From its founding in 1964, Mars International has combined technical and business savvy to adapt successfully to a changing world
By Mark Shortt
Throughout its nearly 60-year history, Mars International has closely observed customers’ requirements, changing technologies, and global economic trends. Whether they were making the leap from component distributor to full PCB assembly manufacturer, adding engineering and product development services, or later putting those capabilities to work in developing a cloud-based server platform, Mars International’s executive teams have proven adept at responding to market needs by crafting new services to meet them.
“The company was started by my father in the early 1960s and initially, we were a component distributor,” said Geoff Engelstein, president and owner of Mars International, from his office in Piscataway, New Jersey, in an interview with Design-2-Part. “We were one of the first distributors for Panasonic, distributing capacitors, resistors, relays, things like that.”
In the ’70s, Mars shifted away from doing component distribution for many of its customers who were then looking for full, assembled printed circuit boards. That’s when the company began taking on printed circuit board assembly projects.
“Initially, most of our work was being done overseas,” Engelstein said. “That was the focus for the company for many years.”
Engelstein is an affable, well-spoken executive with a deep engineering and educational background, having graduated with degrees in physics and electrical engineering from MIT, where he also studied ancient history. His qualifications were a perfect fit for what the company was seeking to do by the time the late ’80s rolled around.
“I was specifically brought on to create an engineering department and head it up,” he told D2P. “We had decided that just being able to offer contract manufacturing services for people was valuable, but we felt that we could offer more value to people—and it would help our growth—if we could actually design products for folks and really partner with them for full product development.”
As Engelstein settled into his new role, Mars began building products like garage door opener transmitters and receivers, infrared safety systems, and paper towel dispensers. The company established a full engineering and product development service, offering mechanical design, electrical design, and software development.
“We started right out of the gate with a full suite of development services, and our engineering and development services through the ’90s and the 2000s really accelerated our growth,” Engelstein said. “And then, about 10 years ago, we brought a bunch of our manufacturing back to New Jersey. Now we’re doing a lot of the PCB manufacturing back here in the States.”
Today, Mars offers full PCB assembly services at its New Jersey facility, including surface mount and through-hole assemblies. The company also performs light assembly work, as well as test fixture development and assembly.
“We’re not a super high-volume manufacturer. If you’re looking for 50,000 pieces a month, we’re not going to be your guys. But if we’re focused on low- to mid-range quantities, high complexity and quality requirements is really our sweet spot.”
The company’s manufacturing operations are supported by an engineering team that offers expertise from software to embedded design to mechanical and electronic engineering.
“The one thing we don’t do in house yet is app development,” Engelstein said. “We do server development. We actually have a server product, so if people want to have a cloud server, collecting data from their devices, or whatever, we have ways to do that.”
Design-2-Part caught up with Geoff Engelstein recently to hear his insights on Mars International’s evolution as a company, its engineering and PCB assembly capabilities, and how it’s adapting to today’s market challenges. Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Design-2-Part: What prompted you to bring your PCB assembly manufacturing back to New Jersey?
Geoff Engelstein: Initially, part of it was our growth. We felt that it was going to be faster if we could do [stateside manufacturing] for short runs, to get things going. But it really shifted into high gear once the tariffs started hitting, from China, along with some of the geopolitical concerns that people started having about doing things overseas, and, obviously, the supply chain issues. They have all created this real sense of urgency about having at least a portion of your manufacturing base here in the U.S., to give you more flexibility.
D2P: Please tell us a little bit about your PCB assembly capabilities. What are your strengths in this area, and why should companies choose your services?
GE: On the PCB assembly side, we’ve got a lot of expertise in it. We’ve been doing contract manufacturing in this area since the 1970s, so we have a tremendous amount of experience.
I would say about half the products that we design are things that we manufacture, but the other half are things where people have walked in and said, ‘Here, just make this for me.’ But even on those, we take our expertise and our engineering, and we review them. We’ll see if there are opportunities for improvement—to ease the assembly, or for cost improvements, for availability of components—and also work with people for testing because people often don’t think about how they’re going to test their circuit boards until the very end.
So, I think that our experience of doing this for decades, coupled with our in-house engineering, helps us take our contract manufacturing to a really strong place.
D2P: In designing and building many types of products, engineering teams need to have expertise in areas like electronics, mechanical engineering, software, and firmware. How does it help to have this wide base of engineering knowledge and capabilities?
GE: In general, when you’re doing any kind of engineering and manufacturing, development is complex. There are a lot of different things that all need to work together. Any time you’ve got company A working on this, company B working on that, and company C working on another, if there are issues with that interface, it can create problems and finger pointing.
