by Robin Bishop
Reminiscent of one of the world’s most favorite tech companies, Qualitel originated in Tuanhai Hoang’s family garage in Redmond, Washington in 1986. AC Technology began as a tech hand-soldering assembly company, but in 1995 when Tuanhai took over the family business he launched a precise and high-tech printed circuit board (PCB) assembly business, moving it to Everett, Washington in 2008. Today, Qualitel is one of the highest reliability electronics manufacturers for the aerospace, medical, industrial, and military markets. Qualitel’s name is derived from Quality Electronics where Tuanhai worked as a computer engineer for Intel (Intelligent Electronics). Qualitel now specializes in niche, high-end, high-mix, high-complexity tech assembly specialties.
Qualitel manufactures electronics products that require soldering of components onto circuit boards. This entails soldering manually with a soldering iron, using a wave soldering system, or a surface mount technology (SMT) pick and place machine.
If a customer requires a new product, which happens frequently in the tech industry, prototyping will need to be completed prior to it going into production. Qualitel offers two independent divisions, Qualitel Express and Qualitel. Qualitel Express can build specialized prototypes and products quickly and when the product is ready, Qualitel puts it into production. Prototyping mandates close work with engineering. Qualitel Express has two independent SMT lines, X-rays, soldering stations, and rework machines that allow a prototype to be produced in as little as a few hours to a few days.
When production ready, Qualitel can ensure supply chain and inventory is pipelined to meet daily, weekly, or monthly deliveries. Tuanhai differentiates, “Where most of our competitors share the same SMT lines, Qualitel has three SMT lines to support production including additional X-Rays, wave soldering and selective machines. We are the only electronics manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest to have parylene conformal coating to support flight critical products. We also provide sustaining engineering to support obsolescence typical in the aerospace industry. Change requires major re-certifications and delays. Prior to obsolescence Qualitel provides advanced notice for mitigation and last-time buys.”
Quality electronics is not just Qualitel’s namesake; it is the blood that runs through the company’s veins. The company’s lifeblood flows from investing in the best, whether that is its people or the machinery and technology that allow them to remain at the top of the industry’s reliability index year after year. “We can deal with a lot of different products and we do it very successfully,” states Tuanhai. He goes on to mention that Qualitel is the only EMS in the Northwest that has a certified FAA repair station to do in-service repair for electronics; however, they currently only service Qualitel-made parts.
Their reliability, commitment to excellence, and innovation are evidenced in that 80 percent of their business is in aerospace. Qualitel partnered with its largest client inimplementing USB power in seats throughout the cabin for Alaska Airlines and many other airlines. In addition, other products include working with major business jet companies to provide cabin and cockpit electronics for Boeing and other commercial aircraft.
Lean initiatives emphasizing waste reduction — focusing on providing value and accountability of a can-do culture — are critical functions in creating Qualitel’s quality electronics lifeblood. They would not accomplish this without a culture of continuous improvement in an effort to stay ahead of the curve. Through intentional initiatives and acknowledgement of each person’s value in the successful fulfillment of client expectations, Qualitel is positioned to positively impact aerospace as the industry progresses. They plan to continue investing in the latest SMT equipment — equipment like that used in the high-volume, high-precision automotive industry, where circuit cards are scrapped if there is a defect. The aerospace industry produces less than a thousand aircraft a year compared to the millions of units produced in the automotive industry. Qualitel strives for this level of reliability and is adapting the exacting precision of the automotive machines to the aerospace industry, to reduce time and money spent on reworking parts.
Qualitel is also investing heavily in automation of component picking and X-ray parts counting, to address higher efficiencies as the industry demands more from its precision parts suppliers. Tuanhai says parts usually take one to five minutes to pick, put away, and be counted. It now takes only 30 to 40 seconds. This leaning out of the process reduces labor and increases accuracy and efficiency. “We have products where we are, literally, an extension of our customers’ production line. We deliver our products, in small quantities, right to the customers’ production line.”
This top-down culture of doing what it takes to ensure extraordinary customer service is where Qualitel exceeds expectations. “We believe that if we can help our customer be more successful, then we will all be successful. Sometimes, this means we have to let them know that we are not a good fit or cost competitive in some projects or products,” confesses Tuanhai. This heart that pumps the Qualitel life source has helped them achieve the highest honor from their customers, Circuits Assembly Magazine Service Excellence Awards in 2014 and 2019.
Unlike all of their competitors, Qualitel does not build any consumer products. They are singularly focused on their mission. Where high reliability is extremely important, along with having the right equipment and process for the low-volume and high-mix aerospace demand, Qualitel has precisely and reliably positioned themselves to be among the best partners for the aerospace industry. Qualitel’s parylene coating and their in-house flying probe testing capability, along with the high-mix and high-accuracy equipment, are precisely suited to the aerospace industry. As aerospace demand grows, so does Qualitel’s customer reach — to include international customers and a growing domestic footprint.
As much as Tuanhai may not attribute Qualitel’s culture to anything he personally may have done, it is leadership that drives empowerment, ambition, accountability, and ownership. In a rapidly growing high-tech company, there is something to be said for a consistent pulse that beats out a rhythm of authenticity, community, innovation, and excellence. In a strong, healthy rhythm, Qualitel has its customer’s best interest at heart.