VIEWPOINT: Team combines design and manufacturing expertise to speed development of new infrared camera

April 1, 2006
When customers of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) expect high quality, fast turnaround, and low pricing in one package, that OEM’s most valuable resource can be a trusted electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider.

By Ken Darby

When customers of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) expect high quality, fast turnaround, and low pricing in one package, that OEM’s most valuable resource can be a trusted electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider.

A case in point: L-3 Communications Infrared Products (L-3 IP) in Dallas and its EMS solutions provider, Jabil Circuit Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla. This team took a firefighting innovation from concept to completion in just six weeks.

L-3 Infrared Products-Formerly Texas Instruments-designs thermal-imaging products for applications in security, fire and rescue, public safety, law enforcement, military, transportation, industrial, utilities and homeland security. Specific applications include search and rescue, perimeter surveillance, target detection, investigation, industrial process monitoring, preventive maintenance, and automotive and truck night vision.

It was these credentials, along with a customer list that included the U.S. Air Force and the FBI, that motivated the company’s acquisition by L-3 Communications-a $5 billion provider of technology products, and aware of the potential market for affordable uncooled thermal-imaging technology for the military, homeland security, and commercial markets.

In efforts to leverage these markets, however, many at L-3 focused on developing a critical new tool for the world’s local heroes-the firefighters who daily risk their lives to save our own. L-3 designers understood that firefighters, on the one hand, need tools to help them work quickly and accurately, but also need tools that meet budgets that get tighter every year.

Helping to resolve these kinds of issues historically has been pressing for L-3 IP, and in summer 2004 company officials took a giant step forward when a customer came to them searching for major advances in thermal imaging. “The challenge was to provide firefighters with a potentially lifesaving new tool at a reasonable cost,” says Teressa Covitz of the L-3 IP Supply Chain Management Group.

“If we were successful, they would have far better images to assess and navigate smoke-filled rooms-plus color-coded display of temperature differences to help them instantly identify potentially deadly hot spots,” Covitz says.

L-3 IP’s engineers believed the only problem was a grueling deadline-an August industry conference six weeks hence where the customer planned to introduce the new technology. Turning down the opportunity was never an option, Covitz explains. “The customer was offering to co-fund this technology’s development in exchange for a nine-month exclusive on it. If we were successful, this venture would greatly enhance our own product arsenal at significantly reduced financial risk . . . We just didn’t know quite how we were going to meet that deadline.”

Covitz ruled out internal development immediately. “We simply didn’t have the in-house capacity to support this project within the allotted timeframe,” she says. “Our engineers wouldn’t have had time to troubleshoot problems, so we couldn’t have been sure of getting a high-performance product in the end.”

Covitz approached experts at Jabil Circuit with her dilemma, as Jabil was one of L-3 IP’s developers and manufacturers of circuit card assemblies. “Jabil was already producing the camera board for us, and so had a good understanding of how to communicate with the daughter board,” she says. “Jabil’s staff had consistently differentiated itself in all the areas that were especially crucial to getting this job done-design and responsiveness, as well as delivering expertise to reduce the risk in an inherently risky endeavor.

Jabil experts faced developing a new technology, which required a great deal of on-the-fly problem solving; there would be no time for wheel spinning. “We needed everyone’s full commitment to make it happen,” Covitz says. “That’s exactly what we got-from our customer, from Jabil, and from our own in-house engineers.”

L-3 IP and Jabil quickly put together teams to tackle the project, and L-3’s customer sent in an engineer to oversee the process. Jabil created a work-cell group for its part, explains Fred McCoy, direct of the Jabil Business Unit. As the process unfolded, the responsibilities started shifting more heavily in Jabil’s direction. “At first we were brought in to do the circuit-card layout and write software, but the scope of our work soon grew to include software development, manufacturing, and assembly work,” McCoy says.

“It wasn’t entirely a straightforward process because we were venturing into new technological territory,” Covitz says. “That made it difficult for our customer and for us to define clearly what we expected. Jabil provided us with a great deal of help in shaping our final product. It remained a work-in-progress the entire time.” Most of those assigned to the project from Jabil worked evenings and weekends throughout the six-week period-and practically around the clock during the testing process.

“Like all our firefighting equipment, this new camera had to undergo testing in an actual fire situation that would fry most products,” Covitz says. “Fred arranged for us to use their local fire department’s training facility, and our customer send two trained firefighters in to conduct the testing.”These guys came out with their fire suits smoking,” McCoy adds. “One actually suffered second-degree burns during the testing.” The firefighters even made some suggestions that required software enhancements.

Ultimately Jabil brought the project in two days before deadline, but there was a catch. “We usually do our initial prototype and testing, modify the design, and then build a second prototype for retesting,” Covitz says. “In this case we didn’t have time to do it all up front.”

As a result, the team faced turning in a brand new camera two days before its official unveiling, without any of the normal fine-tuning. The camera worked, however, and was a big hit at the conference.

Covitz says she is convinced that using Jabil was not simply the only way to meet this deadline; it also was the most cost-effective solution. “When I compared what Jabil charged us to what it would have cost us at our own internal labor rates, Jabil was extremely fair. We could not have completed the project less expensively in-house.”

The result is L-3 IP’s Thermal-Eye 3500AS thermal-imaging camera, which enables firefighters to see more clearly than ever even in smoke-filled environments. These capabilities are enabling to pinpoint the hottest areas quickly in the context of surrounding scene details to gauge the temperatures of walls, floors, ceilings, and objects within a burning structure.

Covitz says this was L-3 IP’s first foray into outsourcing a complete circuit-card assembly from design through finished production. In the end, it was worth six weeks of pressure-cooker working conditions. “Because of Jabil’s performance on our behalf, we have critical new business and a terrific new product for our own catalog,” she says.

In 2005 L-3 presented Jabil with its 2004 supplier of the year award. “They gave us great design, great quality, and great responsiveness,” Covitz says.

Ken Darby is director of global marketing communications for Jabil Circuit, a contract designer and manufacturer of electronics and electro-optics, based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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