Amidst a global pandemic and an economy in turmoil, ham radios are still in high demand. Kirk Olson, Contract Manufacturing Liaison and Program Manager, talks about the decision to take manufacturing in-house, what the transition was like, and how it’s made the Austin-based heavy-hitter of ham radio even better.
Kirk Olson came on board FlexRadio with a background in systems engineering and systems development with over 30 years in Outsourced Contract Manufacturing and Engineering, with an emphasis on high discipline processes for Medical Devices. In the year or so that he’s been in the manufacturing driver’s seat at FlexRadio, the world has changed a lot, but with Olson at the helm, FlexRadio has changed with it — without missing a beat.
What is your title and how did you end up at FlexRadio?
My current title is Contract Manufacturing Liaison and Program Manager at FlexRadio. When I was first hired at the company, I was hired as a contract manufacturing liaison, overseeing all facets of manufacturing. This was prior to even thinking about bringing the operation in-house. But when the pandemic hit and affected how we had to look at production, a lot changed quickly. Suddenly we were faced with some big challenges and decisions to make. So, while COVID has created its obvious hurdles, plenty of amazing opportunities have come with it.
How did the decision to bring manufacturing in-house come about?
Not long after I started, our contract manufacturing plant in San Antonio shut down, primarily due to their business being affected by the pandemic. We had to find a solution quickly, so that’s what we did. The decision was to just use a contract manufacturer for board level builds and then do final radio assembly and all radio testing in-house. We are now working with a contract manufacturer right here in Austin. It’s literally six miles door-to-door from our current facility. They do all the board level manufacturing, but the “magic” of assembly happens here at FlexRadio.
What would you say is the best part of having the assembly taking place in-house?
FlexRadio is a product made in the USA. This was truly a move to ensure the FlexRadio brand could continue to live up to that promise.
When we were outsourcing to other contract manufacturers, we found that final quality and cosmetics standards could not be met as easily. Quality and delivery can now be controlled by a core team built around the core values of FlexRadio.
What was it like to get the whole in-house operation up and running?
Three months ago, we literally gutted a building. We took out a bunch of walls and carpet and transformed a space of nothingness into a full-scale manufacturing facility in four weeks. We then built and completed our first unit within six weeks of establishing an in-house manufacturing operation. It was pretty amazing. FlexRadio has shipped a significant number of radios since then and is still building and catching up with the backlog that was created during this downtime.
How were you able to get the operation up and running so quickly?
The transition was fairly seamless, mostly because FlexRadio had existing relationships with suppliers and virtually all components were obtainable from contract manufacturers locally. This kept the stamp of assembled in the USA intact, even during the transition to full, in-house operations.
Can you tell me about the team you’ve assembled up to now?
We currently have 10 people total, all with different skill sets — shipping, receiving, manufacturing, testing, service, and inventory. Six of the team members are well-versed in manufacturing and the other four team members’ strengths are in other areas. So, while most of the team has focused on product build, the remaining team members have been learning the ropes on material management and planning.
What have been some of your biggest challenges thus far?
We are running very, very fast. No one expected we would produce a radio in six weeks. But one of the most unexpected pluses that’s come out of this transition is on the engineering side. Since bringing manufacturing in-house, engineering’s involvement in the manufacturing process is much greater. Because we own and see the hurdles and challenges in real-time, our engineers now have the ability to make necessary changes from an engineering perspective. We get better. And get better faster.
Do you see the in-house operation growing?
We will certainly expand over time. Right now, all the necessary minds and critical roles are in place. Because we have such multi-talented and cross functional employees, we are single-handedly building, testing, and shipping radios with just our existing core team. Everyone on board knows the product so intimately and that’s working to our advantage in so many ways.
Overall, what does the future of an in-house operation hold for FlexRadio?
Once our board house and our in-house manufacturing is fully up and running, our main goals is to go from orders being placed, to building a radio, and shipping it in a matter of days. It is truly a build-to-order model. This brings a lot of pride to our team. It’s a neat transition, being able to take what we used to outsource and bring it in-house and control the final product’s quality for your customers. It’s very hands-on, very high touch, and very personal. And the people (that make up our team) are truly awesome.