The Industrial Age has merged with the Information Age on factory floors around the world, as industrial machines increasingly "talk" about their health and work with their human masters.
A Tucson company is quietly thriving by making sure those vital conversations go smoothly.
Dataforth Corp., a 29-year-old spinoff of the former Burr-Brown Corp., has built a niche designing and making electronics to monitor and manage industrial equipment for customers ranging from automakers to mining companies.
Dataforth's main products - signal conditioning, data acquisition and data communications devices - essentially allow machines to "talk" with one another and with their human masters as well, with signals.
Signal conditioners assure the message gets through loud and clear, while data-acquisition devices allow real-time monitoring of conditions like equipment status or temperature or vibration at a particular juncture.
Dataforth, which has nearly 50 employees and annual sales of about $10 million, has built a worldwide clientele spanning multiple industries. Customers include industrial system providers, major automakers and industrial giants like General Electric, Westinghouse, Allison Transmission, Caterpillar and Toshiba, as well as defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
"There's a few other companies around the world that do this, but we feel we have the most reliable and consistent products," said Robert Smith, Dataforth vice president of marketing and sales.
Building on that legacy, Dataforth is growing with new products and a recent physical expansion of its south-side operations.
In January, Dataforth expanded into a second building at 6230 S. Country Club Road, adding 17,000 square feet to the 12,000 square feet at the company's headquarters just up the road at 3331 E. Hemisphere Loop.
The new facility houses all of Dataforth's manufacturing and test operations, as well as the warehouse, shipping and receiving, while engineering and administration are handled at the old building.
With an inventory of some 1,200 products and the ability to customize devices, Dataforth managed to weather the recession and its lingering effects relatively unscathed.
The company once employed more than 100 workers, but it has reduced its staff through attrition over the years as it increased automation, said Smith, a former manager at Burr-Brown.
"Through the recovery, we're remained flat (staffwise), but we've never had a layoff," he said.
A focus on export business - which now comprises about 30 percent of the company's sales - has helped Dataforth through the volatile economic times, he said. The company has a network of more than 130 distributors worldwide and sales offices in Germany and China.
Dataforth got help in building its export business from the U.S. Commercial Service/Export Assistance Office in Tucson. In 2010, Dataforth's export success was recognized with an Excellence in International Business Award from the Arizona District Export Council.
"An excellent example"
"They set an excellent example for Southern Arizona technology exporters," said Eric Nielsen, director of the U.S. Commercial Service for Arizona. "In spite of their relatively small size, their approach to international markets is highly focused and strategic."
While the company makes a point of stocking and supporting its products for years, the company plans to build on a new industrial data-acquisition and control system it rolled out last year.
"We've got a really good reputation in the industry - people trust us that our products are going to last a long time and they won't have trouble with them," Smith said.
That reputation for quality is born on Dataforth's high-tech factory floor, which is overseen by Dataforth operations manager Joel Lohr, another Burr-Brown veteran.
"Pick and place"
An assembly line is built in a horseshoe arrangement, starting with a line where printed circuit boards pre-treated with soldering paste are fed via conveyor into a robotic, high-speed "pick-and-place" machine.
The machine rapidly populates the boards with individual components such as transistors, resistors and microprocessors, under the watchful eyes of operators who can zoom in on individual components to make sure they are properly mounted.
After a 90-degree turn, the boards are flipped over for surface-mounting of components on the other side, turned again and sent through another parts placer. Then they travel through a linear oven that melts the solder in place.
Rough and tumble
After they come out of the solder oven, the boards are finished by workers who solder connections to larger components and add housings.
Once inspected, all components go into special cabinets for a 48-hour "burn-in" period at about 150 degrees, to simulate operations in harsh factory conditions.
Quality is a major focus but rarely a problem at Dataforth, whose processes are certified under the ISO9001:2008 international quality-control standard.
The company's parts pass muster 98.5 percent of the time in initial testing and 99.5 percent of the time in secondary testing, Lohr said.
"We've had months that go by where nothing came back" because of failure, he said.
After they pass testing, each component is encased in a nonconductive plastic goop that hardens to protect them from vibration and other hazardous conditions.
"These things are going to be in the cabinets in the bottom of the shop, not necessarily in an air-conditioned place, maybe next to a furnace - they're going to be in a rough-and-tumble industrial environment," Lohr said.
Lohr credits the company's reputation for quality to its roughly 30 manufacturing employees, who earn $12 to $18 an hour and work nine-hour days with every other Friday off in each two-week pay period.
The factory workers, many of them longtime employees, dismantled and moved the assembly line from the old building themselves, Lohr noted.
About a half-block to the east, Dataforth's engineers are working on the next generation of the company's products.
In May 2012, the company rolled out its MAQ20 industrial data acquisition and control system, a modular system that can be set up to monitor various conditions and display them on a customizable computer display, either as data or as a diagram of the subject system.
While the MAQ20 isn't aimed at the large manufacturing market - dominated by behemoths like Seimens and Honeywell - it is designed to give smaller manufacturers a more complete system, Smith said.
The new system can be paired with Dataforth's own ReDAQ Shape data and control software, or IPEmotion, test and measurement software provided by a German partner.
For example, Smith said, with ReDAQ, a customer could set up the system with a real-time diagram of the manufacturing process, with a depiction of a supply vessel showing the level of liquid as it is used up.
A MAQ20 system set up on a generator could monitor things like shaft speed, temperature and voltage levels, with various alarms set to go off when certain conditions reach critical levels, Smith said.
The MAQ20 system already features Internet connections for remote monitoring and data gathering, and the company is working on a system to send critical alerts via email and smartphone, Smith said.
The company also is looking at developing wireless data-acquisition products, but Smith said the market isn't quite ready yet.
"Wireless is building more and more acceptance," Smith said, noting that concerns over the security of wireless networks remain.
Did you Know?
Dataforth was one of several companies spun off from the former Burr-Brown Corp., which was founded in Tucson by electronics pioneers Tom Brown and Page Burr in 1956 and grew to a payroll of 1,200 and a leading position in world electronics manufacturing.
Burr-Brown was acquired by Texas Instruments Inc. in 2000 in a stock deal valued at $7.6 billion.
Most of Burr-Brown's spinoffs were sold off, but Dataforth and Tucson-based Intelligent Instrumentation Inc., both spun off in 1984, continue as independent companies.
At a glance
• Founded: 1984
• Business: Maker of data acquisition, signal conditioning and data communication products for industrial applications
• Address: 3331 E. Hemisphere Loop
• Top executive: Lee Payne, president
• Employees: 49
ABOUT THE SERIES
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