Reliable Circuits Manufacturing

By Sarah Brodsky | Apr 30, 2023

Company Details


Phoenix, Arizona



Ownership Type





Printed circuit board assembly

After a relocation from California to Phoenix, President Craig Carlson's company is poised to become an integral player in the city's semiconductor renaissance.

Carlson got his start in PCB assembly in 1975 through his family's business. He worked with his stepfather until 2007, when their deteriorating relationship and the financial crisis led them to sell the company.

Carlson had co-founded another company as a backup plan. "When the market crashed, the other partner wanted to get out," he says. But Carlson didn't see any other future for his career. "Nobody wanted anybody who was 50 years old at that point. They were letting anybody who had seniority go, and they were just hiring kids because they were trying to reduce their overhead costs."

Photos Dean Henthorn

Carlson renamed the company Reliable Circuits Manufacturing and kept it going. "I decided just to go ahead and struggle through it," he recalls.

Reliable Circuits Manufacturing prospered in Torrance, California, for a while. Carlson had 15 to 18 employees, 12,000 square feet of space, and the company was bringing in revenue of $900,000 to $1 million a year. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Although a contract for a military client allowed Carlson to keep his machines running while other businesses locked down, he lost a couple hundred thousand dollars trying to keep the business afloat.

In July of 2022, Carlson moved the company to Phoenix, Arizona, hoping to save costs in a more favorable regulatory and tax climate. He wanted to get away from California's COVID policies, which he objected to on moral grounds, and he was also driven by a desire to be closer to his daughter and friends.

He downsized the company to three employees plus some student interns, and they currently occupy 4,000 square feet, although he plans to expand the facility once neighboring tenants' leases are up. In 2023, he predicts revenue of $500,000 to $600,000.

Carlson works mainly with commercial clients and offers full surface-mount assembly, both leaded and lead-free. He still uses thru-hole technology with a few clients who have older board designs.

Fulfilling a new surface mount order starts with checking in the kits and auditing the paperwork. Carlson and his employees then program the circuit board. Next, they set up the stencil printers. "That allows us to squeegee on the solder paste to the circuit board," Carlson says. “We normally do a test board, run that through, make sure everything looks correct and everything's doing what it's supposed to do. Then we'll release that board and go ahead and manufacture the balance of the boards."

They put the boards through the oven and solder the parts to the boards. Then they clean the boards by running them through batch rinse machines that use deionized water. "Basically, they're just glorified dishwashers," Carlson quips. The deionized water is important because it prevents salts from building up on the boards, which would degrade the solder.

The touch-up inspection process follows. At this point, they check for flaws in the solder joints and correct them. They may also add thru-hole parts, either manually or with a wave solder machine, depending on the number of parts and the size of the order.

The boards go back through the cleaning process, and then they're examined by an automated inspection machine. "It's basically a computerized comparator that has a good board in its memory," Carlson says. "That checks to make sure all the right parts are in the right spot. Then they go through a visual inspection." Boards that pass all inspections are then packaged and shipped out.

Carlson upgraded his surface-mount equipment around 2020. The newer machines work faster than his old ones and allow him to fulfill a greater variety of orders. "And I bought more of them, so I wasn't limited from a volume point of view," he adds.

Challenges: Sourcing parts has been a challenge for Carlson during the last few years. When he started the company, 10 percent of his orders were for turnkey assembly. But the turnkey share grew because customers preferred it. "They get a finished product, so that way they don't have to deal with the extra overhead it takes in order to go buy the parts, check them in, all that kind of thing," Carlson says. By the time COVID hit, turnkey orders made up 90 percent of his business.

Then parts became nearly impossible to find. "The only way you could get the parts you needed was through a broker," Carlson says. "They were just jacking the prices way up, because they knew you couldn't get the parts. So, I basically told all my customers, 'I'm not doing this anymore. I want to build your stuff, but you're going to have to go shop the stuff yourself.' I was quoting jobs and losing money, because the price would've already changed within two days after getting the PO."

Carlson expects supply chains to return to normal in about a year. "But if China invades Taiwan, then that could all change," he adds.

Opportunities: Relocating to Phoenix gave Reliable Circuits Manufacturing the chance to be part of the area's burgeoning integrated circuits hub. "They're basically saying this is going to be the next San Jose," Carlson notes. "This will be the electronics semiconductor marketplace for the next 20 years."

Carlson also expects the CHIPS Act to give his business a boost, in time. "I still think it's probably two years out before we really start seeing a difference with it," he says.

Needs: Carlson needs funding to make up for the money his business lost during COVID lockdowns. "That was one of the reasons why I relocated, to hopefully recoup some of my funds down the road," he explains. "I was close to retirement. I'm not very close right now."

Find Partners Like Reliable Circuits Manufacturing on Sustainment

Learn More