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Vertical technology drives quality

Vertical technology drives quality

When was the last time you really listened to your laptop? Chances are if you have a laptop containing speakers made by NMB Technologies (NMBT, Chatsworth, CA), and popped in a CD or downloaded an audio file, you've been amazed at the quality the small speakers can pump out. This is not all that surprising, since the operation, which is the U.S. development and marketing company for the Tokyo-based Minebea Group, also supplies small speakers for Bose sound systems.

NMBT has been the leading computer keyboard supplier with 25% of the worldwide market for the last decade, according to its president, Myron Jones. It has enjoyed similar ranking and market share for axial-flow cooling fans for computers and other systems. Its customers are among the computer industry's elite: IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell. Besides the noted audio speakers, its other products include electrical power supplies, step motors, measuring components, and ball bearings.

Rolling start. Minebea began in 1951 and became the world's largest manufacturer of precision miniature ball bearings. In 1970, Jones says the company, by then making a range of mechanical and electronic products, made a strategic move to spread its manufacturing base throughout Asia. This strategy would help the firm avoid tying itself to a single country's economy, which, considering the current economic situation in that part of the world, was fortuitous. After Minebea expanded to Singapore, Thailand became the next site for growth in the 1980s, and about half of all current sales is from Thai-produced products.

Today, two neighboring major plants near Shanghai produce ball bearings and the dc axial fans. Jones notes that about 80% of bearing production goes "down the road" to the fan factory, which is capable of making 4 million fans per month. Facilities in Mexico produce custom power supplies, and print (label) pre-assembled keyboards. But within a year all keyboard production will be in Mexico. NMBT designs keyboards and power supplies in the U.S. and does some application engineering for other products here as well. There is limited production in the U.S. and Europe.

Where does this production and engineering base leave NMB Technologies? In the last five years, annual sales have gone from $100 million to $254 million. Jones adds that the operation also "developed business for other overseas units, which went from $40 million to $120 million in the same period." Its geographic sales are roughly split into thirds: Japan, Asia-Pacific, and the Americas and Europe. He notes that company competitors are "mostly a variety of Asian players" that fragment the remainder of the markets.

Manufacturing process control. How has this largely behind-the-scenes firm managed to stake out a relatively large share of the markets it supplies? According to Jones, the company makes basically all the components of its products and thus is able to maintain tight quality control from design and materials to the finished device.

For example, the dual ball bearings are "the heart of the fans," Jones notes, with one race positioned at each end of the axle. "We've been building bearings for nearly 50 years. We keep refining the designs and technology for making the balls, and can now make balls 'perfectly' round to submicron accuracy. This is the equivalent of an Earth-size ball round to within 120 ft. Our centerless-grinder machining, developed in Japan, makes this possible." Fans using the bearings have an overall defective part per million (DPPM) rate of about 60. In addition, each individual fan must pass six quality control tests plus a burn-in period. "We're not finished," he concludes, "our goal is well below those numbers."

In keyboards, NMB Technologies makes its own triple Mylar-layer membrane switches in a Class 10,000 clean room to control quality and reliability, says Jones. While switches are the heart of the keyboards, he adds, the boards must feel rigid and solid. Adding rigidity by using a large backplate adds to cost and weight. But cutting the size of or eliminating the backplate means the mechanical strength of the keyboard enclosure itself must be used and carefully configured with smart design.

Expertise in ferromagnetics design allows NMBT to produce 400W+ in a power supply normally sized to produce 250W. This magnetics skill spills over into its audio speaker line, where it is combined with other elements from the company--wire coils, cloth cones, and frames to form the audio drivers, which are designed and made in-house. And Jones adds, "Every speaker is checked for sealing."

Take the customer's pulse. While design and quality components are keys, keeping an ear to the market ground is equally important, stresses Jones--talking with customers in order to be involved early, before the stage where a purchasing agent makes a requisition. "We are seeing movement toward customization in commercial and industrial keyboards. Congruency between systems and the keyboard is vital in order to ensure the keyboard is manufacturable and reliable. For example, if a design is to far along before a keyboard is spec'd, then the allotted envelope may be difficult to design in, compromising needs."

Similar early involvement for fan designers means not being stuck with a fan placement or form factor that would compromise cooling performance.

Finally, Jones adds, NMBT has always tried to "innovate ahead of the times." As an example, he mentions several keyboards introduced about five years ago that were not big sellers but advanced the company's competency with self-contained speakers, sheet scanners, and hot keys. The latter are now standard in its latest top-line model.

Report card. Just how effective has NMB Technologies approach been? According to Dave Fawcett, a control-device industry analyst with IDC Consulting (Framingham, MA), "Manufacturing their own high-quality products in their own facilities is a strategic advantage." By defending what he sees as a "high-quality, but more functionality niche," Fawcett notes that "NMB has been able to sustain firmness in premium prices and, not only retain, but increase large OEM accounts. They are flexible to meet changing demands at low cost, and are in good position for emerging opportunities in niche markets, such as wireless keyboards. The challenge for everyone in the industry is to execute well from design through manufacturing."

And Jones concludes, "Our people are the real treasure. I'm astounded at their commitment to grow the business and never accept the status quo."


NMB Technologies at a glance

Formed: 1988

President: Myron D. Jones: Formerly with Pratt & Whitney and McDonnell Douglas; assumed current post in 1993

Headquarters: 9730 Independence Ave., Chatsworth, CA 91311, (818) 341-3355

Business: Electronic components for computer, networking, and telecom applications

FY97 revenue: $374 million (incl. $120 million in developed business for other Group units)

Number of employees: 40,000 worldwide; 120 in Chatsworth, CA (40 of whom are engineers)

Job prospects: Most in need of power supply engineers; See www.nmbtech.com


Modern keyboards: more for less

Technology, and market forces, have driven down keyboard prices. In the early 1980s, NMB turned out 50-100 thousand units per month for $45-50 each. Today the latest RightTouch! multifunction keyboard is produced at upwards of 2,000,000 each month, with some models below $10 apiece, and has more functions. Greater manufacturability, lower parts count, and economy of scale drive down price. More dependable membrane switches (see diagram) replace mechanical types, increasing reliability. And today's keyboards are about one-half the weight of their roughly 4-lb ancestors.

Dual ball bearings in the company's axial fans provide long life and lower power consumption. Expertise in ferro-magnetics allows NMB to produce small, efficient multimedia speakers and high power density electrical power supplies.

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