum For Metal Parts

    Abundance

    As aluminum is the third-most-plentiful element present in Earth’s crust, at our current usage, our supply will be around for generations with responsible recycling. Given this abundance, aluminum is part of an infinite amount of products, with uses in the following:

    • Construction, for cladding and other components
    • Consumer goods like air conditioners and refrigerators
    • Food- and chemical-processing equipment
    • Technology, including computers and smartphones
    • Transportation, such as vehicles, trains, airplanes, and space shuttles

    Availability

    Regardless of the world’s abundance, economic availability will be affected by international politics, energy costs, and environmental concerns. The aluminum ore bauxite is processed into elemental aluminum in five major countries. Listed in order they are Australia, China, Guinea, Brazil, and India.  However, for downstream further conversion of prime aluminum, the list in order is China, India, Russia, Canada, UAE, and Australia, with the US in 9th place.  Depending on the source the US recycles 1/3 to 1/2 of aluminum each year and overall nearly ¾ of all aluminum ever produced from bauxite is still in use today.   The parts designed for aluminum will most likely contain energy-efficient domestically recycled metal

    Light Weight

    Aluminum is about one-third the weight of copper and steel, making it easier to use in manufacturing processes. Weighing less means requiring less energy during transportation, so it is a cost-effective metal option. Construction sites and factories use aluminum in building materials and paneling for cars and other vehicles.

    Recyclability

    Aluminum is completely recyclable and has identical properties after the recycling process, maintaining its strength. The ability to reuse the material with a fast turnaround makes it more economical for production runs. Remelting requires only 5% of the energy used to make the original metal.

    Malleability

    Aluminum’s bendable nature and ductility allow for the punching or shaping of the material to fit it to various job applications. It can form rods, sheets, or wires in its molten condition, giving it the benefit of versatility.

    Strength

    Most metals, like steel, become less durable as the temperature drops, but aluminum strengthens. Its pure form is beneficial in structural materials as it has a tensile strength of 90MPa. Alloying aluminum with other materials helps make it thicker and more robust so that it can retain its strength even in treacherous climates while still weighing less than other metals.

    Corrosion Resistance

    Many metals deal poorly with aggressive chemicals, but aluminum holds up in acidic settings. It naturally produces a protective coating when introduced to an oxidizing environment. This protection lends aluminum to applications in automobiles and kitchen cabinetry, to name a few. However, it could be attacked in alkaline environments unless protected by surface pacification treatments (trivalent chromium, alodine, anodizing). Plating with nickel or chromium over a copper flash is also possible.

    Electrical and Thermal Conductivity

    An excellent conductor of both heat and electricity, aluminum is beneficial for high-voltage wiring and power transmission lines because it does not collect a magnetic charge. It is an ideal alternative to copper wiring due to its lightweight nature. It is perfect for computer parts and batteries that make use of its electric conductivity, or heat exchangers for chemical and food applications related to thermal conductivity.

    Reflective Properties

    With a high reflectivity from radio waves into the infrared and thermal range on the electromagnetic spectrum, smooth aluminum naturally reflects light and heat. It is advantageous for vehicle heat shields and reflectors on light fittings and rescue blankets. Also, aluminum roofs are becoming increasingly popular as they reduce the internal heat of buildings and houses by reflecting sunlight.

    Impermeability and Lack of Odor

    Even a thin layer of aluminum is impermeable to light, moisture, and gasses, and has no odor or taste itself. As a result, it is perfect for packaging products that are vulnerable to outside bacteria, such as medicines and foods. Its low carbon footprint also makes it an environmentally friendly material for food manufacturers to use.

    Partner With USTEK Incorporated

    USTEK Incorporated offers you a true partnership, providing excellent customer service and over 35 years of experience dealing with custom technical components. We deliver on efficiency, timeliness, and cost-effectiveness for our customers. Contact us for more information on how USTEK can help you source aluminum and aluminum alloy parts to meet your specifications.

  3. What Is the Difference Between PCB and PCBA?

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    PCB and PCBA are two very different concepts, but many people use the terms interchangeably. While these terms are related and both used regularly within the electronics industry, they have distinct definitions. In this article, we’ll discuss what PCBs and PCBAs are, how they are related, and the key differences between the two terms so you can use them both confidently when placing orders and describing products.

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    An image of a bare printed circuit board (PCB)

    What Is PCB?

