CEO Tracey Latham’s passion for manufacturing is equaled only by investments in state-of-the-art equipment that keep her contract PCB manufacturer on a steady growth curve.
It’s a lucky few who have as much passion for their chosen career as Latham does. After about 20 years working for various manufacturing companies, she decided to start her own Southwest contract manufacturer because of the love she developed for the business.
“I love this industry,” Latham says. “I love the employees. I love the supply base out there, and I love the customers. It just feels like this is where I am supposed to be.”
Though she initially looked at buying an existing company in the Phoenix area, Latham ended up starting her business from scratch with the help of a local developmental group known as the AWEEC – or Arizona Women’s Entrepreneur and Education Center. The organization assisted her in creating a financial plan and connected her with a bank for funding.
It was important to Latham to launch the company with state-of-the-art equipment — having recognized that other area contract manufacturers were losing business because they were running machines with technology that was more than a decade old. She has continued investing in the newest technology as her business has grown. “We wanted to buy equipment that will grow with the industry,” Latham explains. “Our SMT line is my pride and joy.”
The line begins with a circuit board printer, which includes quality control features that inspect the board to ensure the correct amount of paste has been applied before it leaves the machine. “Then you get to our pick-and-place,” Latham continues. “We can place 45,000 parts per hour, and we can place a chip that’s an 03015 — which few [other manufacturers] are placing yet. If you took a pepper shaker and shook it into your hands, those grains of pepper are how tiny some of the components we’re placing are.”
Latham’s pick-and-place equipment is self-calibrated as well. “Once we set it, the parts stay very precise,” she explains. “It will pick up 10 parts and inspect them before placing them on the board. And if you have a BGA, it will do a full inspection of that before it’s placed on the board.”
The company’s 10-zone oven is run with KIC software to enable Latham’s team to fine-tune its profile. “We do a lot of work for the LED industry, which uses aluminum boards,” she continues. “Those dissipate heat. [The software] allows us to control the heating and cooling much better.”
Latham Industries also uses an in-line AOI, or automated optical inspection machine. “Every board that comes out of the
oven goes through this machine for a full inspection,” Latham says. “It can make sure each part is placed and that the polarity is correct. It looks to see if parts are upside down, missing, or have shifted. We have laser inspection on it as well as 2D and 4D inspection. It also has a 12-megapixel camera.”
When circuit board components need to be hand soldered, Latham’s team uses smart tips. “They pick the tip, and then the machine decides how much heat they need for that component,” she explains. This eliminates the potential for using heat that is too high and can damage components or lift pads off the boards. “It’s another step we put in for quality,” she adds.
Because the line is so well-automated, Latham only needs two or three people to run it. The rest of her team is putting parts on by hand, running assembly jobs, or working on shipping and receiving within the company’s 5,000-square-foot facility.
“I’ve worked [with everyone] on my team in the past and was fortunate to be able to hand pick them,” Latham says. “All of them have more than 20 years of experience. And we will always go the extra mile for our customers because we care about them and our relationships.”
Latham’s customers range from startups to larger businesses. “It’s a variety,” she says. “You have all your industrial stuff. We do security systems, medical devices. We can do anything from synchronizing Christmas lights to music to helping build a system that enables the F-35 to land at a NATO base. It’s really soup to nuts, and we have a nice range. One of the things I love about this business is that we get to see all the newest technologies before anybody else. So, that makes it very fascinating.”
Building strong relationships with customers and focusing on quality has enabled Latham Industries to draw a significant amount of business from other parts of the country. “Just from 2019 to 2020, we brought in over $1.3 million from out of state,” Latham says. “That’s the whole thing. Let’s grow Arizona. Let’s keep business here. And let’s go get what we lost.”
Challenges: In 2020, Latham Industries’ revenues were 172 percent higher than the previous year — despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Though growth has slowed a bit due to supply chain constraints, Latham says she’s still proud of how well the company is doing and the many ways in which she has been able to support her customers through their own challenges.
“I have customers that we’ve done business with for a long time,” Latham continues. “I know what they order, so I will take risks. I’ll watch what items are becoming scarce, and I will buy extra material for them. Or we’ll have a conversation and work on alternatives together.”
She notes that the cost of circuit board components has gone up dramatically, and that delivery of ordered parts has become less reliable. Fortunately, she and her team are adept at “thinking outside the box” to get customers what they need.
“I have a smaller customer with a wonderful product,” Latham recounts. “I’ve got components that I ordered for him over a year ago that still haven’t been delivered. To keep his business up and running, we’ve salvaged parts off of old boards he had that never worked. And then we had another customer who needed a microchip part that kept getting delayed. I was looking at another product of his and realized we could take chips off of that board and put it on this one. So, we did it.”
Opportunities: Latham says that more companies searching for contract manufacturers within the U.S. is a huge opportunity — and some of them are even coming from abroad.
“We recently did a quote for somebody in Spain,” she continues. “They’re going to be building in the U.S., so they’re looking for a partner stateside. I also recently got a call from a company in China that wants us to build 70,000 boards a month for them. Usually with that type of volume, people are running to China. But it’s getting difficult to get things built over there.”
Latham, who recently won the SBA Small-Business Person of the Year Award for Arizona, believes the accolade will also lead to additional opportunities. “It’s a huge honor, not only for me but for my team,” she says. “I hope we’ll gain some national recognition for our success, impress other innovators, and they’ll look for a contract manufacturing partner in us.”
Needs: Once a couple of big jobs come online, Latham says she’s going to need to hire at least four or five more people. She also plans to apply for HUBZone certification. “That’s government contracts,” Latham continues. “If we get our HUBZone, that will open up another area for us to go after business.”