Catching up with…Coast to Coast Circuits CEO Walt Stender

Dan - Walt Stender

Coast to Coast is an independent American circuit board manufacturing company. Yes, the key word here is “independent.” After many mergers and acquisitions that have diminished the mil/aero PCB vendor base, there are only a handful of independent companies for our country’s defense and aerospace contractors to choose from.

Concerned about the demise of mil/aero fabricators, I set out to find a company that could meet the standards required by this important segment of the American market. I believe Coast to Coast Circuits is that company. So, I extended an invitation to CEO Walt Stender to sit down with me and talk about his company.

Dan Beaulieu: Walt, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I know you are a pretty busy guy these days.

Walt Stender: No problem. I love talking about Coast to Coast Circuits.

Beaulieu: Tell us about the company, its history, and a little background information.

Stender: The company was founded more than 40 years ago, in Rochester, New York. The California operation opened seven years later, in Huntington Beach. Both divisions filled a niche in quick-turn and prototype business, and they operated as independent companies until 1989, when they were incorporated under one privately owned company.

The company soon built an outstanding reputation for its ability to meet the challenges of leading-edge technology and provide a benchmark for quick turnaround and superb quality. To this day, our New York and California operations continue to support various industries spanning the globe, including defense, medical, semiconductor and down-hole exploration, among others.

Beaulieu: Can you tell me something about the company today?

Stender: Coast to Coast Circuits is a leading fabricator of printed circuit boards using a variety of standard and advanced materials. For example, we are also the leading manufacturer of LCP PCBs and we work closely with our customers to develop producible designs. We use leading-edge technology, state-of-the-art equipment, industry-leading quality systems, and an experienced workforce to produce your most challenging PCB designs cost-effectively. We have been proudly serving our valued customers in aerospace, defense, semiconductor, medical, instrumentation, wireless and specialty interconnect industries for more than four decades.

Beaulieu: And that’s what I want to focus on. There do not seem to be a lot of independent companies like yours left. TTM has picked up a number of your competitors, leaving major defense and aerospace contractors like Raytheon and BAE in kind of a lurch when it comes to having vendor options for their high-tech PCBs. What does that mean to you? I assume this is a good thing for a company like C3.

Stender: Yes, it is. We want those companies to realize that we are here to support them, not only today but in the future. We aim to provide a customized service level that the larger firms may not be able to provide while also focusing on competitive market pricing. Right now, we are investing millions of dollars in equipment and people to make sure that we can handle their needs going into the future. Our goal is to be there for those companies so that they can buy their boards right here in the USA.

Beaulieu: And are you also hiring?

Stender: Oh, yes. We are looking for key people in all positions, from process engineers, plating, and lamination to quality and sales reps. We are seeking people who want to use and create technology to solve our customer and industry-wide problems.

Beaulieu: That’s a very good thing. You know, in reading your literature, I saw that you are one of the few companies that can build boards with liquid crystal polymer.

Stender: In fact, we are the leading manufacturer of LCP multilayer boards right now. This has been a focus of the company for years. We have worked with just about all the top-tier companies utilizing this material. We have helped them at all stages, from development to production.

Beaulieu: And while speaking of technology, do you also build flex and rigid-flex boards as well?

Stender: We do both flex and rigid-flex and have been doing both for many years. We not only use the normal materials such as Kapton, but also LCP and other high-performance materials as well. The niches that require high-performance materials are a major focus of our organization, and we have been very successful with these technologies. We build single- and double-sided flex as well as multilayer. We feel that the flex market is one of those markets that will be expanding in the future with many more end-product needs, so we are making sure that we remain on the cutting edge of this technology, especially as space becomes more limited in all designs. Obviously, HDI and microvia boards are also coming into their own in terms of being incorporated into new designs.

Beaulieu: I would say that C3 is certainly an industry leader when it comes to technology.

