Kelly Dack Discusses His Recent Move
It’s no secret that Prototron is one of the fabricators to watch in the US. I’ve known the Prototron staff for years, and worked with them for a number of years as well. So, when I heard they had hired Kelly Dack, a longtime PCB designer and guest editor for PCBDesign007, I wasted no time meeting with Kelly to talk about his new position, the future of PCB design, and the nascent interest millennials are showing in the PCB industry.
Dan Beaulieu: I'm talking with Prototron's newest employee and associate, Kelly Dack, a veteran PCB designer and I-Connect007 guest editor. Kelly, thanks for being with me today.
Kelly Dack: Thank you, Dan. It's wonderful to be here in the great Pacific Northwest.
Beaulieu: I love this area, too. I live in the great Atlantic Northeast, so I've come as far as I possibly can to be here, but I always enjoy it. I've been coming here 18 years, and I know Prototron pretty well as kind of a consultant. As a team member, I want to say welcome to the company. We're glad you're here.
Dack: Thank you very much.
Beaulieu: Tell me a little bit about your background, and where you've been and how you got here.
Dack: Thanks for the opportunity. First, I've been a PCB designer for over 30 years. I have a background in medical, aerospace, industrial computers and, for the last 14 years, the gaming industry. I worked for the world's largest slot machine maker, a very fun company, with lots of themes and great exposure to the world of LEDs and heat dissipation reflectivity, so that was very fun. I'm just elated to now be transitioning into the world of manufacturing.
As a designer, we like to think we're in touch with the manufacturer—that's part of our job. We like to think that we're the hub of the design and manufacturing process, so it's very important that a designer stay in touch with the PCB manufacturing processes. By default, we are once removed. We work with manufacturers, we deal with manufacturers, and we communicate with manufacturers, but from a distance. I've always recognized a need for designers to get in touch, literally, with their manufacturers, to be able to see the machinery, to see and touch and feel the processes so that they can create better designs.
Beaulieu: I like that a lot, and I appreciate your openness on that. Quite frankly, I've always been on the board side. I got an opportunity, in a business sense, to manage five design centers for ASI, which was part of Cadence Design Systems. But by no means am I a technical person or a designer, but I did get to see inside the mindset a little bit. I've got to say, from my biased point of view, you're revered because of all the designers I managed, there were only a few who had been in a board shop, and we owned a board shop. I've always been an advocate of a 28-layer, blind and buried via board not being a commodity. It's not a card. It's not a device. It's a very complicated electronic component.
Dack: It's a component.
Beaulieu: This is why I enjoy you being here, coming over to the dark side as some of your brothers would say, to see how things are built because this is where it happens. To put in a little plug for Prototron, we say, "Your design is not complete until we build your board.”
Dack: Absolutely. It's well said. To have an office that is steps away from the equipment, the manufacturing processes that are required to make a board, is sort of a dream come true for me.
Beaulieu: You don't hear that very often, "My job in the board shop is a dream come true," but it's great. I appreciate your sincerity.
Dack: It is a dream come true for me. Let me tell you why I say that. It's not just the machinery. It's the people. Every one of those machines and processes has people involved who are experts at what they do, and it's a luxury for a person with a design background to walk up and be able to ask that person, "What is involved in your job? How can a designer make it better? How can we specify things better on our documentation?"
Beaulieu: Make it better for your own company. Make it more producible economically, things like that.
Dack: It all works together.
Beaulieu: It all works together. You get insight into some of these boards that are 108 steps, 116 steps, 162 steps when you start having multiple laminations and layups and that kind of stuff, and it's a much greater understanding. Here’s one of the things that I’ve found recently. With our Internet culture, as a person who sells boards, teaches people how to sell boards, tries to reach customers, and tries to beat salespeople on getting in and getting new customers, sales people are saying, "It's harder and harder and harder. I can't make appointments."
If you go into an inside sales room these days, all you hear is clicking. The sound used to hit me like stock exchange boiler rooms, and they're not that anymore. It’s just clicking now. The problem with that is we've lost that communication in the sense of you just place an order and they build it. “Don't bother me with any questions. You don't need to know where it's going. Just build this product in a vacuum.” I think we're going to have to reverse that.
I was part of the process that brought you here, and it was because of your background, because we felt it was time to span that gap. It was time that we had our own design G2 in the facility. We're not going to be doing design. We're not going to compete with those guys, but we want design knowledge, which leads me to the fact that you’ll be doing some training for customers. Give us a thumbnail sketch of who you train, what your training is and how you're going to bring that talent to Prototron to help their customers.
Dack: First, let me thank you for the nod. That nod is very important because it means that Prototron is recognizing the importance of the design function. The designer culture, for decades, has felt a little bit unrecognized, and there have been many programs and personalities in the industry that have worked to heighten the level of awareness of the design function, and Prototron is really stepping up to recognize that. I appreciate that and I think designers around the world who read this this will appreciate it too.
I recently have affiliated with a great company called EPTAC Corporation, based in New Hampshire. It's one of the most widely recognized training corporations for IPC standards, materials, in the world. They're great people and facilitate the Certified Interconnect Designer Program (CID) for IPC, and I have just been certified this year to instruct in that area. EPTAC allows me to train licensed IPC materials. The training that we're talking about here is going to be training in the Prototron ways of design and manufacturing. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to meet with designers in the area and introduce them as a liaison between manufacturing and design, bringing people together to facilitate communication. One of the ways we’re stepping up to help the cause: We've just acquired 10,000 square feet of extra room. Our sales department is moving over there, and this includes a large training center. We've just acquired a large meeting desk. We're acquiring training and meeting presentation equipment. We're going to build this up so that this can become a center for learning the way a printed circuit board is made efficiently, economically, and successfully using Prototron.
