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High tech and growing
"Chances are that if you've ever used an airline telephone, plugged into a computer network, been treated with a medical laser, enjoyed a latte or scrubbed your bicuspids with an electric toothbrush, you may very well have used electronic components assembled at Technical Services, Inc. on the outskirts of Oak Harbor.Oh, and if you ever catch a tuna with a circuit board on its back, you can be pretty sure it too came from Technical Services.The company, which puts together boards covered with complex electronic circuitry for a wide variety of applications, started in 1973 just off Goldie Road north of the city. Today, it's grown to a $26 million operation, employing about 150 people working two shifts and occupying 37,000 feet of manufacturing and warehouse space.And it's still growing. Technical Services recently applied to the county to expand its operation to 100,000 square feet. The proposed expansion will be located adjacent to the current facility and will occur in two phases.We're wall to wall here. We should have had this expansion a year ago, said company president Dee Boothe. Plus we'd like to pick up some new business. Currently the company's main customer base is along the Interstate 5 corridor, but it also serves clients as far away as New York, Kansas and Nevada.Inside the highly clean work space, employees operate computer-assisted equipment that can pick up and place 15,000 tiny electronic components per hour. Others scan and test completed circuits for accuracy and quality. Still others sit before large magnifiers assembling circuits by hand - a slower but highly skilled, no less exacting process. A circuit board can have more than 1,200 parts on it by the time its finished. Some of Technical Services circuit boards have gone into calculators for the bond market or into semi trucks where they convert 12-volt battery power into 110-volts so that long-haul drivers can plug in a TV or microwave oven when they pull over for the night. Other boards are used in communication devices on aircraft, in industrial laser equipment and even in computerized latte-making machines.For several years the company built circuitry for the Sonicare brand toothbrush and in defibrillators used to treat heart attack victims. Currently Technical Services is assembling computer networking boxes that allow computers to hook up to a variety of servers and peripheral equipment.One of the most unique circuits the company puts together is one that is installed into living tuna. The tiny device tracks things such as depth and water temperature as the fish swims with its school in the open ocean.Boothe has been with the company since 1975, and foresees a strong future. There's a lot of work out there if the economy keeps going, he said. Rather than trying to stay on top of manufacturing trends, Boothe said major players in the technology industry now contract out assembly work to companies such as Technical Services. That's great for business, he said, but it puts pressure on his company to stay current.You can hardly keep up with the industry, said Boothe. You have to continually invest in the newest equipment. Advancing technology keeps newer, faster and more reliable assembly equipment coming on the market all the time. It's not cheap either. Just one line of state-of-the-art board builders at Technical Services cost more than $800,000. The cost of labor has to stay competitive as well. A readily accessible and lower cost pool of workers is part of what attracted Technical Services to the Oak Harbor area in the first place. The business provides many jobs to Navy spouses. Such an employee base creates some turnover problems, but Boothe said many employees have been with the firm for more than 20 years.Nevertheless, Boothe said the company has already lost some assembly business to countries such as Mexico and China where employee wages are much lower. People want these things as cheap as they can get them, he said. You just can't compete in those markets.Luckily, foreign countries tend to deal only with large, high-volume firms, leaving businesses like Technical Services to carve out a niche among medium and smaller clients. To stay competitive the company still needs to use more automation as it grows. When it moves into its much larger facility, about 50 new jobs will be created, said Boothe. Much of the new space will be used for more robotic equipment and warehousing. Even so, Technical Services will remain one of the area's largest employers and represents the kind of high tech, industrial park-style operation city business leaders are trying to encourage. As evidenced by its growth plans, Boothe said Technical Services intends to stay on Whidbey rather than move to the mainland, even though a mainland location would put them closer to their clients and shipping hubs.We much prefer the lifestyle here to the madness of the city, he said. "