Paul Comerford has 32 years expertise in the industry of burn-in boards and test systems and mulling over a test system challenge, that one of Abrel’s customers’ needs help in resolving, motivates him on a daily basis. And there’s plenty of challenges facing businesses operating in this fast-moving industry.
We recently sat down for a quick chat with Paul to talk about his past career, current industry pressures, the latest developments and the kind of innovative solutions that Abrel can deliver……
How did you get into the industry?
I started out working in the Department of Post and Telegraph in Dublin, which has now essentially become An Post and Eir. I was employed as a technician and that’s where I did my initial technical training – I completed a 3rd Level Block Release (I’m sounding old now cos that’s what it was known as back in my day!).
But when an opportunity opened up to move back to Limerick I jumped at the chance!
I went to work with Varian Instruments, an American based scientific device company that produced chromatography test equipment. This was a really good change for me and over time I became the lead technician on the gas chromatograph line.
After a very enjoyable time with Varian, I made a move to Ubitech aLimerick based company where over time I eventually became the Operations Manager. That company had quite a few similarities to what we do here at Abrel in terms of burn-in test systems and burn-in boards. And this is where I first met up with Declan Brosnan, my co-Director here at Abrel.
We saw a great opportunity to develop a business , it wasn’t long before the idea of Abrel was born. With the right people on board and the right blend of skills; engineering and development, manufacturing and sales – we knew we’d have a great chance to make a success of it.
Limerick was an ideal location as we already knew a lot of the key players in the marketplace locally, for example Analog Devices who have been customers of ours since the early days. We were also well-known and highly regarded ourselves which helped us get going. That was 24 years ago and thankfully we’ve gone from strength to strength ever since.
What’s your role within Abrel?
Oh, I’m a man of many hats or so I’m told at least!! I manage the production team which involves co-ordinating the design, production, build and testing of all products. It’s very hands-on – we have a production meeting every morning to make sure we’re all on the same wave-length in terms of meeting key deadlines. I also oversee all the Purchasing/Stores aspect of the process and manage the Finance and HR roles along with Quality system management. I also try to visit key customers in order to predict future requirements.
Once an order comes in I co-ordinate planning production. Often timeframes are critical and we need to make sure our customers receive the products on time. The standard turnaround time is 6-8 weeks which is tight so everything needs to run like clockwork.
We’re lucky to have a great team here and when the going gets tough everyone pulls together to make sure we hit our deadlines. I guess we all enjoy the pressure – it keeps us busy and motivated.
What’s involved in terms of producing the end-product?
Well once an order’s placed, we typically do the design from scratch so developing the new designs and finalising these are critical. We then source all of the components, many of which are unique to this industry – they’re not the standard ‘off the shelf’ items. When we have all the components, we do the build and test each board thoroughly. Obviously then there is also the issue of managing the logistics. We ship across the world and luckily, we have long-standing, reliable partners that handle this for us so once they leave the facility here, we’re confident that the products will arrive on time and in perfect condition.
It can be quite a pressure-cooker atmosphere because as soon as an order is in the clock is ticking! But we’ve been doing this for a long time now and we have robust processes in place to manage all the different aspects of production. And we’re constantly refining our approach.
It certainly keeps me busy!
Any industry challenges for Abrel?
Sure are – there’s a lot happening. There’s some big challenges at the moment with new devices in the market. Package sizes have become smaller, faster and more complex and more powerful – from a PCB manufacturing perspective, this can be problematic.
Many of our customers are IC Manufacturers – the technology they have is so advanced that PCB manufacturers find it hard to meet their requirements. The panel sizes are quite large and power consumption has gone up drastically in the last two years for example.
We’re now also looking at faster frequencies, people are talking about devices working at 100MHz. Up until now 5 – 10 MHz was considered a challenge, so it’s a 10 fold increase on current speeds.
Another change is that companies are now trying to do their test during burn-in. Previously these would have been completed by separate departments. They are trying to combine burn-in and test to reduce costs and time and therefore get their products to market quicker.
We’re looking at solutions to tackle all of these areas – it’s a case of rolling up our sleeves, considering all the options and impacts and looking at innovative solutions to support our clients.
How to you adapt to all the developments in the industry?
First of all, we know what we are good at and what our core capabilities are. We also know what the limitations are within the market so the solutions we work on are developed form a very informed perspective – we’ve tried everything at some point!
For example, traditionally the devices go into a burn-in socket , but for some clients, given the new components and small device sizes, we’re putting the devices onto small coupon boards that will fit into the sockets and this is a new challenge for the business.