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I recently visited with Bryan Ricke, business development director for Advanced Circuitry International. Bryan has been in the industry for many years. I wanted to learn more about the type of RF and antennas that his company builds. Truthfully, in all my years in the industry, I had not heard about his company. I thought that was very interesting.
Dan Beaulieu: Bryan, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. I am excited to hear your story. First, give me a little background about yourself.
Bryan Ricke: My pleasure. Since the early 1970s, I have worked with numerous companies, from the largest, like Sheldahl, to some very successful start-ups, building almost every type of commercial and military interconnect. Over the years I’ve been plugged into many different roles. My strength has been technical business development. I have been with ACI for 10-plus years.
Beaulieu: Tell me about ACI.
Ricke: It is a private company founded in 1992, owned and operated by the Dhanani family. Back in those days, very few companies would build any PCBs using Teflon-based substrates, as the material was very expensive and difficult to process. ACI saw a niche with a very small amount of competition in the base station antenna business which mainly used Teflon-based PCBs. That decision propelled the company and ACI became the largest supplier of these PCBs in North America; it was responsible for the 3G infrastructure build-out with Cingular through EMS Technologies headquartered in Atlanta.
Beaulieu: So, you specialize in antenna PCBs?
Ricke: Our core business is building antenna PCBs, and one of our main specialties is building 10-foot-long PTH antennas on Teflon-based substrates. These large-format structures are found in base station antennas, bomb detection scanners, and medical imaging products. ACI has been supplying most of the world’s large antenna structures for CT imaging equipment for 15 years. We also have a unique assembly operation that is geared to building antenna sub-assemblies which consist of a board-to-board process with some connectors and cabling.
Beaulieu: What do you believe makes your company stand out?
Ricke: We keep our customers happy so that they stay with us for years. Most of them consider us their RF experts when it comes to antennas. We also have a great employee retention rate. This is a very well-run company with happy and loyal customers and employees.
Beaulieu: That’s very impressive and straightforward as well. Usually, happy employees lead to happy customers. Speaking of which, what kind of companies buy from you?
Ricke: Many of the largest antenna manufacturers in the world are our customers, as well as many smaller companies producing RF/microwave products. We also work with a lot of universities. Our customers say they like our commitment and the way we service them. You know, we never charge a premium to move product delivery dates in and will do everything to move up their schedules to help them. We also take on some very challenging product builds and have never been shy about purchasing the capital equipment needed to advance our technology. Our customers know that we are in it for the long haul, and they like that about us. On our last survey we scored a 9.3 average out of 10. We would have scored a 10 but, as you know, no customer ever gives you a 10 when it comes to pricing. We also maintain a very high quality and on-time delivery rating year over year—around 99% in both categories. In the end, it’s all about service and offering the type of technology our customers require.
Beaulieu: Talk about the different services that you offer.
Ricke: We are a build-to-print PCB company working with exotic material sets while also providing a unique assembly perspective. As we have many folks with years of experience, we offer a collaborative engineering approach with a proven DFM process for the unique types of products we build. We also have multiple facilities to service our customers worldwide, with two factories in Atlanta, one in Brazil, and a large facility in India (Jagat RFS).
Beaulieu: What is your sweet spot?
Ricke: Our sweet spot is assisting our clients to develop their products through our prototyping efforts. Once they have proof of concept, we ramp up production in usually very compressed lead-times to build tens of thousands of PCBs a week.
Beaulieu: How about new product development? Will you be bringing more of that in?
Ricke: Yes. We have been making some very large capital investments to upgrade our facilities and equipment. For instance, we have renovated our original facility with new rooms and have purchased and installed new developers, scrubbers, etchers, and LDI. We also have on order a very unique LDI system that will image 10-foot-long panels, and have recently installed a state-of-the-art vision drill/rout system from Pluritec with a 54-inch by 10-foot bed.
Beaulieu: What markets do you compete in?
Ricke: We build antenna and RF/microwave PCBs for the telecom, medical device, defense and aerospace industries using exotic material sets. ACI has mainly worked in the commercial realm, but we have been diversifying our business model over the last few years by becoming AS9100D-certified and ITAR-registered. This gives us a broader reach and hopefully smooths out the ups and downs of the commercial side of the business.
Beaulieu: What are the challenges for competing in that market?
Ricke: As always, the relentless pricing pressure from our Asian competitors and the rising costs of the materials used in their construction.
Beaulieu: Where do you see technology going in the future?
Ricke: With the advent of 5G and the Internet of Things, the PCBs used to power these new antennas are slowly moving away from double-sided passive technology to more active multilayer beam-forming structures. While we will still see passive antenna structures for years to come, passive antennas are being designed with more multilayer components in them. The real power in this arena will be autonomous vehicles which will all communicate with each other via wireless technology. This will be bigger than most people can imagine.
Beaulieu: How have you done during the pandemic?
Ricke: Business has been very challenging with many people out on the front-end trying to manage all the supply chain disruptions and the inflationary pressures we’re experiencing. Things are better now, and we are quite busy. The next big challenge is finding and retaining more qualified employees to meet present and future growth.
Beaulieu: How do you see the industry doing now that we are nearly post-COVID?
Ricke: As COVID seems to be more in the rear-view mirror we see strong growth potential especially in the arena we service. Of course, there are many things in play such as politics, tariffs, and inflation that could have a negative impact, but we’re optimistic about the future.
Beaulieu: Bryan, this has been very interesting. Thanks for talking with me today.
Ricke: I appreciate your time and the opportunity to talk about ACI.