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It’s always great to see two very good companies form a mutually beneficial alliance. I was lucky enough to watch this particular strategic partnership come to fruition this year between RBP Chemical and Schlötter. I wanted to talk to both companies, so I sat down with Matthias Hampel, global executive representative-PCB and electronics at Schlötter, and Ernest Litynski, president of RBP Chemical Technology, to get the inside story.
Dan Beaulieu: I am anxious to hear from both of you about your companies and how this all came about. Mattias, let’s begin with you. Tell me a little bit about Schlötter, its history, and where you are today.
Matthias Hampel: Dan, thanks for letting us tell our story. We are very proud that our company, established for more than 100 years, is still family-owned, and managed by the fourth generation. The founder and eponym Dr.-Ing. Max Schlötter set up the company in 1912 in Leipzig as a research laboratory. Shortly after the company was founded, the first patent for the galvanic tin coating of printing plates was registered in 1918. In 1932 and 1934, further patents for galvanic nickel deposition and a bright zinc electrolyte followed before the company was destroyed in 1944, resulting in a move to Geislingen an der Steige. Success was quickly achieved for various galvanic electrolytes for the GMF industry and followed by other products for the electronic industry. We cover GMF, corrosion protection, electronics, and printed circuit board with our products. In the field of printed circuit boards, we specialize in wet-chemical processes.
The main focus is on electroplated copper and tin electrolytes and acid cleaners. We have expanded our portfolio of printed circuit board products to include direct metallization (graphene-based) in recent years. We also have an extensive range of products for the electronics industry. Here we are talking about tin and silver electrolytes, various tin and silver alloys, silver graphite, and very specialized products such as indium or bismuth electrolytes. We see ourselves as a traditional company with a long history and embody a typical German family-run business. It's great to say that despite our small size, compared to competing companies, we are a serious player on a global scale. We achieved this with typical German virtues such as diligence, persistence, and steadfast resolve. Of course, striving to offer the best possible customer service and aspiring to customer proximity plays a significant role in the company orientation and our daily business.
Beaulieu: Ernie, I’m pleased to meet you. Tell me about the history of RBP and where you are today.
Ernie Litynski: Similar to Schlötter, RBP Chemical Technology has a proud history dating back to 1954 with its founding in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we still maintain our headquarters and main fulfilment operations. We’re proud of our lineage in the PCB industry, which dates back over 50 years (1968), and the critical thinkers who have allowed us to continuously exceed the requirements placed on us by the industry. Since those early days in 1954, we’ve quickly grown into a multi-national organization and expanded into other chemical areas, to include semiconductor, mining, medical device manufacturing (MD&M) and technical chemical toll blending solutions. I’m proud to say that our chemistry solutions positively impact the quality of life of our nation’s citizens—from defense industry PCBs that protect our liberties to implantable stents that save the lives of our friends and family. It’s a great feeling and truly fulfilling to know that our surface chemistry expertise and employees affect so many people in things we often take for granted.
Beaulieu: Matthias, what is your background? How did you come to have this position at Schlötter?
Hampel: I started my career in the electroplating industry in 1999. I did an apprenticeship as an electroplater at an American company, ITT Cannon. I graduated from technical college and went to the college of printed circuit board technology. After that, I worked in the robotics industry as a developer and trainer. I later gained experience in a company that manufactured satellites. I started working for Schloetter in 2013, and I was honored to begin working for a traditional company with an excellent reputation. In the PCB research department, I got to know all the different processes and products before I was assigned to China in early 2015 to manage the business there and take care of the local branch office and our Asian customers. The subsequent move to Taiwan also allowed me to gain even more contacts and experience in the Asian PCB industry. After six years in China and Taiwan, I have been back at headquarters in Geislingen since the beginning of 2021 and am responsible for the global sales of our PCB and electronics products.
Beaulieu: I know that you are relatively new you position, so what is your background and how and why did you come to this position?
Litynski: I started my career as a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and subsequently as an officer in the Army leading armor (main battle tanks) and cavalry (reconnaissance and surveillance scouts) soldiers. Upon leaving active duty, I had the opportunity to learn and grow in both Fortune 500, as well as smaller companies, in a multitude of operations and technical functions. It was here that I earned my Lean Six Sigma Black belt and completed dozens of projects driven by the “Voice of the Customer,” as well as earning three master’s degrees and a few combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Army Reservist. Through happenstance, I was introduced to Mark Kannenberg, our current CEO and a West Pointer, and I was afforded the opportunity to work for RBP and take the company up to the next level.
