Thursday, January 15, 2009

Inside EFD's Solder and Dispense Equipment Manufacturing Operations

The open house to commemorate EFD Inc.'s new solder paste and dispensing equipment manufacturing facilities and headquarters in East Providence, R.I., fell on an astonishingly beautiful wintery day, right after a vicious ice storm. With power knocked out across the New England region, important trappings such as digital camera, business cards, and my cell phone were trapped in SMT's New Hampshire office, which was locked down with power lines strewn about the roads. After an unsuccessful attempt to break in, I set off for East Providence, to tour the expanded EFD location with senators, the governor of Rhode Island, and other distinguished guests.

Left to Right: EFD president Peter Lambert, U.S. Senator Jack Reed, East Providence Mayor Joseph Larisa Jr, and Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri.

EFD was founded in 1963, and to commemorate this, EFD's employee with the most longevity, Laurie Higgins, cut the ribbon in the open house ceremony. More than 200 employees run EFD in R.I., and president Peter Lambert was frank about their contribution. Relocating to the larger facility was necessary for the growth of the company, he stated, but just as important was keeping the skilled and knowledgeable workforce EFD has built up in the Providence area. Their contribution to the economic and social well-being of the local area was evident. Governor Donald Carcieri, who was a competitor of EFD's when he worked in the metals industry, commended EFD for keeping manufacturing jobs in the state. Other government representatives echoed this sentiment, and Mayor Joseph S. Larisa, Jr., declared December 12th "EFD Day" in the city. While the glowing speeches from state and city officials, economic development directors, and the like were impressive to hear, I was eager to tour the manufacturing areas resultant from EFD's investment in the location. This facility combines four prior operations into one cohesive building.

EFD is a unique company, in that it manufactures solders as well as the dispensing equipment for solder paste, adhesive, and other fluids. In the customer demo lab, I saw everything from manual dispensing cartridges to EFD's automatic, non-contact jetting system. Customers can send EFD their materials and goals, and the engineers in the lab will develop dispensing parameters for them, sending back specifications and video from the demo lab. Other new areas included a display of tips, valves, and syringes outside of that manufacturing area for these products. Standard and custom syringes and other components are fabricated here. Various sizes of one component, such as pistons, are designated by color. The manufacturing equipment targets high-precision, high-quality plastics, with additions like HEPA filters to limit the possibility of scratches or irregular surfaces. EFD also attaches tips to barrels for customers, a service that is growing in popularity. Components can be packaged into dispensing "kits," including the barrel, tip, piston, and end cap. EFD does three kinds of fluid packaging: their own products, custom dispensing applications for customers, and packaging for their solder products.

In the solder manufacturing room, EFD engineers explained that they make a huge range of solder paste formulations, and also will tweak formulae to meet a new requirement brought by a customer. "If we develop a formula for one specification, such as high-reliability, we apply that knowledge to other applications, such as high-end consumer PCB assemblies," elaborated EFD's representatives. Even further, an alloy developed for rapid reflow properties may serve the hand soldering market as well. This kind of solder development and new product engineering takes place next to the raw materials supply, mixing, and quality assurance testing for existing solder formulations, so the opportunity for knowledge sharing and co-development is rich. In fact, across every area of the new facility — accounting, syringe manufacturing, shipping, etc. — employees lauded the ease of communication enabled by the combined and modernized operations. Similar to the customer demo lab in the dispensing area, the solder labs include a reflow oven, screen printer, and other equipment to test out processes and optimize alloys. Customers can call on EFD to tweak a reflow profile, for instance, or to resolve a soldering issue with new parameters, or a new alloy when necessary.

Molding and tip assembly supervisor Steve Costa explains how to identify a high-quality dispensing tip.

Since EFD produces very different product groups in solder pastes and dispensing vehicles, they accordingly use different methods to stock and ship product. Both are designed for efficiency and accuracy, and cater to the needs of the product. For nonperishable dispensing systems — tips, cartridges, etc. — lean manufacturing methodologies of Kanban and heijunka were implemented. Kanban is a color-coded system to keep manufacturing and shipping on the same page, so to speak, about stock levels and customer demand. Heijunka is a leveling system that helps eliminate order surprises. In the perishable solders and fluxes area, customer replenishment is all about measured turns and low inventory, keeping fresh solder at the electronics manufacturing facilities. Shelf-life-related issues are wasteful for the customer, and thus for EFD, they explained. The company also will fill small orders for producers such as military/aerospace electronics manufacturers, which typically do not use a set amount of solder at regular intervals.

Touring EFD's East Providence campus was very much like a two-for-one visit — injection molders for the dispensing cartridges in one room, paddle mixers for the solder alloys in another. It is a testament to organization and employee enthusiasm that the two sides of EFD come together seamlessly in the building, and also collaborate effectively in applicable areas, such as solder paste packaging. The operations are streamlined, efficient, and productive. And there's still room for more, as the investments in equipment for quality testing, product packaging, warehousing, etc., are ongoing. Lean manufacturing practices are evident across the board, and EFD is reaping the benefits of a business mindset that prizes efficiency in-house over outsourcing.

Meredith Courtemanche, managing editor

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