Catching Up With Gardien’s Niraj Patel

I worked with Gardien a few years back and walked away very impressed not only with its people and the company but some of the very important things they are doing for the industry as well.

I have always been fascinated by this company, especially two particular services they offer. First, they embed their team into a facility and actually take over as the PCB company’s expert test center; second, they have a universal quality system to track problems and solutions from all over the world and then keep them in a universal database that can be shared by everyone. These are two services everyone in our business needs to know about, which is why I recently reached out to Niraj Patel, Gardien’s vice president in charge of North America.

Dan Beaulieu: Niraj, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Niraj Patel: My pleasure Dan.

Beaulieu: Please tell me a little about the company’s history.

Patel: Gardien was founded in 1972 by Paul Mang, the inventor of the grid testing system. It was called Mania Technology at that time.

Beaulieu: Sure, I remember Mania.

Patel: In 1981, Gardien Services USA Inc., was founded in San Bernardino, California, as Testerion Laboratories, Inc. Over the years, there were more name changes. In 2009, we became Gardien Services USA. Our Canada operation changed its name to Gardien Services Canada. The current scope is to provide testing and inspection or, broadly speaking, quality assurance solutions to the printed circuit board arena and supporting markets. This includes standard ET, buried passives, HIPOT, and other methodologies for testing, and AOI and AVI for inspection.

Beaulieu: Thank you. Would you also share your own personal story?

Patel: I began my journey with the group in 1993 while I was still in college. I was studying computer systems technology and I joined them part-time to get my foot in the door, so I could apply what I was learning. I was hired full-time after I graduated. I continued to learn all aspects of our operation and was promoted to CAM manager in 1998. Our central CAM location processes all jobs for the North America group from the Toronto office. In 2011, we went through some changes and I was promoted to VP of operations for all Canada operations. This oversaw the test operations as well as our fixture assembly and drill operations. It also included steering the overall business. In 2015, Gardien combined operations between the U.S. and Canada to become one North American unit, and I assumed responsibility for North American operations. That brings us to where we are today.

Beaulieu: Would you tell me about what Gardien does?

Patel: It’s not so much what Gardien does, but what Gardien “is.” We pride ourselves on being a quality assurance partner to the industry. Of course, we provide electrical test and inspection services, but we look to partner with customers and become their quality assurance “go-to” when it comes to tough test solutions or other test solutions they may not have internally.

Beaulieu: Would you talk about the services you offer, especially Integrate services vs. on demand, as well as your global leverage and the consistency of your standards?

Patel: As I mentioned, we strive to become a partner with our customers in that we provide a gambit of electrical test and inspection solutions. This opens with the standard bare board test and escalates to options such as buried resistors, HIPOT dielectric testing, IR Test, 4-wire Kelvin, and recently we introduced inductance testing in our flying probe line utilizing FPX, our proprietary flying probe software platform. We offer these services both as on-demand (walk ins and per order) or our Integrate onsite solution. These solutions exist at many of our locations so customers do not need to ship long distances. This puts us in a favorable position as we can leverage the quick turn with many test options. Our services centers operate independently but rely on each other for specific tasks and know-how sharing. This keeps our best resources available to all service centers. Additionally, we are registered ISO9001:2015 and that requires a strict Quality Management System. Rick Meraw (group vice president of quality/R&D) and Todd Kolmodin (VP of quality NA) are probably two of the best in the quality business with over 50 years between them in electrical test and quality assurance. Repeatability and strong KPI matrixes keep Gardien steadfast, providing optimum quality to our customer base. It is difficult at times, but the history of our quality assurance program speaks for itself.

Beaulieu: Let’s focus on the Integrate service. I believe this is when you actually embed yourself into the customer company, right?

Patel: Unlike the on-demand or walk-in service, the Integrate service is exactly that. It’s just not a system where we jump into a customer facility and test boards. There is a whole background system that goes into place. The Integrate process starts long before the first board is tested. Once the relationship has begun, there is a review and audit process. Depending on the candidate site, equipment already in service is reviewed for capability and capacity. Detailed analysis is performed regarding volume, product mix, current capability, and future forecasting. Current costing is reviewed about staff, equipment, environment, and other factors that may have influence on the overall operation. Then a detailed solution is provided to the new partner. This may entail utilizing just the current equipment with additional Gardien resources or adding/replacing equipment based on the audit results and capacity forecasting. Integration brings the full force of Gardien’s resources to the new partner—quality assurance, global engineering support, service and support, and very strong order tracking and processing. The headache of electrical simply goes away and the new partner can focus on their main niche, which is building quality product.

Beaulieu: You also offer on-demand testing in service bureaus, right?

Patel: Yes. Our service centers provide substantial on-demand solutions, and even the on-demand customers have the luxury of Gardien’s global solutions. All our service centers work with each other as necessary, and challenges at one location receive engineering and quality support from other locations.

Beaulieu: Why do you believe people should use Gardien?

Patel: Plain and simple, we know what we are doing and our history of quality shows. Rather than spending unnecessary capital on different capability requirements as the industry changes, it is cost effective to use a solution that has already been “around the block” a few times. We have a team of experts that can be relied upon to break down challenges and find solutions. There are no problems, only opportunities.

Beaulieu: What types of companies as customers are you best suited to work for? I know it’s PCB houses, but what technology in PCB houses best suit you?

Patel: Our Integrate solutions are our best targets. However, we cater to all customers large and small. We do not change how we do things on an order basis, based on size of customer. Our quality matrix remains the same. We strive to stay on or ahead of the technology roadmap. New packages emerge routinely, and we work to provide solutions. Of course, we would like more Integrate partners, and that comes as technology progresses beyond current manufacturing house capabilities. The sheer cost of updating equipment for just ET in a very competitive market for margins makes the use of the Integrate solution more appealing.