I’ve had the opportunity to be employed by RBP for over a decade. During my early formulative years as RBP’s vice president of operations, the insights, solutions, and teaming that I was able to achieve from our partners, customers, and supply chain friends allowed me to holistically observe, assess, and implement both supply chain and technical solutions based on the “Voice of the Customer.” With my promotion to president, I’ve been blessed to bring Dan Carey, another West Pointer and friend of mine for nearly 30 years, onto the RBP leadership team. Between Dan, Mark, and our distributor partners Shawn Stone and Chuck Williams at IEC, we’ve been blessed to truly provide the PCB industry the best people, service, and chemistry for next generation PCB requirements. With our new friends at Schlötter, we now have PCB “cradle-to-grave” chemistry solutions and expertise. I’m truly humbled to be part of such a great enterprise.
Beaulieu: Matthias, from Schlötter’s point of view, why did you want to find a company like RBP to create an alliance in North America? What were you hoping to accomplish, especially concerning marketing and strategy?
Hampel: It was evident that we wanted a long-term presence in the North American market. We did not want a random distribution partner as we searched for a company that shares the same values and philosophy as us. In addition, we also paid attention to a good networking capability and a strong sales, marketing, and tech team. We quickly realized that we had great cultural chemistry during our first visit to Milwaukee. We were pleased because we believe that personal connections have a very high value in a partnership. Based on that, we wanted to join forces to offer the customers a great package of a complete product range together with outstanding and individual service capability.
Beaulieu: Can you talk about the parameters of the arrangement?
Hampel: RBP will be our official and exclusive representative for PCB and electronic products in the North American market.
Litynski: To Matthias’ earlier point, we see this alliance creating complete transparency for a customer through the leveraging of the human capital of the joint RBP-IEC-Schlötter enterprise. This alliance is more than a transactional buy-sell relationship created by an agreement; conversely, we see this partnership as information-sharing, joint technical support, technical solutions, and a one-stop shop for our customers as they continuously push the technology envelope on next-generation PCB requirements. Simply put, I foresee this alliance creating smiles across the PCB industry as we team with our PCB manufacturing partners to meet OEM next-generation requirements.
Beaulieu: From RBP’s point of view, why did you feel it was a good fit to partner with Schlötter in North America?
Litynski: We’ve known Schlötter and watched their marvelous people and technologies come up with chemistry solutions for the most complex PCBs for years. Hence, when we were approached by Schloetter to develop a partnership for their technologies in North America, we had a very simple decision to make with them: “How do we get to ‘yes’ and make this happen for the good of our customers?” I’m proud to say, after a few virtual and face-to-face meetings, we had an agreement-in-principle developed in weeks. We were also lucky enough to have Shawn Stone and the IEC team meet the Schloetter team face-to-face for team building both in Milwaukee and at productronica in Germany.
Beaulieu: Can you discuss the complementary services and products that the alliance brings to both of your companies?
Hampel: Since RBP and Schlötter both produce chemical products for the PCB industry, this was one of the points that immediately caught our eye at RBP. Our product portfolios complement each other perfectly, and there is virtually no overlap. While RBP is mainly strong in subtractive and direct metallization processes, Schlötter can fill the gap with electrolytic plating processes like copper and tin. In addition to applications for the PCB Industry, Schlötter also brings other surface coatings for the electronics industry to the table.
Litynski: The Schlötter product line and advanced technologies completely complement our services and product portfolio. With RBP’s electroless nickel-immersion gold (ENIG) and direct metallization solutions, Schlötter’s portfolio fills in the missing gaps (pardon the pun) that will allow us to jointly understand the entire circuit board from a wet chemistry perspective. Having experts and a full understanding of the “Voice of the Customer” through this alliance provides nothing but benefits for the PCB manufacturer and the OEM.
Beaulieu: Let me ask you this, will Schlötter in return represent RBP in Europe?
Hampel: This topic has not been fully discussed, but never say never.
Litynski: I concur with Matthias. Our number one mutual goal is to ensure that our initial launch of Schlötter’s technologies in North America exceeds customer expectations. Hence, this is our immediate focus at this time. RBP and Schlötter have been around collectively for over 150 years, so I think we’ve got the future to further discuss reciprocating chemical technology solutions in both North America, Europe, and Asia. So, I agree with Matthias. “Never say never.”
Beaulieu: How do both of you feel this alliance will benefit your customers here in North America?
Hampel: Currently, we do not have any customers in the North American market. However, I think that local customers will benefit from the fact that we can offer a wide range of high-quality products and services already available in the rest of the world. Providing solutions for problems that could not have been solved yet will be a significant advantage in entering a new market.
Litynski: We are excited to add Schlötter’s technology and technical support into our portfolio. With our MetChem electroless nickel-immersion gold (ENIG), Onyx graphite and electroless copper direct metallization product lines, RBP and our partner, IEC, have a full portfolio and understanding of every drop of subtractive and additive chemistry that touches a PCB.
