Employees: 18 (sister company BEI has 80 in Wisconsin)
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Printed circuit boards
President Kevin Ryan and VP Stuart McKeel are rethinking prototyping for printed circuit boards with a strategy that leverages automation for better manufacturability.
"We come from the PCB [printed circuit board] industry, Stuart and I, as well as our third partner, Ron [Huston]," says Ryan. "We saw an opportunity to come in with a different approach."
Most domestic PCB suppliers avoid automation. Not SlingShot. "We fundamentally disagree with that," says Ryan. "We think [manufacturing automation] makes a better-quality product."
"One of the fun things when you start a business, you can challenge the norms or you can challenge yourself," he adds. With SlingShot, they're doing both. "The initial year was a combination of planning out equipment purchases, finding a location, and setting up our production facility," says McKeel.
That involved taking a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and building a state-of-the art PCB shop from scratch. "It's been a nice launch, but it didn't come without a lot of hard work," says Ryan. "Stuart, myself, and our first engineers literally scrubbed the floors. . . . It's one thing to get equipment, but you have to qualify the facility. Customers sending you their jobs aren't expecting you to learn on their dime."
The first jobs came in early 2017. SlingShot's focus is on prototyping and low-volume production into the hundreds of units; it acquired Franksville, Wisconsin-based BEI Electronics in 2018 in order to handle mid-range volumes in the thousands of units. "BEI is an outstanding company," says Ryan. "It's got a great reputation in the marketplace and we share the same principles and ethics."
But SlingShot's strategy is to streamline the production process from the very beginning by helping clients come up with more manufacturable boards. "Prototyping is just a different beast than contract manufacturing in larger volumes," says Ryan.
In rethinking the PCB prototype, SlingShot's engineers first use Valor software to evaluate the design for manufacturability. "It also programs a significant number of machines," says Ryan. The installation required a "large investment," he adds.
"For close to 90 percent of designs we're prototyping, we find a particular issue or recommend a change to our customers before we ever produce a board," notes Ryan. "We can eliminate extra loops and have [PCBs] not fail."
Adds McKeel: "It's a manufacturability check. It's not a functional check. The check is: Can you build the thing? . . . We help customers deal with manufacturability issues. We are able to flag issues before we put parts on a board."
Many modern PCBs are densely packed with components. "You're talking about very intricate and highly precise circuitry," says McKeel. "We place parts that are the size of a sharp pencil tip."
Such tight designs "make it harder to manufacture," says Ryan. "Harder turns into longer. When you get into larger production runs, that will save the customer money."
A prototyping job that may cost $3,000 to $4,000 for a bad design can be avoided with SlingShot's approach. Once errors are identified, customers can "stop, step back, and redesign the board," says McKeel. "Otherwise, they would have spent $3,500 and had basically nothing to show for it."
But SlingShot's process avoids such pitfalls. "At a minimum, [customers can save] several thousand dollars and a few weeks of time."
And in the PCB prototyping world, speed is critical for customers. "They're willing to pay for that speed," notes Ryan. "We operate in that world."
The approach also involves "a very controlled environment," he adds. "We have a different approach to prepping a job for the floor."
SlingShot is industry-agnostic, with clients in aerospace and defense, energy, agriculture, transportation, and consumer products. "It's really about the assembly, not the function of the board," says McKeel.
The BEI acquisition allows for "cradle-to-grave" partnerships, says Ryan. "With BEI, volume is not a constraint." The coordinated handoff from SlingShot to BEI means customers "don't lose any of that learning curve. There are far fewer hiccups."
Transparency is another differentiator. ”[Customers] know the status of their jobs in our facility minute by minute," he says. "Nobody else is doing this."
After the prep year of 2016 and the launch year of 2017, SlingShot's target is 400 percent growth in 2018, says McKeel. "BEI is a contributing factor," he notes. "It increases synergy and the benefits of synergy more."
Challenges: "As with any growing company, you cross through thresholds when you grow," says Ryan. "We'll never take our eye of quality The other one is to challenge your own internal thinking so you don't become just another player in the industry."
To help tackle both challenges, SlingShot earned its ISO 9000 certification, "which was no small task," says Ryan.
"We constantly look at technology and make sure we're keeping our eye on cutting-edge technology that might be disruptive in our industry," says McKeel. "It falls into the 'not resting on our laurels' category."
One example: the impact of 3D printing on board manufacturing. "3D printing has the potential to change how bare boards are made," he says.
Opportunities: The increasing computerization of everyday objects. "Everything is becoming electronic," says McKeel. "Cars have computers in them now. That's all about our business."
Echoes Ryan: "The rate of change is only accelerating."
Needs: "One of our most important resources is people," says Ryan. "The Denver market is tight in terms of employment levels." There's a related dynamic, he adds. "People either run towards a startup or run away from one."
SlingShot is currently trying to fill technical positions in assembly and soldering, with a projected staff of 25 employees at the end of 2018.