Beaulieu: Right. One of the great things about Prototron (full disclosure: we both work for Prototron) is the fact that we only do prototypes or small volumes, and we don't have really any interest in large volume, so we're trying to give as honest an answer as we can to our customers on how to design a board for the ultimate manufacturability. We don't customize it for our production shop. We don't have a production shop. We're giving good clear answers. We strive for good clear advice on how to design the board the best to get the best out of using the right laminates, the right materials, to not only get the customer what they want and need, but also at the best price possible when they go into the manufacturing world for the true end-product.
Dack: Dan, as the new guy here, let me ask you a few questions. With the push for the growth of Prototron to meet the customer needs, what would you say are the three main added-value aspects of Prototron for a designer or a new customer?
Beaulieu: That's pretty straightforward. One is what you bring to the table, which we've been working on, and now we've got an official, sanctioned person who can do that. We've been doing a lot with our other engineering expert, Mark Thompson, who a lot of people know. We're giving advice to our customers to make sure it's done right. That's number one. Then, of course, there's the more logical on-time delivery. We understand your needs. Prototron was built many years ago when there weren't a lot of quick-turn companies. There are now, some of them as a hobby, some of them as a fill-in, but this company is completely dedicated to delivering production-quality boards on time.
They do some proof of design where the customer says, "Build this and put some jumpers on it." They'll do some of that, mostly for big companies here, like the little company up the street called Microsoft where, when they're developing a product, they're doing 15 iterations. There aren’t a lot of companies that will want to open up the doors, but we do a lot of tours here, and they want to educate the designers. An educated designer means an educated customer, and an educated customer understands and appreciates what we do creating that marriage. I don't know if that was three, but those are the important things we bring to the party.
There’s a lot of integrity here. We try to give the right answer, not necessarily the Prototron answer. We've given some answers that were right and, in some ways financially hurt us, but they were the right answer for the customer. We will do that. When something can be done cheaper, we'll level with people on that. Our number one value is, if you were to take any organization's new product development, whether it's a start-up or a company like Microsoft developing new products, that's where we come in. We almost have an American spiritual goal here, where anything you read says, "The future of America is innovation." We take our place at that table. We want to represent the board community at the table of innovation and help that process as much as we possibly can.
Dack: Let me agree with everything you said, from a unique perspective standpoint of being a customer.
Beaulieu: That's right, you were a customer.
Dack: For nearly a decade. Let me tell you the power of what Mark Thompson brings to the table with regard to a simple tour through the board shop. I had an opportunity to pass through this area, made it a point to stop at Prototron and hook up with Mark, National Sales Manager Russ Adams, Lee Salazar in outside sales, and, of course, President Dave Ryder. We sat down and discussed designs for the company I was working for and, not to be missed, take the tour. To have Mark Thompson guide a designer through the tour was just inspiring. To see and be in touch with each process and the machinery involved, to be able to ask the operator questions, and to have a personality like Mark explain how each thing works was just invaluable—it made me a better designer. I went back a better designer.
Beaulieu: I think that's so important because, other than that, each of us is one hand clapping, and we've got to get them together for applause. The other thing, and I see it in you, is this company has a lot of passionate people. One of the things about a Mark Thompson tour is the passion he shows for the process. He loves the process. One of the things I'm excited about, as I get on my soapbox, is the generation of kids, the 23–24 year olds, which are the “makers generation” now. They're back interested in how are you making these boards? How are you making this car? Their older brothers were the computer generation, which is important, but we couldn't get their head out of that computer screen.
We're starting to meet kids here who want to know how you build things. I'm encouraged by that because we certainly need some youth in this industry. What I think you're going to find, Kelly, because I've seen it myself and it’s probably the only place in the United States, when you start doing your training here in Seattle, you're going to see younger people than you've seen in a long time, and that's exciting as hell to me.
Dack: What you say is very scary in a good way. I mean that as a euphemism. Again, I'm a new transplant here. There's quite a bit of traffic, and you have a little more time to get to work. I've noticed exactly what you're talking about. The people driving the cars are young, hip people. They're working for companies that are doing design, and it's very noticeable. The answer to the question, "Where is the next generation of designers coming from?" might just be right here in Seattle.
Beaulieu: I think it is. People are here. SpaceX is here. Alibaba's coming here, if they're not here already. Yahoo, Google, they're all here. It's a great place to be. It's a new Northwest gold rush, I call it. It really is.
Dack: It’s very exciting, and half the reason I'm here; the other half is the great people at Prototron.
Beaulieu: That's nice to hear. I'm working with a professor up at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and I sat right in this room and talked to his class on Skype about four weeks ago. Mark's going to talk to the class. My friend and I-Connect007 contributor Bob Tarzwell is going to talk to the class. They're going to come down here because it's a class on printed circuit boards. These are graduate students and they're very interested. They had a lot of great questions. We actually sold them our book, "The PCB 101 Handbook." They're using it. It's really the first time that graduate students, EE students, are talking about PCBs for longer than one afternoon or two. The class is really focused on that. We're going to encourage them to come here, and we're using the book to expand it to other graduate schools as well. We want you to be part of that as well.
Dack: Very good. Thanks, Dan.
Beaulieu: Thank you.