Indiana-based ALTEX relies on error-proofing and industry standards to ensure quality harness
Featured in Assembly Magazine | Written by Michael E. Fitzgerald
The key to Blichmann Engineering’s Tower of Power home-brewing system is its temperature control module, which monitors and adjusts the temperature of mash as it is being circulated. “Stepped mashes are as simple as dialing the Control Module up using the arrow keys and hitting enter,” contends an Aug. 31, 2012, review on the website of the Indianapolis beer and wine supply shop Great Fermentation. “Beer geeks rejoice: That 17-step mash schedule you’ve always dreamed of is now very, very doable.”
What makes the control module doable is the wire and cable harness manufacturer ALTEX Inc., which has built close to 5,000 controllers for Blichmann Engineering since 2012.
The founder and president of the home-brewing equipment company, John Blichmann, turned a hobby into an international business, explains ALTEX President Rick Bromm. “He did not like the products on the market, so he developed his own,” Bromm says. “He wanted to design and sell it. He did not necessarily want to do all the manufacturing.”
Blichmann found ALTEX through Caterpillar Inc., where he had been an engineering supervisor. ALTEX manufactures wire harnesses for Caterpillar and some of its suppliers.
While the temperature control module requires some harnessing, it is mainly an electromechanical assembly job, Bromm explains, noting that different versions are built for North America and Europe. “We do all of the assembly, build it, test it and then put in the box,” he says. All that Blichmann Engineering does is conduct a final check before selling each module.
“ALTEX has been a great vendor to work with,” Blichmann notes, describing ALTEX as being process-driven and praising it for attention to detail, quality, delivery and customer service. “While we aren’t a large customer, they treat us as if we are as important as the bigger clients. …ALTEX has definitely helped us achieve our quality goals.”
Distributer Turned Harness Shop
While assembling brewing equipment may be novel and fun, most of ALTEX’s business is more traditional harness assembly. Bromm estimates that railroad equipment manufacturers and vehicle modification companies are the two biggest markets for ALTEX, which has facilities in Westfield, IN, and Nogales, Mexico. In the rail industry, ALTEX’s harnesses are used in such products as end-of-train units, which replaced cabooses; positive traction control in braking systems; and safety-crossing equipment. For vehicle modification companies, ALTEX assembles products like body harnesses, lift harnesses and battery-cable harnesses.
ALTEX also has customers in such industries as automotive, security, medical, agricultural, refrigeration and power generation. “We do business with Fortune 150 companies like Caterpillar, United Technologies and Delta Faucet…all the way down to smaller, medium-sized OEMs,” he says.
Products range from simple, two-wire assemblies with a connector to harnesses that are 40 feet in length. “Not a lot of companies build to that breadth consistently,” Bromm notes. “Most of them either choose small or choose big.”
Founded in 1981, ALTEX started as a component distributer. “We weren’t a normal distributer,” recalls Bromm, who joined ALTEX in 1986 as a field sales representative and quickly became vice president of business development. “Our business model was to work with the engineering community to help them choose the best part for their design.”
That spawned opportunities for some assembly work. “[We did] simple things at first, like putting a connector on a cable,” says Bromm, who became an ALTEX partner in 1995 and its president in 2015.
As the Internet developed, engineers found it a lot easier to locate and select parts on their own, so they no longer needed to rely on distributers like ALTEX. “But we noticed they would still talk to us about manufacturing processes and secondary processes,” Bromm says.
By the late 1990s, ALTEX invested in the right equipment and hired employees with the right skill sets to focus on wire-harness assembly.
The next critical step was strengthening its engineering capability. “While our customers could design a harness, there were better ways to do it sometimes from a manufacturability, cost and quality perspective,” he explains. “So we saw quickly the need to help them design the harness piece to fit into whatever their application and product were going to be.”
ALTEX focuses on customers for which wire harness assembly is not a core competency. Typically, these are companies that cannot justify investing in equipment to automate harness assembly to the extent that ALTEX does.
Manufacturers in rural areas, for example, might discover that they are unable to attract enough new employees as demand for their products grows. “So they have to redeploy that workforce,” Bromm says, explaining that manufacturers will question what they should and should not do in house. “[Harness assembly] is usually down on the list because there is so much variation to it.”
Because Bromm views ALTEX as being an extension of its customers’ manufacturing operations, he does not describe ALTEX as a contract manufacturer. “I use strategic partner,” he says, insisting that ALTEX’s customer relationships are deeper than those of a contract manufacturer.
Part of that deeper commitment is offering design assistance to customers, which ALTEX provides with an in-house team of seven mechanical, electrical, industrial and process engineers. “What we do is try to take that time drain off [a customer’s] engineering team,” Bromm explains. “They’ve designed a system or a product. They have an electrical parameter that they have to meet, and they have a physical parameter and an environmental parameter. We can take those parameters and then…suggest a good way to [make the harness.]”
One example of how ALTEX improved a product through design assistance is a process-control monitoring system it assembles for injection-molding machines. “When [the customer] sent it to us, it was completely different. It was a big, rectangular, industrial-looking box,” Bromm recalls. “They said, ‘We need it smaller, and we need it to be networkable.’ ”
ALTEX’s engineers redesigned the monitoring system based on the customer’s parameters.