Stender: For a business our size, absolutely. And we are striving to retain that position as well. We believe that we as a company and the industry as a whole, have to take full advantage of all the technologies out there today. It is obvious that products are being developed today that need cutting edge PCB technology and we are making it our mission to be one of those companies who provide it. We are striving to constantly improve and better utilize technology in all phases of manufacturing including sales and support as we grow. We are always working to exploit technology to make us better.

Beaulieu: Now let’s talk about quality. I assume you have all the proper qualifications.

Stender: Yes, of course we do. We are AS9100, ISO9001, Mil-PRF-55110/MIL-PRF-50884/MIL-PRF-31032. In addition, we are also NADCAP accredited which is a prestigious accreditation in this industry and is very important to our customers. We also participate in Lean and Six Sigma and other best practices from outside of this industry.

Beaulieu: What makes C3 better than other companies and what makes you outstanding?

Stender: Glad you asked. I don’t think I have ever worked for a company that has changed so much in such a short time to become a better supplier. In this next quarter we will add some leading edge plating technology as one of the last legs in our multi-million dollar capital refresh program. We feel very strongly that we have to be there for our customers from concept to reality. We are not only their board vendor, we are their partner and their expert consultant. If we are involved up front at the concept stage the road to success for our customer is both smoother and shorter. We have their back, whatever they need. Most of the OEMs we deal with used to have their own PCB facilities and now they don’t. This creates a dilemma; where are they going to go to test out new PCB products, where are they going to go to work on some R&D for the future? This is where we come in. This is a need that we strive to meet. We want to be our customers’ board shop.

Beaulieu: Can you tell me about the new plating process you have developed and installed?

Stender: We are implementing the state-of-the-art closed loop automated  pulse and DC plating system, as well as moving to insoluble anodes with the goal of drastically increasing plating uniformity. The insoluble anodes also mitigate the risk of copper metallic nodules therefore improving the overall quality of our plating process. This was identified as another opportunity to re-invest into the company and to improve the overall quality of products that we deliver to our customers.

Beaulieu: I know you are constantly investing in the company. Please give us the details.

Stender: Yes, this is something we are very proud of. Our focus is on automation and closed-loop systems. We have purchased new rectification systems, software tools to enable rapid expansion of knowledgeware, automated lamination systems/presses, and the current generation of LDI, AOI, test equipment, XRF, impedance testers, pinless lamination, planarization equipment, inkjet printers, robotic masking machines, as well as some other equipment all focused on production automation. In terms of the facilities, our upgrades include HVAC, more controlled environments, improvements to water systems. And finally, we are about to completely redo 100% of our wet processing area in Q1 of 2017.

Beaulieu: I know that you have worked on some exciting programs. Can you share some of those with me?

Stender: Certainly. This is something we are very proud of. We have worked on a number of mission-critical products including the F-35 Stealth fighter, the SM-6 defense missile interceptor, the B-52H bomber, and the PAC-3 missile interceptor, as well as the International Space Station. We are also working on exciting semiconductor projects using LCP. And the oil and gas markets continue to require extreme reliability, coupled with some major advances in performance that must work perfectly in an environment that is beyond extreme.

Beaulieu: How do you see the market today?

Stender: I am nervous about a couple of segments in this market. It seems that many defense programs are being pushed out more than expected; this is a very important market segment. I also believed that the merger of two large firms would create many new opportunities to bid on longer-term production programs. But we have yet to see these types of opportunities. Oil and gas is still a fraction of what it was a couple years ago; however, we are starting to see more development projects.

We believe the Internet of Things and automotive radar/sensors may give us some additional development opportunities. As I said earlier, we are in the business of being our customers’ partners from concept to reality. Which means that those companies that are building what I call products of the future—from products that are making the world safer and healthier to space exploration companies and medical companies—are all using cutting-edge and even bleeding-edge PCB technologies. And this is where C3 comes in. From our metal-backed and RF products, to our LCP products and our flex and rigid-flex products, we have positioned ourselves to be right there at the front edge of today’s highest printed circuit board technology. Our mission is to always be at the head of the pack of independent, easy-to-work-with PCB fabrication companies.

Beaulieu: Walt, thanks for talking with me today.

Stender: My pleasure.

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