TTM Turns Out Circuit Boards for High-Tech Systems

NORTH JACKSON,Ohi0 –Theresa Higinbotham peers into a microscope at her station at TTM Technologies Inc. in North Jackson. There, she’s inspecting a circuit board fresh off the production line, and scrutinizes the component for the slightest imperfection.

“Right now, I’m checking for any signs of plating separation,” Higinbotham says as she holds a small circuit board. “I’m also looking for scratches, high solders, exposed copper – any defects.”

Higinbotham, the company’s resident inspector for one of its biggest aerospace and defense customers, says it’s imperative that these boards are perfect before they’re sent out for further processing. One small mistake – a smudge on a silver-plated trace no thicker than a strand of hair, for example – could cause havoc on an electronic system, systems that are among the most sensitive and technologically advanced in the world.

“When you deal with the military, things have got to be perfect,” asserts Roger Doringo, director of operations at TTM’s North Jackson facility. “We’re one of best-known board shops in the U.S. owned by one of the best board companies in the world.”

TTM’s North Jackson facility manufactures basic circuit boards that are used in sophisticated aerospace and defense systems, both domestically and internationally, Doringo says. The North Jackson plant’s products are found in many of the electronic systems in the aerospace and defense industry today, ranging from airplanes, to weapons and many other applications in between.

“The bulk of our manufacturing is for aerospace and defense,” Doringo says. Its other customers include suppliers in the oil and gas industry, which use the boards for offshore drilling applications. “These are highly reliable boards that go underground and offshore, so they have to withstand a lot of vibration and temperature,” he says. “We have a proprietary process to build circuit boards that will withstand harsh elements like that.”

Doringo has worked at the plant since it first opened in 1988, then under the name Sovereign Circuits. The company, founded in 1987, built a 35,000 square-foot building that year at the Youngstown Commerce Park in North Jackson, and started to manufacture circuit boards the following year, he recalls. “We had total employment of 11 people, and I was one of them,” he laughs. Today, the North Jackson site employs 186.

In the 30 years since it was built, the plant has doubled in size and has gone through three acquisitions. The last of these came in 2015, when TTM Technologies, Inc. based in Costa Mesa, Calif., purchased the company.

Rita Tustin, TTM North Jackson’s general manager, says that TTM is the largest producer of rigid printed circuit boards in the world with 25 total sites between North America and Asia. The North Jackson operation produces just the bare boards, and then sends the products for further development to the company’s customers where electronic components are added.

“In the near-term, we’re going to continue to support military programs,” she says. “We have a lot in our backlog right now and that market is only growing. We expect to get even busier.”

Moreover, the defense industry is consistently investing dollars into research and development in order to upgrade technology intended for new systems, and that usually translates into more business for TTM, Tustin adds. “They’re constantly redesigning programs,” she says.

There is also optimism that the oil and gas market will pick up in the near-term, which would help TTM in that business segment. “We’re hoping the oil and gas market picks up to where it was in previous years,” she notes.

A sizeable amount of business was done with the offshore oil and gas industry, but that market started to suffer as energy exploration shifted to onshore shale instead of offshore drilling, Doringo says. The collapse in oil prices didn’t help matters, either. That convinced TTM to focus on building the company’s aerospace and defense capabilities, while remaining competitive with its oil and gas business as it returns.

TTM’s North Jackson plant is not a high-volume production line, Doringo says, but rather a small-batch production site that is specialized for high-tech applications.

The North Jackson plant is, if anything, resilient, Doringo emphasizes. “We’ve withstood all of the downturns in this industry,” he says. “When I started, there were about 1,300 printed circuit board shops in the United States – the number is significantly lower now.”

Although the circuit boards are used in extremely high-tech applications, the manufacturing process is still rather traditional, observes Amanda Romeo, human resources director at TTM North Jackson. Much of the equipment used is standard machining tools, she notes. “We build our boards based on our customers’ needs and specifications. It is our ultimate goal to satisfy every customer we serve.”

The process begins with a copper plate core that is first cleansed of any dust or smudges, and then sent to the plant’s photo shop. There, a pre-designed image of a specific board is scanned onto the plate and is then prepared for further processing. All operators in the photo area are required to wear a “clean suit,” to prevent contamination from any foreign substance. “You need to get a perfectly clean picture on the board.” That image serves as a visual guide for further processing and manufacturing.

“There are some chemical processes, as well as drilling processes,” Romeo says. The boards are also coated with certain finishes – gold, nickel plate, silver — depending on the application. Once the boards are finished, they are inspected before they are shipped off.

“We do all our inspection in-house,” Romeo says. “They have to go through board-by-board to find any imperfections. You have to have good vision and a lot of patience.”

Yet after 30 years, Doringo says most people in the Mahoning Valley have no idea that some of the world’s most advanced electronic systems are powered by circuit boards manufactured in an unlikely place such as North Jackson. “It’s pretty impressive,” he says.

“When we started in this business, we printed single and double-sided circuit boards,” Doringo recalls. “We’ve grown to where we can run products up to 24 layers. A lot of people are surprised to see what we make here in little North Jackson, Ohio.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.