Manufacturing Awards 2013: Agilent builds out testing infrastructure

SANTA ROSA -- Despite its thriving factory in Malaysia, Agilent Technologies in Santa Rosa is still very much a manufacturing company.

About one-third of the 1,200-employees of the Electronic Measurement group headquartered here, plus many temporary contractors, are engaged in building and testing products -- more than 1,000 different instruments, models and sub assemblies -- according to Patrick Harper, manager of technology order fulfillment.

[caption id="attachment_76709" align="alignleft" width="315"] Agilent employees working in the company's Santa Rosa integrated circuit fabrication area[/caption]

“That should lay to rest any worries about Agilent abandoning manufacturing in Santa Rosa,” said Mr. Harper.

Indeed, Agilent would be hard-pressed to abandon the seven separate manufacturing lines it operates on every level of the four main buildings at its sprawling Fountaingrove Parkway campus.

On the top level a multi-million dollar integrated circuit fabrication operation turns out the wafers that go into the complex circuitry of the company’s test and measurement instruments. Thin film circuits, an important component of radio frequency and microwave circuits, are manufactured in clean rooms nearby.

“These are operations that can’t be outsourced because we do things no one else can do,” said Mr. Harper.  Because Agilent uses its own equipment to test its own products, the company has achieved a level of quality and innovation that’s unmatched anywhere in the world, he said.

[caption id="attachment_76710" align="alignright" width="314"] Agilent employees[/caption]

On the middle level, three different assembly and testing facilities put together Agilent’s current line of products. The products change constantly as company engineers devise new ways of testing equipment created by an evolving electronic communications industry.

Because its products must meet the exacting standards of the world’s biggest manufacturers of electronics, each one is tested exhaustively. To save time and worker fatigue Agilent engineers devised a testing robot unlike anything in operation anywhere.

A robot moves products along a track among 26 different testing machines, condensing weeks of work into days. Two of these testing lines, called Yellowstone by its creators, can operate 24 hours a day for seven days if needed.

Still, there are operations so delicate they must be performed by hand.

“The machines can’t always match the human touch yet,” said Mr. Harper. Skilled technicians and assemblers are needed to apply just the right amount of torque to a connecting cable for example, sensing the exact moment when to stop.

Agilent’s assemblers work at stations surrounded by all the components they will need for a particular product, all bundled or preassembled by materials handlers in a plant of their own on the lower level. Here also are the precision milling and metal fabrication operations.

There is very little that can’t be manufactured at Agilent. An engineer with a bright idea for a new product has only to select among an array of raw materials to build a prototype from design to assembly to testing with no waste of time.

 “Research and development is critical to Agilent’s success so we want no barriers between an idea and its implementation,” said Mr. Harper.

If a new testing product has a large enough market to justify volume production the manufacturing will be shifted to Malaysia, but only after it’s been proven robust by Agilent’s Santa Rosa engineers.

Low volume and specialized products will continue to be manufactured in Santa Rosa, all the way from wafer fabrication to packing and shipping. 

We still do ‘dirt to dollar’ manufacturing in Santa Rosa -- it all happens here,” said Mr. Harper.

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