By Ben Wiese | May 21, 2023
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mil-spec and decorative electroplating
Since purchasing the business from his parents in 1994, Velasquez and his wife, Jessica, have maintained the company's original scope.
"What it still comes down to is creating a product that combines the characteristics of materials," says Velasquez. "For instance, in a really pedestrian application, you have a steel part, but you don't want it to rust. So, you might nickel plate it or chrome plate it, so you have the outer coating doing one thing and the structure of the part doing another. Sometimes a customer will specify multiple coatings on one part, and they're trying to tweak the material science in order to get a single item to do what multiple materials can do."
Currently, Velasquez is working on improving Theta Plate's market share within the company's biggest customer bases. "The aerospace industry was very big in the 1970s, so my parents had a lot of experience doing exotic, less plug-and-chug kind of work," he explains. "Today, by volume of parts, we're probably doing more decorative and medium-tech work -- electronics, jewelry, and instruments. But by the dollar, the majority of our work is still aerospace, natural labs, and defense work."
Inherent to the plating process is its place within the order of manufacturing operations. Usually last in line before a product crosses the finish, the ISO 9001-certified business has grown accustomed to working efficiently to help clients meet deadlines.
"By the time the part comes to us, everybody else's delays have sort of stacked up," says Velasquez. "We're usually trying to make up for lost time in order to get the customer what they want as soon as possible. Anybody at the tail end of the production process will face the same pressures of getting it done quickly but not getting it wrong. We've been really focused on making sure we're efficient."
By cross-training employees and working collaboratively from the get-go, Theta Plate is able to swiftly move through orders at a rate that many contemporaries are unable to match while simultaneously keeping a high level of accountability throughout.
"Some of our peers in the industry will take two, four, eight, or even 10 weeks to get a job done while we'll take a week or two," Velasquez says. "Part of that is because we're not a huge facility, so we can't afford to let things stack up. Projects have to get out as quickly as they get in. Since we’re structured as an open collaborative, everyone is pretty accountable. You can see what's working, and what's not. Very few things get stuck in the corner, so to speak."
Located in an industrial part of Albuquerque, Theta Plate's team of 10 operates out of a 6,000-square-foot manufacturing space. About 4,000 square feet are dedicated to production, and the remaining space is split between offices, storage, and a lab.
Because it has focused on niche production runs, Theta Plate has had to prioritize maintaining manufacturing flexibility. This can mean multiple team members switching roles during a project or for specific members to stick with multiple roles, depending on the situation.
"Since we're small and not doing high-volume production, we have to stay flexible," says Velasquez. "People tend to have their strong suits. If one aspect of a production is particularly difficult, then one person tends to do it. But we do try to cross train, and we have an open floor plan facility -- people can see and get involved at any stage. Everybody wears many hats."
Theta Plate uses local vendors for its metals and primarily buys all of its supplies American-made. But even in late spring of 2023, supply chain issues are continuing. "It’s difficult to guess what won't be available next," says Velasquez. "We try not to let stocks get low and buy two of everything, but we've still dealt with some supply chain issues like everyone else."
Challenges: While Theta Plate once had a surplus of talent to pick from when there was staff turnover, that is no longer the case: Velasquez has found it quite difficult to fill the gaps when experiencing staffing changes.
"There used to be a pool of people who had experience in my field, but the field has really shrunk over the last 20 years," he explains. "So, there aren't many people coming into this field, and the perennial complaint is that the new crop of young people don't work the way the older workers would."
Opportunities: As a result of its longstanding credibility and consistent performance, Theta Plate was recently elevated to a new level of recognition and visibility as an electroplater in the U.S. -- a huge marketing victory for the company that is quite likely to land Velasquez new business.
"We were recently audited by Sandia National Labs and got moved up to tier-three status as a vendor, which put us in the bulletin board of national lab communities," says Velasquez. "Rather than marketing in a traditional way, we've been focused on finding our way up to the next vendor level, earning new certifications, in order to connect with new businesses."
Needs: Though the company has progressed in its bid to become the go-to for clients in its targeted fields, Velasquez has been pressed to commit further into niche markets in order to adjust to the new industry realities.
"There is less demand for what we do these days, so we've had to shift around and think hard in order to stay relevant," he adds. "My direction has not been to do high-volume work but instead to be more of a boutique and focus on niche opportunities."