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Compunetics Celebrates 50 Years as a Leading Manufacturer of Printed Circuit Boards

Cover Story
For a manufacturer, owning and controlling the raw material central to your product has long been the Holy Grail of productivity and profitability. Compunetics based a few miles outside of Pittsburgh, in Monroeville, has sipped from that chalice for decades – and with no plans to alter or adjust its advantage.

Compunetix (with an “-ix”), a major provider of high-quality electronic systems and conferencing capabilities to government and business, serves as the parent of Compunetics (with an “-ics”), which creates the printed circuit boards so critical to the larger company’s products.

[caption id="attachment_3420" align="alignleft" width="284"] Using a laser system to accurately micro-cut flexible circuit boards.[/caption]

Dr. Giorgio Coraluppi, founder of both enterprises (a leader affectionately and respectfully known as “Dr. C” among his employees), knew that creating a separate company to make printed circuit boards (PCB) meant that it could serve multiple markets and customers, including his own Compunetix company.

“This spirit is breathed by the whole company,” Coraluppi explained. “Creativity, intuition, resolve and hard work – put them all together and you get champions. A table has four legs, so that when one leg gets shaky the others compensate and the table can remain standing. That is the idea behind Compunetics.

“We have many opportunities, the world is always changing and we’re part of the change,” he said. “Very large companies are using our solutions and products.”

"Manufacturing capability and solutions to challenges are what we take a lot of pride in here,” echoed Joe Kasunich, Chief Operating Officer. “We are very proud of our team’s energetic and creative minds. The employees are the company. Just as every employee’s efforts benefit the company, it is also our responsibility to have that employee experience professional growth at Compunetix. If asked, is this a company you work for or work in? We want our people to say it’s a company they work in."

Direct access, input and support from the parent company to Compunetics has paved the way to mutual success for decades.

“I’ve worked at Compunetics 30 years, and all at this location,” noted Tim Schmitt, Chief Technical Officer at Compunetics, referring to the PCB manufacturing facility in an industrial park about two miles from the parent company’s Mosside Boulevard headquarters. “The fact that I and many other employees have worked here so long says a lot about the company and Dr. C’s leadership.

[caption id="attachment_3421" align="alignleft" width="292"] UV filtered cleanroom environment for laser direct imaging.[/caption]

“We design and manufacture printed circuit boards for Compunetix and other users in the medical and defense industries, primarily,” Schmitt said. “It’s a complicated process. PCBs must be reliable, since there are a lot of important features contained in a very small space. We use high-tech equipment, including lasers. It’s a very capital-intensive process.”

The Compunetics manufacturing facility is going through an upgrade now, redoing the flow of the shop, and increasing equipment in critical areas. Coraluppi has authorized $1 million a year to complete the upgrade and for capital improvements – without needing to seek capital from outside sources. Self-funding has been a hallmark of his operations from the start. Investments continue to be made in talent, too.

“If you’re going to lead in this technology, it requires a strong staff of engineers. We have engineers in process control, design, testing, and customization of PCBs for our clients,” said Schmitt. “Sixty-five people work at this location, including electrical engineers, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers and physicists, many of them coming from CMU and Pitt. I’ve overseen many project managers and engineers over the years, most of whom are still here, so the next generation is taken care of and the institutional knowledge won’t be lost.”

Schmitt should know. He began with Compunetics, and in less than a year, was helping to produce PCBs for IBM’s first parallel computing center’s system. “It just grew more and more exciting to work here from that day on,” he said.

“There’s an attitude here – employees feel proud that we’ve done something great,” Schmitt continued. “We want them to take pride in what they’ve created and to know the importance of these products. Offering endless opportunities for engineers is what keeps their interest up. Give them something challenging and they’ll remain satisfied employees.

“One important skill is the ability to talk with a customer, to understand the problem, then to solve that problem,” he said. “Dr. C’s philosophy is to be a leading technology driver, that’s our mantra. We have a reputation in the industry as a specialized PCB shop offering high-value products. We have pursued relationships with many high-tech customers, and once they work with us they tend to stay around for a long time.”

He offered an example of a small ultrasound company based in Altoona that Compunetics worked with to enhance its product. That company was later bought by Philips, and retained the services of Compunetics, which still makes its PCBs today.

“Attention to detail becomes a greater requirement,” he said. “As the geometry of the board gets smaller and harder to see with the naked eye, the inspection process requires the use of x-ray and automated optical inspection (AOI). We are now capable of placing 30,000 components an hour. And the best part? Dr. C’s original patents and basic architecture are still in use today.”

“It’s an exchange of knowledge and development of something useful,” said Schmitt. “My feeling about Dr. C is that his goal is not to be huge like Amazon, but to maintain the culture with creative, challenged employees. He’s built everything here, and all without any significant outside capital. He’s been able to keep it all together and growing, with everyone feeling like they’re contributing.”

A short drive out Route 22 toward Murrysville from Monroeville, tucked away and out of sight from the highway, stands Flex Circuits, another subsidiary facility that recently was acquired by Compunetics. This group takes the idea of PCB manufacturing to the next level.

“We started making flexible PCBs, that’s the only thing this group does now,” said Chicco Vigano, Chief Technical Director. “Flexible boards can better provide the performance capabilities needed in the new advanced applications being developed. Our group of about 24 people concentrates on the military, medical, industrial and robotic markets. This is not a commodity, everything is designed to specifications, all built to print, very specialized.”

Vigano estimated that 90% of his facility’s end-users are in the U.S., with some in Europe. He came from Italy to the U.S. at age 24 as a mechanical engineer, settling in Pittsburgh to work in the steel industry.

[caption id="attachment_3422" align="alignleft" width="229"] Controlled impedance TDR electrical testing.[/caption]

“My parents knew Dr. C, and he helped me out when I got here,” Vigano said. “Somewhere along the line, I heard someone say, 'Circuit boards get in your blood,' and they turned out to be right. I didn’t know it at the time, but I know it now. Electronics is the new steel. The manufacturing process is constantly improving and changing, and we are always looking to do things better and smarter. The way we’ve been successful is to find the right markets.

“Pittsburgh is the perfect place to be right now, with the robotics initiatives, and for anybody who designs a complex system,” Vigano said. “For us to be in Pittsburgh in this decade has been a blessing. We have opportunities here that not too many people have.

“Compunetix and its segments like ours show how manufacturing is not dead,” he continued. “We’re dazzled by apps, but there would be no such things without the hardware behind them. Not many comparable competitors of ours exist, and none like the whole Compunetix structure. It’s great to become a driving manufacturing region again. These facilities alone build about $7 million of products a year, and we’re growing at about 20% a year.”

So with the basic and advanced PCB manufacturing capabilities in hand with the Compunetics facilities, how does the parent company Compunetix benefit?

“There’s not a lot of high-level electronics assembly in the U.S. anymore, so to have this function as part of the larger company is a real advantage,” said John Sherrow, Manufacturing Manager for Compunetix.

“Compunetics makes the base circuit card, my group places circuits on them, mostly for telecom and video applications,” said Sherrow. “We also perform electro-mechanical assembly to house the PCBs. Our baseline products can also be tailored to customer specs.

“Attention to detail becomes a greater requirement,” he said. “As the geometry of the board gets smaller and harder to see with the naked eye, the inspection process requires the use of x-ray and automated optical inspection (AOI). We are now capable of placing 30,000 components an hour. And the best part? Dr. C’s original patents and basic architecture are still in use today.”