    PCBs serve as a mechanical foundation in which various electrical components can be mounted to complete the intended circuit. PCBs feature a conductive pattern and a substrate that is typically made of epoxy resin material. Some of the most common types of printed circuit boards include:

    • Single-layer
    • Multi-layer
    • Rigid
    • Flexible
    • Rigid-flex

    With all of these different types available, manufacturers and product designers can create a diverse array of electronic displays, standalone devices, and more for consumer, commercial, and industrial applications.

    An image of a printed circuit board assembly (PCBA).

    What Is PCBA?

    PCBA is the complete electronic assembly and relates to how the components are placed onto the PCB. More specifically, it refers to the process of passing the PCB through Surface Mounted Technology (SMT) and Plated Through Hole (PTH) processes to place and solder the various electrical components onto the PCB.

    • During this assembly process, product builders mount the electronic components into holes running through either the whole board or just specific layers. The holes have conductive pads to ensure the flow of electricity is not interrupted.
    • During this assembly process, the components are not mounted through holes. Instead, they are mounted onto the surface layer with pins along the conductive pads.

    PCBAs are fitted will all necessary components and are ready to be used for their intended purpose.

    Differences Between PCB and PCBA

    As a simple way to keep the two terms straight, think of a PCB as the inert, unfinished foundation of a circuit and a PCBA as the complete product with active and passive components. PCBs are just the boards of substrate layers themselves that can support electronic components. The boards have conductive pads and tracks, etched features, and other details in the non-conductive layers, but they don’t yet have all the components. PCBAs are PCBs with solder paste and electronic components on the surface, and they are plug-in ready.

    An infographic depicting the differences between PCB and PCB assemblies

    Printed Circuit Boards From USTEK

    While PCBA refers to the finished, fully assembled board with all the electrical components it needs to perform, PCB only refers the bare circuit board that is used as the foundation for all of the electrical components. These terms are often used interchangeably, so understanding the differences between the two is crucial.

    At USTEK Incorporated, we specialize in the design and construction from single-layer to multi-layer PCBs for a wide range of industries. We can work with you to create a custom solution for your needs no matter how complex. To learn more about our custom PCB capabilities, contact us today.

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  4. A Primer on the Types of Printed Circuit Boards

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    Are you designing a new electronic device or upgrading an existing one? If so, chances are you’ll need printed circuit boards (PCBs). The self-contained boards mechanically support and electrically connect electrical and electronic components. The components are located on the surface of a non-conducting board (i.e., the substrate) and soldered to printed circuits (i.e., small layers of conductive material deposited on one or more sides of the substrate). When designed and manufactured properly, PCBs help ensure the device assembly in which they are installed operates and performs as intended.

    PCBs come in many variations, each of which is suitable for different electronic applications. Below, we highlight and discuss the various types that are available.

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    Single-Sided PCBs

    A single sided printed circuit board

    Single-sided PCBs have a single layer of substrate with components and circuitry on only one side. They are the easiest and cheapest type of PCB to design and manufacture. As such, they are commonly produced in high volumes. Typical applications include simpler circuits, such as relays, sensors, and electronic toys.

    Double-Sided PCBs

    Double-sided PCBs have components and circuitry on both sides of the substrate. Holes in the substrate allow for connections between circuits on different sides. Connections can be formed using one of two methods: through-hole or surface mount technology (SMT). The former involves feeding small wires (i.e., leads) through the holes and soldering the ends to the necessary components/circuit, while the latter involves soldering small leads directly to the substrate. Since the design and manufacture of these PCBs are more involved than single-sided ones, they are typically used for more complex circuits, such as amplifiers, mobile phones, power monitoring systems, and test equipment.

    Multilayer PCBs

    Multilayer PCBs have three or more conductive layers—one on top, one on bottom, and at least one sandwiched between non-conductive substrate layers. They allow for greater design flexibility in a smaller and lighter package. Due to their elevated cost compared to single-sided and double-sided PCBs, they are typically used for high-speed circuit applications rather than simpler and less critical circuit applications.

    Flex PCBs

    Flex PCBs can be single-sided, double-sided, or multilayer. In any case, they have flexible substrates, which allow them to fit into tight or compact spaces where rigid boards cannot. The material can turn and shift without damaging the printed circuits. They help reduce board size and weight, making them ideal for use in applications that need high signal trace density.

