Last month, Contec Inc. (Spartanburg, S.C.) officially opened its new manufacturing facility in Suzhou, China. The new plant will manufacture dry wipers, mopping systems and other critical cleaning products for cleanroom users throughout Asia. Jack McBride, Contec CEO, says the majority of these users are in the electronics industry, and more specifically, in disk drives and flat panels, as well as flash memory and other semiconductors. “There’s really a pretty big difference in the shape of the market between the U.S. and Asia these days. The Asian market is much more electronics-based than the U.S., which has shifted more to life sciences.”
Last month, Contec Inc. officially opened its new manufacturing facility in Suzhou, China.
This market shape is reflected in the types of wiper products in demand. For example, McBride notes there’s much heavier demand for low-ionic- and low-extractable-type products. “The flat panel market, in particular, also has a much higher demand for microfiber products because of their exceptional cleaning abilities,” he says. “In fact, the heavy use of microfiber is really rather unique to the Asian market.” To address this need, Contec has R&D departments in both China and the U.S. working together on new microfiber-based product development.
Original planning for the Suzhou facility began three years ago when Contec first began seeing the need to expand its manufacturing capabilities to support the exploding market in China. “The company was growing and we needed more capacity somewhere, so it only made sense to put it where the new customers were and in the fastest growing market,” says McBride.
Initially, the company considered working with a contract manufacturer, or even forming a joint venture, but ultimately decided it needed its own facility. Says McBride, “Because our business model includes so much specialty manufacturing and rather complex processes, we determined we really needed to maintain total control of our manufacturing.”
Because Contec’s China facility was established to accommodate increasing as opposed to existing demand, McBride says there will be very little impact on its U.S. operations as far as employment. “We’ve obviously been selling some product into Asia that’s been manufactured here and that will be transitioned; however, for now, all of our presaturated wiper work is staying in the U.S. and in fact, we’re also making significant investment in new, higher-speed manufacturing equipment for our presaturated product lines.”
The 48,000-square-foot Suzhou facility is a leased building incorporating roughly 1,800 square feet of ISO Class 4 (Class 10) cleanroom space and a full cleanroom washing and drying system. From beginning to end, McBride estimates the total project will have cost $3 million to $4 million. Contec’s own engineers managed the overall project, but used a Singapore-based contractor for the cleanroom construction and local Chinese contractors for its water system. The manufacturing equipment, including sealed-edge cutting equipment, is similar or identical to that used in Contec’s U.S. facility.
Although McBride notes he’s “extremely pleased with the level of talent, energy and enthusiasm of the people we’ve recruited in China,” he acknowledges that managing and running operations with people who speak a different language is not without its challenges.
To minimize such problems, Contec has automated as much of its processes as possible with PLC-driven equipment and software. In fact, much of this automation has already been in operation in the U.S. to remove individual operator variability. Says McBride, “Obviously, we still have to translate all of our work instructions into Mandarin Chinese, but by creating ‘copy-exact’ replicas of our manufacturing formulas in our system controllers in Suzhou, we minimize the need for complex operator training and the possibility of translation issues leading to product errors.”