Made in Canada: Microart services makes it big in PCB assembly
Smaller customers, smaller volumes and connectivity are driving growth.
It may surprise some to learn that there’s a booming electronic component manufacturing industry right here in Canada.
While many have sub-contracted such work overseas, it turns out there are 530 or so small- to medium-sized firms contributing to a $1.9 billion domestic industry.
They specialize in printed circuit board (PCB) design and assembly, among other things. And they are doing well. Really well.
Mark Wood, CEO of Microart Services Inc., says that when he started with the company 15 or so years ago, it was doing $3 million or $4 million a year in sales. “We’re 10 times that. We’ll do $40 million this year.”
The Markham, Ont.-based company, which employs 279 people at its 42,000 square foot plant, has experienced 16% annual growth compounded over the past 10 years, according to Wood. “Solid,” he emphasizes.
In fact the company has also made the Canadian Business list of Canada’s fastest growing companies at number 85 among manufacturers and 485 overall.
What’s driving Microart’s growth? “Most circuit board assembly companies chase large volumes. But we’re good at servicing small customers and small volumes,” he points out. “We try to treat all customers the same, whether they need 50 or 500 boards. We attract a lot of start ups and as they grow, we grow with them.”
Bernie Lewe founded Microart in 1981 as a printed circuit board design house only. “This was back in the days before computers when design was done by hand using coloured crayons, then coloured tape,” Wood explains. Once computers came along, circuit board design was getting easier so the company got into assembly.
Fifteen years ago, Lewe sold the company to father and son team Peter and Tyler Fisher. Wood was brought in to run it and Lewe stayed on. Wood, a graduate of George Brown College who had worked in printed circuit board design and assembly, became the manager. In 2018, Peter and Tyler sold the firm to Wood. Lewe is still there three days a week.
Microart has nine surface mount lines (three are high-speed SMT lines) and three X-ray machines at the Markham location. Wood says they have no problem making capital equipment investments because of the pace of growth.
Now manufacturers seek Microart to help them implement sensors and chips on hardware products ranging from communications satellites to paintball guns. “Sensor manufacturers are doing a booming business,” Wood says.
Building unique boards
Connectivity is a big factor. “Data is driving the growth,” Wood says. Microart’s business in medical devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), for example, is “expanding dramatically.”
Think monitors for weight loss, the heart, blood pressure and blood glucose levels for diabetics. When connected, these devices collect data, offer analysis, help pinpoint problems and provide alerts to patients and their healthcare workers.
“There doesn’t seem to be any part of the body they don’t monitor now,” Wood says, adding most of the market is for home sensors to help keep the costs of hospitalization down.
Connectivity is creating residual business on a monthly basis for those who are manufacturing products with a data stream. “It’s really accelerating. The product is a means to an end. Now you can stay in touch with the customer. Hardware is like software. They know more about your business than they did before,” Wood says.
For example, heavy equipment manufacturers offer their customers preventive maintenance by connecting machinery to indicate when bearings are about to wear out. Such a service could save customers time, equipment wear and money.
Because of this the supply chain has improved, Wood says. “The supplier already knows that you are out of something before you do.”
Microart expanded its operations a year ago, openning a new plant in Buffalo, NY. Eight people work one shift on two surface mounting lines, and there are plans to hire “probably 12 more,” Wood says. “The new plant hasn’t gone the way we expected. It has attracted Canadian businesses seeking to meet ‘Build in USA’ requirements.”
Microart is the only company Wood knows of that offers an apprenticeship training program for printed circuit board assembly. In-house trainers are certified IPC. “We also train some customers,” he says.
Building unique boards
In any given month, Microart will serve 300 different customers. The firm is now building 1,000 to 1,100 unique boards. Using ERP software from Nivision Dynamics, a share point system helps them track the status of the boards as they proceed through assembly in the shop.
“We can allow our customers in through a portal so they can see the status of their job,” Wood says. “We buy all components, put them into a kit. It could be one bin or many depending on the job. Once the backend work is complete, including the design program and stencil, the boards are loaded onto SMT feeders through the paste process. An automated optical inspection verifies we’ve done it correctly.”
Any solder joints that can’t be visibly inspected are x-rayed. An automated wave solder machine or low volume hand solder might be used on some selected solder mechanisms. Once that’s done, the product is tested then shipped to the customer, or it’s assembled into the customer’s product.
Although Microart ships to some 50 countries, 90% to 95% of the jobs are delivered within North America.
David Olive has known Wood for 30 years. Olive is a partner in Netonix LLC, which designs, manufactures and distributes equipment worldwide for the WISP (wireless internet service provider) industry in New Holland, Pa.
“Mark introduced us to a company that wanted to manufacture something he knew we could help them with. We didn’t have the volume to go to China,” Olive says. “You have to have someone on the ground if you’re dealing with China. If you’re a Tier One customer in China you might be okay, otherwise you need to be there to monitor things. Microart is good in that they can jump to your needs and do a good job. And the Canadian dollar helps.”
Barry Papoff is COO of Markham, Ont.-based Arcx. The firm provides plant operators with an error-proofing system for assembly lines. Key to this system is the logic controller, connected to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). It collects metrics, such as cycle time or errors. It also offers an interface for training the operator in each basic step of the process. Microart assembles the device.
Why does Arcx have its engineered product manufactured in Canada rather than, say China?
“Labour rates are rising in China,” Papoff says. “They’ve risen five times since I’ve been dealing with manufacturers in Beijing. It’s getting harder to find low-cost geographies.” Also, start-up product costs at a distance “create quite the barrier. Design to prototype to manufacture can be done at a much faster rate here.”
He appreciates Microart’s flexibility.
“There has been a renaissance of hardware and electronics manufacturing within Ontario,” Papoff notes. “We have an ecosystem fed by a number of large electronic global companies. Research in Motion (now Blackberry Ltd.), for example, sprinkled the ecosystem with all these bright people. We have angel investors and good technology incubators. That seeds things and creates start ups. Microart is a small, local company with a good reputation. Mark has a finger on the pulse of the local community and business needs,” he says.
Ultimately, Papoff wants to support the local community “because this is where Mark’s children and my children are going to grow up and look for jobs.”
Some of those opportunities will surely be in the growing Canadian electronic component manufacturing industry.
Kim Laudrum is a Toronto-based business writer and regular contributor to PLANT. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.