Beaulieu: Are you doing anything with assembly houses?

Patel: This is an open item for us. We have not done a lot with direct CMs, but we do build fixtures that are more for loaded and level 2 products. Our team does have the expertise to provide in-circuit fixture solutions whether they be dedicated boxes or hybrid type designs.

 Beaulieu: This could be a great market for you. What are your plans? Where do you want to be in five years?

Patel: The future is a foggy crystal ball. This past year has been a real challenge for all of us—the new normal, as they say. Just like others, we would like to see growth, but what we are seeing is a compression of the industry. Many of the smaller operations are giving way to the larger manufacturers and the competition from Asia. Some simply cannot compete due to pricing or their capabilities are behind the curve and cost of upgrading is just too large. For us, it’s the expansion of capabilities and service. We have some new services under the hood that we will be talking about soon. Our team is developing some new options that both buyers and sellers will find advantageous.

Beaulieu: Can you talk about some of those options?

Patel: ET has just been the basic “opens and shorts” test. Of course, that still is true but additional interrogation of the PCB is now very common. Tests like HIPOT, 4-wire Kelvin, and buried passives have become routine. However, on our G-series machines we are introducing inductive and IR test. These, which usually are done on a bench with external meters, have now been integrated into our flying probe package. We can now offer all these tests on the flying probe. Any of our G-series probers in the field can be upgraded to add these further tests. Of course, automation is the key here—take the operator decision out of the equation and allow the machines to perform the task and receive optimal results.

We also are developing a new website tool called Supply Chain Plus. This is a portal where manufacturers and buyers can interact to obtain PCBs without the need for background research. Gardien will do all the work and, keeping with our seamless solutions, it will be easy for a buyer to acquire quality PCBs without the challenge of reviewing, auditing, and so forth. We do all the work.

Beaulieu: How do you see the market today?

Patel: We supply service to commercial, medical, military, aerospace, and high reliability markets. All these markets have unique requirements. As with any market, the main factor is usually price. At Gardien, we position ourselves to provide the best service available at reasonable cost. We all must remember that technology costs money and investment is required to stay on course. We try to price according to market demand while still putting some pennies in the bank for tomorrow.

Beaulieu: Please talk about your service.

Patel: The cliché is to provide outstanding service at a reasonable cost, but it is more than that. It is developing a relationship with your customers and partners. This makes the relationship work much better than black and white, blackbox in and out. Customers obviously want their product tested correctly and delivered on time. We give them that and the reassurance that the product was tested and processed correctly to their specification and industry requirements as applicable. We strive to process any order in eight hours or less at any service center. This is a KPI that we look at regularly. Our escape rate is below Six Sigma.

Beaulieu: To stay at the top of the technology ladder you must invest in the future. What are your plans for investments?

Patel: Dan, this is a very important question and an everyday challenge we face. The technology changes very differently in the many locations globally where we offer services. The most common denominator we see is the new measurement requirements outside the simple pass/fail for electrical testing, and smaller features in general for testing and optical inspection applications.

Our teams are working on adding the different measurement capabilities to our existing equipment, which is both fast and cost effective.

For electrical testing, our flying probes are capable of handling feature sizes our customers are working with. Our know-how on the fixture technology allows us to produce fixtures with pins as small as 50 microns in diameter.

On the optical inspection side, the fact that we are the user and supplier of the equipment also gives us options. We are upgrading/adding cameras to machines to be able to inspect smaller features without sacrificing throughput at our AVIs in Japan.

We have developed automation solutions for Gardien’s own flying probe series of machines, and we plan on investing in those to minimize idle time. Unlike PCB manufacturers, lights out is usually not an option; we have to have supervision on site. In addition, we cannot allow large WIP to build up on the floor to keep a machine unsupervised for hours on end. The resulting increase on return time is not acceptable for most of our customers.

As far as the future goes, automated visual inspection (AVI) is growing in North America. This technology enhances the FQA operation as it automates the tedious “eyes-on” requirement of inspectors. We are enhancing our automated testing systems for 4-wire Kelvin, buried passives (resistors and capacitors), automated HIPOT via flying probe, and have introduced automated inductive testing on our flying probe line. Along with these hardware enhancements, we continue to support our customer base both onsite and on-demand. We also see an increase in legacy product revival that has us reverse engineer older PCB products by performing scanning services. We are striving to make it more economical for customers to come to us for their more complex solutions as we have the technology ready to go and they do not need to worry about expensive capital upgrades that may be required to satisfy the more demanding requirements.

Beaulieu:  Finally, what are your thoughts on the industry?

Patel: We believe that the industry is facing a significant change in several key areas which hopefully transitions the PCB from being seen as a commodity to being appreciated as a customized, engineered, purpose-built product with significant impact on the quality of the complete electronic device.

This trend should be driven by several developments we all know about already: 5G for wireless and IoT devices that, with a higher frequency, require precise engineering, manufacturing, and advanced test and inspection capabilities. With electric vehicles and autonomous driving, a fail in the field is a catastrophic event. Many manufacturers see this already with the increased use of electronics in vehicles and the liabilities OEMs are putting in the contracts. And since the PCB is key to the electrical integrity as well as mechanically supporting the components, it should be awarded proper attention and appropriate pricing.

At the same time, we observe a global shortage of experienced workers. Good people are leaving the industry and it gets harder and harder to find adequate hires; this is becoming an increasing challenge not only in the U.S., but in Asia as well. This industry has become unattractive for people to work in, and we need to change its reputation as well as the compensation levels.

Beaulieu: Very good information. Niraj. Once again, thanks for talking to me today, I truly appreciate it.

Patel: My pleasure.