Made in America: Lectrosonics Builds on Rich Heritage
Manufacturer of wireless audio products prefers the Southwest to overseas
RIO RANCHO, N.M.
A lot has happened since the days when three companies-the Radio Corporation of America, Dumont and General Electric-manufactured just about everything needed to build a TV station.
In their heyday, the broadcasting big three not only supplied virtually all American television stations with equipment and technical expertise, they were also responsible for start-ups in many other countries, satisfying a large share of the world's early thirst to send pictures through the air.
All that has changed over the last half-century or so. These initial players have either vanished or have nothing to do with broadcast electronics. Broadcast industry design and manufacturing began to move offshore in the 1970s and with it went American jobs and know-how.
Many lament the fact that the gear broadcast engineers work with is not made in America anymore.
Or is it?
This is the first in a planned series of articles celebrating the broadcasting equipment and technology still being produced here in the good old U-S-of-A, and the men and women who are responsible for getting it out of the door and into the hands of television professionals.
'NEW' ON-SHORE COMPANY
(click thumbnail)All metal working and plastics fabrication is done in this modern,14,000 square-foot machine shop.
(click thumbnail)This numerically controlled 2,000-watt laser cutter makesshortwork of creating thousands of production parts
(click thumbnail)Phil Mascarenas, lead machinist, and Bruce Jones, vice president of marketing examine freshly fabricated receiver housings.
(click thumbnail)This is one of two "pick and place" surface mount technology assembly machines. It can place 140 components per minute.
(click thumbnail)Drusella Mutte, SMD inspector, minutely examines circuit cards as they emerge from production.
Lectrosonics is one of those "new" companies that has been operating on-shore in America ever since it sold its first product-a portable voice projector-in 1971.
The company started very modestly that year, operating literally from a tin shed located in Albuquerque, N.M. The wireless public address business gravitated towards wireless microphones and by 1988, Lectrosonics was shipping its first wireless mic systems and also moving into a 24,000 square foot facility in nearby Rio Rancho. By then, the name Lectrosonics had become synonymous with quality wireless microphone systems and a 14,000 square-foot machine shop was built to accommodate growing demand.
Inside that and the main Lectrosonics building here in this quiet industrial park, 135 employees build and ship more than 10,000 wireless systems each year.
Outsourcing is really a "no-no" for Lectrosonics and it is this philosophy that makes the company's manufacturing line somewhat unique in today's world.
IT STARTS WITH SHEET METAL
Operations start with the delivery of 4-foot x 12-foot sheets of 18-guage metal to the machining area. Here, laser technology and robotics have replaced conventional sheers and milling machines.
A 2,000 watt numerically controlled laser cutting device makes short work of carving hundreds or thousands of small and intricately shaped circuit board components which will act as shields, mounts, or other units in the finished product. In another area of the workshop, robotic milling machines are loaded with aluminum blanks destined to become chasses and cabinets.
In yet another part of the spacious workroom, a very specialized plastic injection molding operation makes small plastic parts for Lectrosonics' mic systems, The machine is set up to cast some 135 different plastic assemblies.
Lasers are busy at work in another area of the operation. This time, they have replaced older stenciling and silk screening operations and literally burn control legends and names into powder-coated aluminum blanks destined to become front and rear panels of wireless mic receivers.
This show of laser technology and machining robotics is very impressive, but is humbled a bit by the sealed "clean room" area of the plant in which circuit boards are "stuffed" with components.
Actually "stuffed" is probably the wrong term nowadays, as the majority of circuit components are surface mounted, rather than having their leads stuffed through drilled circuit board holes.
SILK SCREENING 'GOO'
Automation shines here, with one machine laying down via silk screening technology a very complex and precise pattern of a goo containing solder flux and microscopic spheres of solder metal.
The coated boards immediately go to one of two large robotic "pick and place" machines which can install parts on the "buttered" boards at up to 140 surface mount components per minute with microscopic accuracy.
Surface mount components are supplied to the machines on 8mm perforated tapes, resembling 8mm motion picture film. Some 1,260 different components are used for making Lectrosonics products. The smallest of these is but 0.04-inches x 0.002-inches, but even so, the machines can place components, with an accuracy of more than 95 percent.
Each finished board is carefully inspected before passing them on to a final assembly area. At this point in the manufacturing process, automation slips quietly away and is replaced by many competent pairs of hands.
First, for circuit cards not quite passing muster after surface mount soldering operations, two very skilled troubleshooters peer through magnifiers and binocular microscopes to spot and correct minor problems. A common one is a "tombstone," or a chip that ended up being flow-soldered in on edge rather than flat. Such problems are quickly fixed and the boards are placed with the other production units and sent to the automated testing equipment stations, and from then onward for final assembly.
Here, technicians solder on pigtail wiring and install "through-hole" components that don't lend themselves to automatic insertion and soldering operations. They also mount connectors, switches and similar pieces of hardware on chassis units and complete the assembly wiring.
All units then go to another station for final checkout and a-lignment. Each device receives a thorough going-over and pots and other circuit board adjustable units are set for optimum performance and checked to ensure all specifications are met.
Completed units then flow to another non-automated area-packaging and shipping. Wireless systems are carefully matched up with orders and hand packed into shipping containers along with instruction manuals, power cords and other customer essentials.
EVEN A SEWING MACHINE
Lectrosonics prides itself in taking full responsibility for every possible area of manufacturing. This even extends to the in-plant fabrication and sewing of Naugahyde covers and carrying cases for some of the gear.
Bruce Jones, vice president of marketing for Lectrosonics commented about the company's resistance to moving operations offshore.
"We don't think that we'd gain anything," he said. "Actually, I feel sure that we would wind up with less control over the high level of quality that goes into our products and ultimately the product just wouldn't be Lectrosonics.
"We're very proud of our operation and proud of the people working here-each one is a talented specialist in his or her field."
Jones cited the extremely tight and intricate balance the company has to maintain between the engineering elements involved in building wireless products-microprocessor and DSP codes, RF circuitry, audio technology, power supply optimization, as well as mechanical integration-as another reason that has driven the company to keep all operations in one location.
"In a company such as ours, we're dealing with small lot sizes and continuous changes to ensure the best quality products," he said. "These are factors that work against the advantages of outsourcing. Lectrosonics has been operating here in New Mexico for 35 years now. We have developed highly specialized designs, processes and expertise in high-end wireless microphone systems which would be difficult and time consuming to implement in outside contact manufacturing."
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James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others. He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.