Poka-Yoke Is No Joke
To ensure the quality of its products, ALTEX employs poka-yoke, or mistake-proofing, concepts throughout its assembly plant. For example, solenoid-based fixtures on assembly-and-test boards physically prevent assemblers from moving defective harnesses along in the assembly process. When a connector is snapped into the solenoid, the connector cannot be removed unless it tests 100 percent for continuity and functionality. “The only way to release [a faulty harness] from the board is for the cell supervisor to unlock the solenoid fixture,” Bromm explains. “[The harness] will be isolated until it tests as a good product.”
This poka-yoke approach even extends to less intricate products, like a wire with two connectors.
“We won’t build anything if we don’t feel 100 percent confident that we can make it…defect-free,” Bromm says, noting that ALTEX has turned customers and products away when it did not believe it could create fixturing to make the assemblies as mistake-proof as possible while balancing cost.
A-620B Spoken Here
In addition to relying on poka-yoke fixturing, ALTEX adheres to a workmanship standard that the majority of its customers cannot build to. ALTEX trains its assemblers to adhere to Requirements and Acceptance for Cable and Wire Harness Assemblies. Currently in its B revision, the standard is a joint venture of IPC—Association Connecting Electronics Industries and the Wiring Harness Manufacturer’s Association (WHMA). The 400-page document has more than 680 full-color illustrations.
While ALTEX’s customers specify workmanship criteria for their harnesses, the industry standard addresses any holes in those specifications. Also known as the IPC/WHMA-A-620B standard, the document “tells you what is good and what isn’t,” explains Bromm, who chairs WHMA’s board of directors.
Noting that the C revision of the IPC/WHMA standards is scheduled to be issued in early 2017, Bromm recalls that before the standards were developed, it was not unusual for manufacturers and suppliers to have different opinions on what constituted quality in wire harnesses. “There was no referee,” he says.
WHMA partnered with IPC on the standards because IPC could provide training metrics and training facilities.
Both of ALTEX’s facilities have certified trainers who receive extensive training off site from IPC and then return to train fellow ALTEX employees. As they train their co-workers, the certified trainers issue serialized certificates to verify that the employees have been trained to meet the IPC/WHMA-A-620B standard. To ensure better adherence long term, ALTEX prefers using employees as trainers rather than bringing in external trainers.
Adhering to workmanship standards is a major aspect of ALTEX’s culture, regardless of whether employees are in manufacturing, engineering, accounting, customer service or purchasing. “Our culture is: Everyone is accountable,” Bromm stresses. “Basically, we want a nucleus of critical thinkers.”
For Bromm, chairing WHMA’s board has similarities to serving as ALTEX’s president. “From the high-level perspective, I have to understand what we are trying to be,” he says, noting that both WHMA and ALTEX need to have a vision, develop and execute plans, and measure results. “It would be great if you could go down a straight line, but we are going to zig and zag. …You’ve got to adjust based on what is going on in the economy and any number of things.”
WHMA’s Executive Director Jim Manke, CAE, describes Bromm is a consummate professional. “[He is] a very solid, strategic thinker with an eye to the future,” Manke says. “He commands respect with the board of directors. …They look to Rick for future initiative.”
One of the biggest challenges Bromm says he faces with the WHMA board is getting to know its members in the limited time afforded by their meetings. In contrast, he works with ALTEX’s employees on a day-to-day basis, so he has much more time to get to know their personalities.
Additionally, while everyone at ALTEX is playing on the same team, the WHMA board is made up of competitors. “We all compete at some level, but it is really quite friendly,” Bromm points out. “We all do different things: Some are military-oriented. Some are medicine-oriented. Some have added capabilities.”
Expanding for the Future
To remain competitive, ALTEX is expanding its facilities. In 2016, ALTEX spent $250,000 to remodel its facility in Westfield, which increased the plant’s capacity by approximately 25 percent by taking advantage of extra space in its existing footprint. That additional space has already been designated for a new project that begins in early 2017.
Noting that ALTEX is on a “pretty rapid growth curve,” Bromm predicts that the company will experience at least 60 percent growth by the end of 2017. To further increase capacity, ALTEX is looking at expanding its 20,000-square-foot operation in Westfield by 50 percent, and it is exploring adding 20,000 square feet to its facility in Nogales, which currently has 10,000 square feet.
ALTEX’s 56 employees in Westfield and its 54 in Nogales have the same skill sets, Bromm notes, adding that the average length of employment at ALTEX is more than eight years.
Where ALTEX assembles a product often depends on which of its facilities is closer to the customer. “Some customers want their product closer to their facilities than others,” he says, adding that the cost of shipping cable and other materials to Mexico and paying tariffs can make assembling products in Nogales more expensive than doing so in Westfield.
ALTEX encourages its customers to visit its Westfield and Nogales plants. “I’m a little hesitant to do business with a company that doesn’t want to come see what we are doing,” he says. “It scares me about their attitude toward quality.”
ALTEX, in turn, visits its customers, in part to glean “tribal knowledge” about how the customers have been assembling the products they are outsourcing to ALTEX. “That helps us understand how we might have to do things to support them,” Bromm says. “That might lead us to buy something we don’t currently have.”
With ALTEX as their strategic partner, customers expect more than just material, labor and overhead, Bromm insists. Customers also expect ALTEX to deliver quality products on time and at competitive pricing. They expect superb customer service, and they expect ALTEX to act like an extension of their manufacturing operations.
“You’re going to get good execution, market pricing, superb customer service and the highest quality,” Bromm promises customers in an ALTEX video. “So as I like to say, you can put your head on your pillow and sleep well at night.”