Next Stop, Global Market

ACE claims to be top U.S. – based maker of robotic machines for soldering circuit boards

By Mike McLean
June 28, 2007
Journal of Business

SPOKANE, WA – In just two years, Spokane Valley-based ACE Production Technologies Inc., a Spokane Valley high-tech manufacturer, has become one of the leading U.S. – based makers of robotic machines that solder electronic components onto circuit boards, claims Alan Cable, who co-owns the company with his son, Michael.

Now, the company has set its sights on the rest of the world – and plans to open three sales and installation offices this year in Europe and one in southeast Asia, Cable says.

“Business is better than good,” Cable asserts. “ACE sold more selective-soldering machines in the U.S. in 2006 than all of our competitors put together.” He says he bases that claim on the company’s success in competitive bidding for the majority of the machines sold in the U.S. last year.

“We’re pretty sure we know where all the machines were sold,” he says. “Our goal is to become the leader in the world this year.”

Just last month, ACE moved to an 18,000-square-foot stand-alone building at 3010 N. First, just south of Euclid Avenue, in the Spokane Business & Industrial Park. The new location, formerly occupied by Servatron Inc., a Spokane Valley-based contract electronics manufacturer, is six times larger than ACE’s former location near Spokane’s Felts Field.”

“We waited almost five months for this building to become available, because it’s situated for what we do,” Cable says. In the previous location, “we couldn’t hire more people and couldn’t build (the machines) any faster. As soon as we moved, we almost doubled our number of employees.”

ACE has about 25 employees now and expects to grow to about 35 employees by the end of the year, he says.”

The company’s selective-soldering machines are used by electronics manufacturers that make products based on circuit boards, Cable says.

The machines, which are roughly the size of an upright piano and usually sell for between $50,000 and $80,000, pump “microdots” of molten solder through a nozzle onto the precise spot where component parts are to be attached to circuit boards.

Through a simple programming method, called “bombsighting,” a camera projects close-up images of the circuit board and magnifies them on a video monitor. By using the arrow keys on a computer keyboard, an operator moves the camera’s crosshairs to a spot where solder is to be applied, then enters a keystroke into the computer to provide precise coordinates for that spot, or “bombsight” to tell the selective-soldering machine to put solder there. The coordinates of the bombsights are accurate to within a few thousandths of an inch, Cable says.

Once the operator has entered coordinates for all of the bombsights into the computer, the machine can flux and solder identical circuit boards automatically. Flux is a substance that cleans surfaces of oxidation and promotes the union of solder with the circuit board and the component. Depending on the complexity of a circuit board, the machines solder four to 10 times faster than a skilled human, Cable says.

Customers can program the selective-soldering machines to meet changing needs. Software allows customers to integrate design drawings electronically when programming the machines.

ACE builds the machines in lots of 30 and has 10 machines in each of three stages of production at a time. The company is shipping three machines a week, but still is ramping up.

“Our goal is to ship out five machines a week by year-end,” Cable says.

Cable declines to disclose ACE’s annual revenues, but says its 2007 sales will be twice or three times last year’s sales.

Customers range from Spokane-area high-tech firms, such as Servatron, and Coeur d’Alene-based Advanced Input Systems Inc. to giant government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense.

The machines solder circuit boards installed in the dashboards of all U.S. -made Honda vehicles, and in the Predator unmanned military aircraft, Cable says.

“We’re only scratching the surface of the market,” he says.

Also, at this point ACE is a small player globally, Cable says. Its main competitors are based in Europe, and Cable estimates that only 20 percent of the global market for selective-soldering machines is in the U.S.

“We manufacture machines with the same capabilities as the European machines, but at 25 percent to 50 percent less cost than the competition,” he asserts. “That’s largely what’s driven us.”

This year the company plans to open sales and installation offices in England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Malaysia.

When it makes a sale through one of its foreign offices, just as it does when the company makes a sale in the U.S., “we will ship to the customer’s site and follow with a team to install and train the customer,” he says.

It takes about a week for the company to train a customer’s employees fully to use a selective-soldering machine, although they often are able to begin programming on the second day of training, Cable says.

Customers can program the selective-soldering machines to meet changing needs. Software allows customers to integrate design drawings electronically when programming the machines.

The fluxer’s jet shoots tiny droplets of solder flux at the precise points where the selective-soldering machines are to shoot solder onto a circuit board. The fluxer replaces an older broad-spray method that requires manufactures to wash the excess flux off the circuit boards.

“It saves an extra operation, which basically is dollars,” Cable says.

Selective soldering is taking the place of an older automated process, called wave soldering, in which components are bonded on to circuit boards with waves of molten solder.

The drawback of that process is the waves can float delicate components off of the board, Cable says. Wave soldering is also a far less precise process and requires masking of parts of the circuit board that need to be protected from the molten solder.

“Selective soldering solders only things that need to be soldered,” he says.

Cable has 40 years of experience in manufacturing, starting as a machinist in Southern California. He moved another company, Robotic Process Systems Inc., to Spokane Valley from California 14 years ago, before selling his share in that company and leaving two years ago to start ACE and focus on selective-soldering machines, he says.

“It’s been a real ride,” Cable says. “The first year, I was on the road almost the whole time.”

Although he travels to several high-tech trade shows to promote ACE’s selective-soldering machines, his most successful selling method is to demonstrate the machines for prospective customers that visit ACE’s manufacturing plant.

“That impresses them the most,” he says. “I don’t have to sell it. It sells itself.”

ACE also provides potential customers with video demonstrations of how the machines work on actual samples of the customers’ circuit boards. “We’re inundated with customer samples,” Cable says.

Cable says ACE is committed to remain in its current location for at least five years. Scott Person and Anne Betow, both of Tomlinson Black Commercial Inc., of Spokane, handled the lease.

Contact Mike McLean at (509) 344-1266 or via e-mail at