    Rigid PCBs

    Rigid PCBs are also available in single-sided, double-sided, or multilayer variations. They have rigid substrates that prevent the board assembly from twisting and turning. Their compact size ensures the integration of complex circuitry, while their well-organized signal paths and clearly marked components make them easy to maintain and repair.

    A photo of a green rigid-flex printed circuit boardRigid-Flex PCBs

    Rigid-flex PCBs combine the qualities of rigid PCBs and flex PCBs. They consist of flexible circuits attached to rigid boards. By accommodating streamlined designs, they help reduce overall board weight and size. As a result, they are commonly used in automobiles, cellphones, digital cameras, pacemakers, and other electronic devices and systems with tight weight and size limitations.

    High-Frequency PCBs

    High-frequency PCBs are designed for use in frequency ranges of 500MHz to 2GHz. Typical applications include communication systems, microwaves, and microstrips. Depending on the application, they may require advanced laminate materials and controlled impedance capabilities.

    An infographic explaining the various types of PCBs

    Contact USTEK for Your PCB Needs Today!

    For PCBs you can trust, turn to the experts at USTEK! As a premier custom manufacturer of electrical and metal components with experience designing and constructing PCBs for various industries, we can work with you to develop a custom PCB solution that fully meets your needs. Whether you require basic, single-sided PCBs for simple circuits or complex, multilayer PCBs with high-frequency capabilities, we’ve got you covered. To learn more about our custom PCB capabilities and how we can serve you, contact us today.

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  5. Workplace Safety Against Corona-19

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    Healthcare authorities, from the international WHO to individual countries to our cities and states all agree that social distancing and anti-viral masks reduce the risk of infection with Corona-19.  USTEK responded to the need for PPE masks and employing our partners in production and logistics we now stock and ship these critically needed supplies.

    For details and ordering Click_Here

    KN95 Mask

    KN95 Mask

    Disposable Surgical Style Mask

    Disposable surgical-style mask

     

  6. How will REACH compliance affect your business?

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    Danger Poison

    If you manufacture or even just sell products in the US you already must comply with pertinent EPA and FDA regulations.  And if you ship to California your have their list of known and suspect materials that must be reported.  For those of us dealing with a global marketplace the RoHS directive was proposed in 2002 and became a major factor in 2006 but it dealt with only six hazardous material found in the electrical industry.

    On its heels was the broad REACH directive with its 848 pages and initial listing of 143,000 chemicals.  Of these a subgroup called SVHC (substances of very high concern) was published in 2011 and these 173 materials are under even stricter scrutiny. How does this affect you, the direct or indirect user/consumer?  You need to know exactly what is in the products that you ship to the EU – no “proprietary protected formulation” exclusions apply.  You must state whether or not your materials are in compliance and if a material is not registered then the rule of law is “no data, no market”.

    For an article published today by ThomasNet
    click here -> REACH – ThomasNet

  7. Still considering off-shoring?

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    Changing economics move contract assembly to North America

    In which direction are the economies of electronic production pushing the choice of manufacturing location? What is the history of the situation and assumptions? And when is it time to re-evaluate those assumptions?

    In the 1950’s and 60’s many US and other Western companies moved manufacturing to Japan, where labor was cheap and factories were being rebuilt using enormous investments from the US and our allies. The Japanese quality was initially poor but rapidly improved and Japan became a real economic powerhouse. Along with this increased sophistication came increased cost, and western companies began the move to Korea where again, investment poured in after the Korean ceasefire.

    The Koreans started out mindful of the Japanese experience and emphasized quality early on. This made Korea a better source for electronic assemblies but their smaller population (25 million Koreans vs 95 million Japanese in 1960) caused rapidly increasing labor costs. Next stop – Taiwan.

    The very western-leaning government in Taipei combined with a large educated class in the workforce made Taiwan an easy fit for American companies. This writer’s personal experience working there was much like Bayonne or Bayport: the Taiwanese had a funny accent but followed the same Yankee Doodle drummer leading to escalating sophistication, profits, and cost. However by the turn of the 21st century even Taiwanese companies read the kanji on the wall and began to open subsidiaries in mainland China where land, building, and labor were cheap and often subsidized.

    These lower costs coupled with the loosening governmental control in mainland China made for fertile ground where companies could expect to grow quickly and to dramatically cut costs. There was a scarcity of university-educated engineers and experienced managers, so most startups were not Chinese based but rather staffed and managed by Japanese, Koreans, and the entrepreneurial Taiwanese.

