NATEL Takes Hands-Off Approach to Assembly

Today, the San Fernando Valley Business Journal wrote an article about us. Mark Madler and his photographer David Sprague were both genuinely curious about our business and we welcome them back any time. Reprinted below.
Source: San Fernando Valley Business Journal
Author: Mark R. Madler, Staff Reporter
Title: When it comes to producing intricate microelectronic assemblies, components manufacturer Natel Engineering Co. Inc. is saying goodbye to manual labor.
The Chatsworth company this year invested about $1.7 million in developing, purchasing and installing equipment for a so-called “hands-free” assembly line.
Hands-free lines are not new in electronics manufacturing but Natel has brought the technology to the tiniest of parts: integrated circuits small enough to fit on a head of a pin connected by wire thinner than a human hair.
James Angeloni, chief operating officer of aerospace and defense operations at Natel, said the benefits of the hands-free line are twofold: the components are made the same way every time, and operator-introduced errors are eliminated.
Since becoming operational in the spring, the line has been used to make parts for military walkie-talkies. And the line is expected to find more use as Natel’s defense and medical device clients look for ways to shave weight from their parts.
“The future will continue to be smaller and lighter and more sophisticated,” Angeloni said.
Founded nearly 40 years ago in Van Nuys as a defense contractor, Natel has built up its microelectronic assembly capabilities through acquisitions, the most recent last year of EPIC Technologies in Norwalk, Ohio, from a private equity firm. That purchase considerably grew the company, adding plants and about 1,500 employees. In Chatsworth, there are about 170 employees, a figure which has stayed consistent through the years as sales have grown.
The company recorded about $300 million in revenue for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, with nearly half coming from industrial customers, while aerospace and defense making up about a quarter.
Traditional defense work, for example, includes a contract it has with Raytheon Co. to assemble the parts that go into radars placed on the nosecones and wingtips of military jets such as the F-15 Eagle. The company also supplies to the medical, energy and automotive and transportation industries.
In addition to the Valley location, the company has facilities in Carlsbad, Mexico and four other states, including as far east as Johnson City, Tenn.
Conveyor belt
Microelectronic parts need to be reliable because of their applications, which could be aboard satellites or in medical devices implanted inside the body.
Natel’s hands-free line is found in a former lunch room. It stretches from nearly one end to another with a conveyor belt that moves the pieces along.
Wendy Hagenson, a senior program manager and quality engineer, said the pieces are bought to the conveyor in special boxes with protective foam inserts.
“It makes it easier for people to not go down the hallway juggling it all around,” she said.
The process begins with a small ceramic wafer with a thin layer of epoxy on top. A conveyor belt moves the wafer to the first stop called the “pick and place” station. A six-tool arm picks up tiny snippets of integrated circuitry called dies and positions them on the white or blue wafers.
The conveyor belt then moves the wafer into an oven that dries the epoxy and fixes the placement of the dies. Next, another machine inserts wire leads to connect the circuits.
Finally, there is an inspection performed by humans under a microscope. The workers also clear away any stray wires or extra glue.
“The line is not put together for speed; it is put together for accuracy and repeatability,” Angeloni said.
Natel contracted with with Palomar Technologies, in Carlsbad, to build the assembly line. Palomar President Bruce Hueners said his company built two of the machines, including the “pick and place,” and procured others to complete the package.
The two companies worked together for several months to put together the specs for the machines and then find the best equipment to meet the challenge of making Natel’s product hands-free from beginning to end.
“It was a challenge we were up for,” Hueners said.

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