PETALUMA – Small Precision Tools Inc. of Petaluma specializes in manufacturing tools and components with microscopic dimensions — sometimes narrower than a human hair — for producing tiny-sized products, mainly computer chips and devices for medical and dental treatment.
The company is part of SPT Roth Ltd., a 900-employee Roth family-owned global group based in Switzerland. Three-quarters of global sales come from the semiconductor industry and the rest for medical and dental solutions. The largest plant is in China, followed soon by an expanded Philippines operation, the headquarters operation in Switzerland, the Petaluma factory and one in Singapore.
The 25,000-square-foot Petaluma plant mainly makes computer chip-bonding wire and tooling as well as medical components.
“We have the lion’s share of the wire bonding in the industry,” said Bob Whitlock, general manager.
Globally, SPT has the largest share — 40 percent — of the market for semiconductor wire bonding, a process that connects chips to other parts of a circuit board via gold, aluminum or copper wires so small several could fit across a hair.
The soaring cost of gold in recent years, now nearly $1,600 per troy ounce, has spurred a number of semiconductor manufacturers to switch to wire bonding with copper, according to Mr. Whitlock. Gold was trading around $1,575 per troy ounce last week, compared with $3.40 per pound for copper. SPT since the 1980s has been making capillary tooling through which the connector wire is fed and “stitch” welded components.
The switch to copper will turn into more sales, because capillaries last for 1.3 million to 3 million “touches” with gold wire but only one-third of that with copper wire, Mr. Whitlock said.
Another semiconductor fabrication product are die-bonding tooling, which carefully but efficiently move trimmed integrated circuits off adhesive material and into position for assembly.
The company as a whole makes a lot of injection-molded ceramic dental components such as inconspicuous orthodontic brace brackets and implant anchors, producing them largely in Switzerland. The Petaluma plant makes medical components such as flow cytometers that break up bodily fluids at high speeds of 70,000 to 100,000 cycles per second for high-tech analysis of cells and devices used to clear blocked arteries.
Major local customers include Agilent Technologies in Santa Rosa and Medtronic operations in Southern California and Puerto Rico.
Holding to exacting precision can be challenging when job candidates for operating production equipment tend to be largely unskilled, according to Mr. Whitlock. Yet the company’s staff of mechanical and electrical engineers came up with a solution.
“Early on, we created machinery so new operators so that at the end of a two-week period they are holding to high tolerances,” he said.
The engineers incorporated video cameras into the equipment, so operators quickly could compare the produced tool with an image of what it is supposed to look like.
Small Precision Tools incorporated in San Rafael in 1969 and expanded to Petaluma in 1986. Started in 1890 as a maker of high-precision watch jewels, Peter Roth Co. acquired Small Precision Tools in 1974 and changed the group name to that. The company expanded to Singapore in 1979, the Philippines in 1991 and China in 1995.
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