    Part of the competitive nature of the Chinese model was based on low manufacturing costs, where human labor was usually more cost-effective than automation. This meant start-up capital was low but also meant that quality was more difficult to control. When output varied because of the human interface, the parts not-to-specification were simply culled out during inspection and discarded or sometimes just ignored as being “close enough”.

    As the world market demanded increased quality the producers in China invested in more automation and higher caliber staff with increased training and product flow responsibility. Inevitably costs began an upward climb. The price of fuel increased globally and with it the cost to ship to their customers half-way around the globe, so the competitive nature of China began to decrease.

    China has historically undervalued their currency, promoted low labor cost, and subsidized raw materials and energy costs in an effort to develop a mushrooming industrial base. This has been effective and even in the face of rising costs China’s role in the world economy has grown at the expense of other nations. There seemed to be no stopping their growth.

    The international economic playing field has never been level as each country erected duties on inexpensive imports that ate away at the ability of their domestic manufacturers to grow and develop. A second tool used to give home-grown industries a boost has been subsidies (often farm products) and government sweetheart contracts (the aerospace industry). Any effort by an industrialized country to harmonize trade with developing countries has received resistance and threats of suits in international courts. The “balance of trade” has been a key measurement, contrasting imports from and exports to specific trading partners. However even when the numbers pointed to a disparity there was little a country could do to level the playing field. Then came the tariffs.

    Tariffs are a double-edged sword, protecting targeted industries while adding to the cost of living for the population in general. The goal is usually to make them last long enough to spur domestic protection and short enough to avoid a dramatic increase in the cost of living or an outright shortage of certain goods.

    Trade Balances

    China’s largest export market is the US, and they export to the US five times the amount that they import from the US. The Chinese trade with the EU is more balanced but still far in Chinese favor.

    The Chinese economic growth plan is based on maintaining and even increasing this advantage, but that could hold true only if their trading partners were willing to accept the status quo at the expense of their domestic industries. Tariffs are one way to force a short-term rectification of the imbalance.

    The US has imposed punitive tariffs on a wide range of raw materials and finished goods from simple metal extrusions to sophisticated electronics. Ten per cent has grown to 25%, and $50 billion in goods to $300 billion in goods, nearly every product imported. The short-term effect is already being seen with American companies sourcing to other low-cost regions or moving production back to the US. As China struggles with lower output their cost to produce is rising, reducing their cost advantage against other countries. Headlines are already reporting that China may have missed its opportunity to grow into an economic giant. Bad for them does not necessarily mean good for us, but it does mean that American companies have decisions to make in the next few years. Electronics assembly production is a prime example of an industry in transition. Will we go to other LCR and repeat this scenario or will we re-shore?

    The North American sources for contract assembly, having watched their markets shrinking away, are seeing a ray of hope: they could compete on the world stage and indeed win the economic struggle not only against the historical competitors but also against any of the new smaller (Vietnam, Thailand) and potentially larger (Brazil, India) low cost regions.

    Let us review the actual history and trends in China, realize what has happened to the cost savings that were envisioned just a few years ago, and take heed

    The Supporting Data:

    Seven years ago the push to offshore contract assembly was at its peak, and with good reason. US demand was up and volumes were increasing. US labor and raw material costs had risen dramatically. Cheap knockoffs from Chinese companies were flooding the market. To compete the US companies chose to join them, not fight them, and began moving first simple subassemblies and then more complete products to LCRs (low cost regions) like China and Vietnam.

    We, the American consumer, cannot blame the US off-shoring companies. We wanted more and we wanted it cheaper. We accepted lower quality because ours was a throw-away society – use it for a while and when it breaks just buy a cheap replacement. We went from buying just the most basic components off-shore to buying completed goods, all made in the world’s LCR.

    Today however that tide is turning. The change in currency exchange alone has made this a different world. The US dollars just do not buy as much off-shore as it used to.

    The environmental mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” has taken hold. Americans are willing to pay a bit more for things of a higher quality that might last longer. Would we pay double? Probably not. So where is that tipping point and how close to it are we? When should producers in this hemisphere investigate on-shore contract assembly?   Let’s look first at recent changes in cost in the Pacific Rim.

    • Chinese labor costs have doubled and are expected to rise another 50% in 4-5 years.
    • Chinese currency is more expensive: it had been over 8¥/$, and is now <7¥/$.
    • The cost of shipping products has increased, some rates by 43%, others by more.

