In 2024, it will be 30 years since Abrel was founded by Declan Brosnan and Paul Comerford. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that a lot has happened over the last three decades! The business has navigated a radical level of change in the industry itself and in the broader economic environment – including the crash in 2008, Brexit, Covid and the Ukrainian war. And while it’s an achievement for any company to stay in business that long, the reality is that Abrel has not just survived – it has thrived.
Becoming a leading supplier in the Semiconductor sector
We got the chance to talk with founder Declan Brosnan about the Abrel journey and how the company grew its markets internationally – to become a world-class leading supplier in the Semiconductor sector.
How did Abrel come about – how did yourself and Paul know each other?
Well, we worked together for a couple of years in the Semiconductor industry, and we had similar ideas about what the market needed in terms of reliability testing. We were at a point in our lives where we were willing to take a risk, so we packed in the jobs and hired a small starter unit in Ballysimon, Limerick. Actually, although we’ve come a long way in some respects, our premises now is pretty close to where we started out!
How did you secure your first international clients in the early days?
Obviously, when we were planning the business, we knew it would be vital to tap into our existing contacts. Hard to believe that the late 90s not only pre-dated social media; it was actually before email was mainstream! So, the only way to get business in the door was through contacts and “feet on the ground”. Luckily, we did have some good contacts and I was willing to bang on whatever doors were needed, no matter where they were geographically. In the event, at that time the two big centres of Semiconductor activity were Scotland, what they called the Silicon Glen, and Germany. While I was obviously happy to travel and sell into Scotland, we found we had to have a German speaker to deal with that market. So we opened a small office there and recruited a German engineer who could do face-to-face meetings and communicate with clients with direct meetings, the telephone (landline) and fax!
Essentially, we were an export company from the get-go.
Global Semiconductor Reliability Market
How did you grow into other International markets?
It wasn’t really a choice to expand globally, we just had to go where the Semiconductor sector went. And it has moved around quite a lot over the years. Many of our customers are large global businesses and they are constantly seeking out low-cost economies to manage manufacturing costs effectively. So, after the initial 10 years or so of working mainly within Europe, clients had started to move out to South East Asia, places like the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand.
So, we made a strategic decision to follow the business there. At this point, we recognised that the best route-to-market was to engage with Distributors and Agents, as opposed to setting up local offices. We have a really strong distribution network now and South East Asia is our biggest marketplace, although of course we still service European and U.S. clients extensively.
The fact that our marketplace is widely distributed geographically has served us well; Brexit had minimal impact for example, and we are not wholly reliant on any one client or marketplace.
Burn-in tests and BIB
In terms of Abrel’s products and services, how have these changed over the years?
It’s really a different type of market now. Initially, we were designing and manufacturing burn-in boards and this continues to be a core product offering. Customers began requesting full turn-key solutions, and we made the significant decision to develop a range of Burn-in Reliability Equipment.
We now produce the Endzone Burn-in System, which is a flexible system designed for multiple lot testing. It features a universal driver platform which can be programmed for each specific burn-in requirement. It is supplied in a number of configurations to cater for qualification or production testing.
In addition we manufacture the Bibtest55XL, which is the only dedicated Burn-in Board tester in the marketplace and it can test any style and configuration of burn-in board. It’s a more comprehensive solution than other testers and its extreme accuracy is helping customers to comply with military and automotive standards. We are really excited about the opportunities ahead for Abrel in this context.
And how have your manufacturing processes changed?
In 1994 our entire operation was manual. In 2023 it’s wholly automated. We wrote about this recently Abrel Invests to Drive Efficiencies. It took a lot of planning and investment but it has transformed the business and it gives us a solid footing for future growth. We also took over another unit so that we could split the equipment manufacturing side of the business from the PCB production line. So it’s fair to say that pretty much everything has changed! Oh, and that includes the Abrel branding, which has recently been re-designed to reflect the dynamic nature of the business.
What do you see for the future of Abrel?
I think we are well positioned to continue to grow – I hope we are anyway! Of course, with all the new technologies coming on stream – IoT, machine learning, A.I. – there’s a lot to keep up with but we are already planning to facilitate these kinds of technologies in the equipment we are manufacturing.
Then there’s the evolution of the Semiconductor sector itself. Brazil and Vietnam are emerging markets and there’s definitely opportunities out there for us. But for a small SME like Abrel, new markets can be hugely challenging and identifying the right route to market is critical. Although we have good experience now working with Agents or Distributors globally, each new market presents another learning curve and we need to be sure we can support customers effectively before entering a new territory.
The Future of the Semiconductor Industry?
Besides new technologies, are there other industry developments challenging Abrel?
In the Semiconductor market, there’s been a lot of mergers and consolidations. This can mean that two large customers become one!
And then there’s the move towards sub-contracting, whereby manufacturers are outsourcing the fabrication of products, and new semiconductor startups are primarily fabless. That can be a challenge for us on a number of levels. First up it can be hard to identify the right person to speak with. And then the sub-contractor may not be the ultimate decision-maker.
We built the business based on relationships initially and now a lot of work is tendered through a portal – we get a tender request; we submit a proposal online and then we learn whether we got the business or not, with the purchaser often being anonymous initially.
Of course, having been in business for so long, we are used to working in whatever way the sector demands.
And many industry developments have worked in our favour too; the move towards higher levels of regulation and accuracy plays into our strengths now on two levels; first up because our new automated manufacturing processes offer more consistency and higher quality production. And secondly because the equipment we manufacture and sell does the same thing for our clients.
Staying Customer Focused
Have we got to the secret of success?
Probably! We’ve stayed really close to our clients; physically going where they go, listening to their feedback, anticipating what they are going to need and maintaining key relationships over the long-term. But being extremely customer focussed is probably an ethos, not a secret!
To see how Abrel’s dedication to their customers is reflected in their new branding, click here.