My personal 30 Year Review of Force Technologies

Once upon a time I became an Electronics Development engineer at the ripe old age of 23, and after years of Technical College (now with a fancy university title), a 5 year apprenticeship at GEC saw me become a highly paid £24/week dogsbody. Learnt my trade on Nimrod and Concorde small design and development projects (and I mean small). Being at GEC for a number of years along with other following electronic companies taught me that although rewarding, an engineering vocation didn’t pay the bills as my family grew.

From design of projects for the detection of mastitis in cows to the design of complex telecoms systems and design of Flymo lawnmower motors and suction cleaner drives (yes suction not vacuum) to Infra-red beacons for missiles for long gone Sperry Defence, I did it all.

During this time it became evident that the guys selling me the components and systems that I used every day in my work were visiting me in fancy cars and taking me to nice restaurants, (that’s long gone too) so this was the way to go, and I joined Texas Instruments, one of the largest semiconductor companies in the world as the highly rated “Field sales Engineer”, or as many called us “Reps”.

TI gave me the experience to understand who used their product and gave me an introduction to the art of selling and how to get drunk and have a good time under expenses. Albeit as long as I met or exceeded my target. Being fortunate and having some good loyal customers gave me the opportunity to be lured into the lucrative world of the grey market or brokering. These were the days when knowledge and experience came from within, and not from Google. This gave the “rep” some distinct advantages, especially as we had some good contacts in the world of semiconductors, i.e. Japan. Thank heavens for our secret weapon…the fax machine. A stint with a few of these brokers and a spell with the biggest one of all, Abacus, showed me all sides of this business, enough to allow me to start my own company with a little known manufacturer called Atmel.

In 1986 when Force started we had one franchise and a wealth of knowledge. In the following year Atmel had a T/O of $1.9m ($1.6Billion) which we did $300k in the UK. Like all small distributors being successful Atmel did what all other US manufacturers did and that was to setup a European operation. Whoops there goes our major franchise and 70% of our business. What do we do now?

Holding on to our other few franchises for a few years told us the emerging pan European distributors and soon to be global distributors were snapping up the smaller disties with interesting franchises. They then proceeded to become all things to all men, squeezing out the majority of the little guys. What should we do?

One of our major defence customers at this time had a problem. “How can we continue to manufacture our engine management systems when two of our major semiconductor devices had been made obsolete with no replacement available?” We had been supplying these standard products for 5 years and so had the knowledge to undertake the re-creation of these devices from the same quality individual component parts and the same military assembly and test as the original.

Our first FT device was born in April 1995 This was the start of a new path for Force Technologies. A path nobody had yet to tread.

By having direct routes to the major OEM’s for die had enabled us to undertake many obsolete replacements using clever technologies. Our expertise and test facilities gave us the ability to manufacture IC’s and test them to the parametrics of the original along with the correct package capabilities. Parts were built using all the fancy QA approvals needed for our customers to approve. Force had become a manufacturer but still had the monkey on our back called “Wheeler dealer”

With over 9000 manufactured and screened parts as cross references to obsolete parts and over 10 years under our manufacturing belt we still couldn’t shake the “broker” label.

During the last 10 years with the addition of AS9100 Rev C/BS EN9100:2009, ISO9001:2008 and increasing blue chip customer approvals we are at last, recognised for what we truly are.

We now move in the arena of being an established manufacturer and test facilitator for solutions to the problem of replacements for obsolescence, and we excel in the arena of testing products our customers deem need the seal of approval or authentication.

What will the future bring us? I see the problems of counterfeiting, cloning, and obsolescence forever being a thorn in the side of planers and hopefully we can continue to support and provide a hand holding exercise in the short and long term.

Products once thought as very much “leading edge” only a few years ago will reach the “obsolete pile” sooner than expected. Replacements will require more in-depth analysis as we see devices become even yet more complicated. Many designs will require building blocks of IP cores and complete new designs in silicon to replace the smaller obsoleted devices.

Other technologies are coming into play like Advanced Die Reclamation Technique (ADRT). An accepted technology for many customers who have little or no choice. Removing and reusing die with no effect on quality or reliability is a good option.

What about Mike Salmon, well my engineers are taking most of the strain on new projects and only need me when my experience warrants it, or before my memory goes altogether.

I honestly believe that the industry has moved from service to efficiency and no such bad thing but characters have gone and the industry lacks fun and lustre.

Along with my peers in the last phases of their working life we can look back and say, life in the semiconductor lane wasn’t that bad after all. Difficult sometimes, impossible sometimes but always rewarding.

Written by Mike Salmon, Technical Director, Force Technologies