    If you left our shores for contract assembly in the Far East, and you then saved one-half of your production cost, how much of that savings remains today? 15%? 10%? Less??? Even just 10% might be a reason to let the business remain there because after all, why incur an avoidable cost increase? Are there issues that must be considered in addition? The answers might be in the less obvious areas.

    Doing business around the world has obvious hurdles, like language. There are also less obvious obstacles like business mindset and ethics. We in the West have standards that differ even on a single continent. We should not be surprised to discover that there is a greater difference between cultures with less history in common. That is not to say that one is better than the other, only that they are different and must be taken into account in negotiations and daily business transactions.

    World Presence

    What are other practical issues that impact an OEM’s business when considering off-vs-on shoring?

    • Should you invest in an overseas (Vietnam, India, Singapore) manufacturing scenario today if there are major aspects over which you have limited control, and there are forecasts of increasing economic pressure?
    • The 10 to 12 hour time difference: how easy is it to have a phone or video conference if one group is just arising while the other is getting ready for dinner? Is everyone really at the top of his game?
    • The 24 hour trip to have an on-site round table discussion. How many of your staff could you spare at the same time so as to make the meeting truly productive? And what happens back home while they are gone – it is still that 12 hour phone tag lag.
    • What is the background, ability, and availability of the LCR staff? Do they have the skillset that you are used to encountering?  Do they smile and nod because they agree or because they do not understand?
    • Are your quality standards something that they are just willing to accept or do they wholeheartedly embrace the concept? Are they committed to protect the product quality and hence the good name of their clients or would they walk away from a situation and just move on to another client from a different industry or different country. After all, their name is shielded from notoriety by secrecy agreements.
    • And speaking of secrecy, how is your intellectual property protected? Agreements for non-disclosure are easy to sign but difficult to enforce when the parties are separated by 8,000 miles, different legal systems, and centuries of tradition.

    Quantifying these non-monetary aspects is difficult but we know they exist. When do they, added to the direct cost, warrant moving your contract assembly back to North America?

    This question could be answered with the use of a super computer and the services of many an expensive consultant. Or you could bid your next job here and there, compare the economic results, factor in the ease of dealing locally, and make your first on-shore placement. You will not be the first in North America to make that change and you will certainly not be the last. If you would like a helping hand as you make your decision, just ask USTEK Incorporated – we have the experience!

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  8. Don’t Stock-up on Inventory!

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    Does your company’s stocking system look like your grandmother’s?

    Grandmother's Pantry

    One hundred years ago our great grandmothers stocked up for the winter by canning, pickling, and drying foods to last until spring.  Today we preserve mostly as a hobby and buy groceries and such only when we need them.  Why lay out the cash and fill up a pantry with items you will not need for months?  Instead buy what you need just in time to use it!

    Currently we are faced with the identical options in the electronics industry: buy large quantities for lower prices and safety stock benefits, or order only what is required to meet the production schedule.  The former ties up cash flow, fills floor space with unused goods, requires additional insurance, and mandates environmental controls.  The latter requires attention to scheduling lead time and often a higher price.

     

    How best to balance the advantages and disadvantages?  Is there a source with all the benefits and none of the losses?

    (I would not have written this if I did not already know the answer!)

    Yes indeed; you could

    •          cut your inventory cash investment by 50%+,
    •          Repurpose your inventory space for manufacturing,
    •          reduce your burden,
    •          respond faster to your customers’ demands,
    •          and still save money.

     

    At USTEK Inc. we calculate the customer’s price based on the annual volume.  Then we build a portion of that estimate ( typically 3 to 4 months ) and hold it in our Ohio stock for kanban/just-in-time requirements.  Releases received by 1 PM are shipped the same day.  Examples of the savings:

    A large 4-layer printed circuit board used in quantities of 100 pcs per run was priced at $18.22 each.  When this went on our kanban stocking program the customer’s price dropped to $13.80. This saved the them 24% in piece price and 90% in inventory expense.  A fabricated metal part had been quoted at $2.89 for a single 1500 piece order but dropped to only $1.22 for the 12k piece kanban release order.  Piece price savings of 58% and an inventory decrease of 87%.

    The cost reductions will vary with your component type and the volume – so send us your design files and specifications and we’ll get to work demonstrating your savings!