Furthermore, this partnership allows us to have a customer’s actual board go through Schlötter’s process lines in Germany to prove-out Schlötter’s technological advantages before a customer even entertains the thought of installing the products. Adding in the power of RBP-Schlötter-IEC technical experts further reduces risk for a customer as they gain a human capital team and intellect that, quite frankly, is unparalleled. Hence, the value-add from a prototype to mass production perspective for our customers becomes a game-changer from a safety, quality, delivery, and cost point of view.
Beaulieu: This alliance has just been announced. What happens now in terms of market introduction, sales training, and sales tactics?
Hampel: Our first appearance together will be at IPC show in San Diego in January. After that, we will conduct some direct customer visits to introduce ourselves and present our product technical solutions. We will also provide best practice and product training in both the U.S. and Germany. Together with RBP's outstanding market presence, we will have a strong team that can offer the PCB industry an unbeatable and complete package.
Litynski: I echo Mattias’ thoughts. We look forward to the IPC show and having the RBP, IEC, Rogers, and Schlötter team all working together in the same booth to introduce the power of Schlötter’s technologies to our customers and partners. From a training perspective, we’ve mutually agreed to conduct face-to-face training both in Germany and Milwaukee at our respective facilities, which will provide a competitive advantage to not only our teams, but to the end-user when they receive subject matter experts that have gone through the most rigorous hands-on training for the Schlötter product line.
Beaulieu: What are your goals for the first year and then moving forward? Where do you want to be in five years?
Hampel: The first step will be continued cooperation with RBP and introduce the Schlötter name throughout the North American market. We want to earn the trust of “early adopters” quickly to technically and fiscally demonstrate to the PCB industry that we offer the same good products and excellent service in North America that we are known for in the rest of the world. We want to remain true to our strategy of providing the same service to every customer, regardless of business volume and sales.
In Asia, we are present in the supply chains of the significant international mobile phone manufacturers and provide our products to the market leaders in the IC substrate industry. We also apply this same standard to ourselves in the development of solutions in the North American market through RBP.
Litynski: I totally agree with Matthias. That’s the true value of this partnership; we have the same mutual goals, objectives, and vision for the PCB industry: As a collective enterprise, we are here to “get to yes” and create both current and next-generation technical chemistry solutions for our customers as they continue to evolve or disrupt the technology curve for the end user.
Beaulieu: How do you see the PCB industry today, globally, as well as in Europe and North America?
Hampel: Due to the increasing relocation of production to Asia, there has unfortunately been a sharp decline in PCB production in North America and Europe in recent decades. The European PCB industry was forced to focus on small series, special products and gain an advantage through fast delivery and production times. There are, of course, still a few companies that are represented in the top 100 PCB manufacturers. However, it is noticeable that a change in thinking has occurred due to the pandemic. It has become clear to us that the dependence of entire industries on individual markets can no longer be accepted. Many of our European customers report that the order quantity has been significantly higher since the pandemic outbreak than before. Some companies even say order sizes cannot be handled with the current production capacity and therefore have to expand production facilities.
The news that the world's largest chip manufacturers have announced immense investments in the U.S. and Europe and are planning to build several new factories is very encouraging. The main factors here are the lack of transport available and the never-ending price increases in the global shipping industry. And where the chip manufacturers set up their foundries, IC substrates, and printed circuit board manufacturing sites will follow. We will see a steep increase in business volume in the PCB industry in North America and Europe's “old” markets. Critical factors like product availability, local production, second source, and short supply chains will be the main drivers and let the European and North American PCB industry experience its second spring.
Litynski: We have a similar view of both the European and North American electronics market. We’ve all seen the global economic disruptions of raw materials, freight, and fulfillment over the last year. We also see renewed growth (onshoring, for example) in these two markets, as well as technology advancements growing exponentially. Together with Schlötter, we are prepared to support this paradigm shift for our valued customers and partners. As a general officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, it’s absolutely astonishing as I have the opportunity to see these technologies first-hand in our offensive and defensive military platforms, as well as within our sensor-to-shooter capabilities.
Beaulieu: A partner is someone you work with so that both of you can do things that each of you cannot do along. What does that mean for each of your companies?
Hampel: Filling the gaps in the partner’s product ranges is a significant advantage, but complementing each other with individual skills, experiences, and knowledge, matching the others party's philosophy, and striving for the same goal is second to none. We are glad to have found such a great partner as RBP. We are sure that all can benefit from this partnership and looking forward to a bright and successful future together.
Litynski: Quite frankly, the chemical technologies that complement our portfolios are great, but the human capital, mutual understanding, and common vision that RBP and Schlötter have is what makes this partnership special. At the end of the day, it’s the people in this partnership that bring the smiles and high fives to our end users when we jointly develop, manufacture, and ship the perfect printed circuit board.
Beaulieu: Congratulations to the both of you and to your companies. It’s great to see to excellent companies combine their cultures, heritages, and their products and services to provide better solutions for their customers and industry as well. Thanks for spending the time with me.