Escort – Beltronics Factory Tour
Being involved in the countermeasure industry for over ten years since my retirement from law enforcement, I pretty much have been involved in most facets of the industry from product development, sales and marketing, product reviews to testing. But I felt that there was one important thing missing from my resume, I had never been to an actual factory to see first hand how radar detectors were made.
The Radar detector manufactures have historically kept their production and development methods very secretive because of the competitiveness in the industry. So when Bel/Escort took me up on my request for a tour of their Mississauga plant I was pleasantly surprised to hear, “We would be glad to offer you a tour.”
On Monday, June 9th, the managers of Radarbusters.com, Marina and Steve and I all flew into the Buffalo Airport. From there we were driven 90 minutes to the CN Tower in Toronto, where we met the executive staff of Escort/Bel for dinner.
Their CEO, Greg Blair, welcomed us and introduced his executive team. The newest member, President and Chief Operating Officer John Larson, had been a senior executive at General Motors with extensive background in sales, marketing and fiscal management. Greg related that he was impressed with the staff in that they take so much pride in what they do and that he was excited to take on his new responsibilities with a company that is so focused on excellence.
Greg related that earlier that day, they had broken ground on their new manufacturing plant in Mississauga and expected its grand opening in the early part of 2008. Greg explained that this new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility will enable them to meet the growing demands of the expanding radar detector industry in the years ahead.
The next morning, we all met at the Escort/Beltronics plant. Hanging above the plant’s main entrance I took notice their registration to ISO 9001 certification. ISO 9001 is a family of standards maintained by the International Organization for Standardization. Several of the principles of the ISO 9001 registration include: Checking outgoing products for defects, with appropriate corrective action where necessary; regularly reviewing processes and quality assurance systems and facilitating continued improvement.
Once gathered inside in their conference room, I was given an opportunity to field questions from radar detector enthusiasts of the Radardetector.net forum. Greg graciously answered questions and commented that a lot of their ideas come directly from the customer/user and that they value their customers’ input.
In preparation for the tour, Greg explained that they are the only radar detector company that still manufactures their units from the ground up in North America. Although one other radar detector company still claims that their product are made in the USA, the vast majority of the parts are assembled by a remote contract manufacture. Greg explained that Escort/Bel was dedicated to keeping all their manufacturing/engineering within North America to maintain a high level of performance and to be able to recruit top level staff. As an example, one recent addition to the plant included an employee who had experience with the laser missile guidance systems.
Hani AbdelGalil, the Vice President of plant operations, then outfitted us with protective ware to shield the electronics from static electricity. Hani explained that several of the electronic parts used inside a radar detector could be damaged if they came in contact with static discharges. He related that this damage may not be apparent immediately but could take several days or months to manifest, so it was extremely important for us to follow his guidance prior to handling of any products.
There are seperate teams that manufacture Bel and Escort products, however throughout the tour, each staff member we spoke with stressed their commitment to product reliability and quality assurance for the entire product line.
Hanging on the wall in the Inspection Team’s office were parts used in their detectors, packaged in individual sealed plastic bags and labeled. The Quality Manager Ahmed explained before any electronic component or part is entered into their inventory, his staff examines and tests them to ensure it meets their high standards. Also at any stage during the manufacturing process, members of the quality assurance team will pull random samples from the production line. Hani explained that it is very important to catch a problem early as possible in the manufacturing process, to prevent it from becoming a larger problem.
From this office we proceeded to the main factory floor to the surface mount technology (SMT) line, which I would consider the birth of the production process. The radar detector circuit boards, four to each panel, are stacked up on a conveyor belt to enter its respective machine. As each panel is rolled into the SMT, solder paste is applied to the areas where components are inserted. Located to at the rear of the machine, are numerous reels each containing individual radar detector components. Once the panel of circuit boards (four individual boards) are set into the machine two rows of robotic vacuum fingers remove individual components from a corresponding reel, placing them into the correct position on the board(s). The boards are then flipped over and this entire process is repeated with different components.
I stood in awe and watched as the SMT programmed to build the 9500i, built four complete boards in less than two minutes.
There were a number of other SMT units, all operational and programmed for other radar detectors such as the STi, SR7 and the 8500 X50.
From here, the boards rolled on a conveyor belt into an oven, programmed for different heating levels at different stages. This process bonds the solder base to the individual components on both sides of the board.
As the boards exited the oven, they were evenly stacked into bin for the next production cycle.
Hani then walked us to the next stage where a group of individuals were seated, each having a high powered microscope and tools at their workstation to handle very small microprocessors. Hani related that first each board was examined to make sure that the parts were properly seated. Hani then showed me a gel pad that was no larger than a postage stamp that contained tiny microprocessors. He explained that these parts were so small, that the only way that they could be properly positioned on the board was to do them by hand under a microscope. After each board passed inspection, each team member would place several of these microprocessors onto the board.
From this station, the circuit boards moved onto their respective final assembly team. There are numerous teams, each dedicated to an individual product line. Hani explained that each member is cross-trained in each step of the final assembly respective to their product and that they rotate positions on a regular basis. He explained that this is done, so each member is proficient in each stage of the final assembly and gives each member a sense of “ownership” of the manufacturing process. This also allows team members to inspect the product for defects and gives them the knowledge of the process to suggest improvements. This also eliminates the potential for complaints that are often expressed in other manufacturing plants where an employee may have a gripe about one stage of the process without being cognizant of the process as a whole.
We entered into the Passport 8500 X50 assembly area to the first workstation, where the programming and tuning of the detector takes place. A circuit board was placed onto a holder while the operator pressed a few buttons on a computer keyboard that began the programming cycle.
Hani related that many of their competitors’ have as many as six small variable tuning capacitors that must each be tune by hand. This tuning method is susceptible to mistuning or can later cause it fall out of frequency.
All of the Bel/Escort products use microprocessors instead of these tuning capacitors. This allows for a stable and precise tuning across all the important police radar bands and removes any chance of programming/operator error.
After the detector is tuned and programmed, it is moved to another computer where a stage of calibration tests is performed. If the detector fails, it is tagged and removed from the line and given to an engineer who is tasked with finding the fault.
At the next station workers attach and solder the earphone jack, volume control/power switch, power jack and speaker.
From there the detector is placed into its case and a rubber band is placed around the unit (as the casing has not been screwed down yet) and the unit is powered up for testing.
Here the radar detector is placed into an isolation chamber and performance tested across all police radar and laser bands. Again, if the detector does not meet their high standards it is removed from the line and given to a QA Engineer to identify the fault.
After the final performance test, the radar detector case is screwed together, and the unit is packaged with its accessories.
We then moved to other assembly areas and watched the same process unfold for their other radar detector lines. One test I found particularity intriguing was the STi’s final “stealth” test where each STi was placed into an isolation chamber that had an actual Spectre III RDD.
This was my most enjoyable and educational experience I have had in my ten years with this industry.
It was very refreshing to witness firsthand the commitment to quality and excellence from the Escort/Beltronics executive staff, all the way down to the production line worker.
It is because of this level of commitment that Escort and Beltronics are leaders in the radar detector industry and for that I applaud them!