So if I’m doing the hardware development, but you’ve hired another company to do the software, if there’s a problem once those two go together, then it’s unclear whose responsibility it’s going to be to fix it. But by having the full package, where somebody can come to us and do one-stop shopping, we’ve found that it typically will get you to market the fastest. Because if there’s a problem, it’s our problem. There are not a lot of those first steps of trying to figure out what’s really going on.
D2P: Do you consider engineering to be one of the company’s strengths?
GE: Yes, I think that we’ve got an extremely strong engineering team here in the States.
We’ve dealt with a lot of companies that make things in China, and they maybe even had their manufacturer [in China] design the product for them. It worked out great for them until, all of a sudden, they started jacking up the prices or they encountered quality issues. Then they wanted to take their product and move it someplace else, and they realized they didn’t actually own the design. They didn’t have any real recourse there because it was over in China and they weren’t going to try to sue people, and they were kind of up the creek.
We really wanted to be able to offer very strong engineering services here in the U.S.—a full service—but also make sure it was clear that our customers owned the design. When it’s done and everything is set, it’s their design, and they can take it and manufacture it anywhere that they want.
I think that having a really good, strong core engineering team here, locally—a lot of our customers have gotten value out of that. If there’s a problem, you just pick up the phone and try to figure out what’s going on, or come down and all meet as a team and work through issues, or work through initial specification development, and things like that.
D2P: Could you talk a little bit about your Ciqada platform—what it does and the advantages it provides?
GE: Sure, that’s our cloud based server platform. About 10 years ago, we started to see that it was going to be more and more important to have devices that could talk to the internet, or be connected to the internet in some fashion. Now, it’s called the internet of things, but it wasn’t called IoT back then.
So we made a concerted effort to develop a specific expertise in that area. We hired some new people and did some training for our existing people to really understand the techniques—using Wi-Fi and cellular and Zigbee and all those different things to communicate. And as part of that, we saw an opportunity to develop our own cloud server product.
Basically, when a device wants to connect to the internet, there’s got to be somewhere that it goes to deliver its data. Users also have to be able to go onto a website or use an app to access that data and a few dashboards, or get alerts and see what’s going on. Rather than create a separate cloud based service every time somebody wants one, we created a generic, highly configurable service, which we call Ciqada.
Somebody might come to us and say, ‘We make water pumps, and I want my water pump to send data, or, if there’s a failure or something, I want it to send a message.’ There’s going to be a certain amount of development, but very quickly, we can spin up and configurate with their logo, and have messages look the way that they want them to look. And, usually, we can do a demonstration of having devices send that data up there, within a couple of weeks. We’ve found that once people see it in action, they come up with all kinds of other ideas of things that can happen.
Another feature is that it helps automate, in a secure fashion, firmware updates in the field. So you can do automatic, over-the-air (OTA) updates of firmware and products. We kind of take it (these updates) a little bit for granted on a bunch of different products, but there are still a lot of devices that have embedded software that’s not set up to be updatable in the field. And if you can do it in a secure way, it’s a real game changer for people to be able to push out new features and fix issues.
D2P: Do Ciqada’s applications include devices like portable Wi-Fi?
GE: Yes, that’s what it’s for, whether it’s a home device or a commercial device. It lets you put out changes and improvements to the products, rather than just buying products that are fixed with the software inside them.
The issue is, of course, you want to make sure that you’re doing that in a secure way. Anything that can be updated is a potential vector for malware. So, we have taken great efforts to have certificate based updates, so that the devices use encryption to make sure they’re talking to a valid server, and that packages are checked against a specific manifest. There’s a lot of thought that goes into that, and a lot of companies don’t want to have to deal with those issues. They just know they need their water pump connected to the internet, and they don’t want to worry about the details of it.
D2P: What are some of the most popular applications for Ciqada?
GE: It’s really designed around low data rate communications, so it’s going to be for devices that are sending basic status messages, alerts, things like that. If you want to stream video, for example, it’s not designed for that. Now, if you want to design a ring doorbell, that’s streaming from your front door. It’s designed for just short little bursts of data about what’s going on. Occasionally, over the background, it can download larger files for updates. But, in general, it’s designed for applications where speed is not required, but reliability and low cost is.
D2P: I understand that Mars also serves customers in the healthcare industry that manufacture medical devices and microsurgery instruments. What should prospective customers know about your PCB assembly capabilities for medical device manufacturing?
GE: We’re really focused on quality, making sure that parts are built consistently and that the bill of materials is really used meticulously to make sure we’re all using proof components. We have a very strict system for tracking components and making sure we’re using the appropriate ones. We have a big emphasis on testing as well. So I think all of those are really critical when doing circuit boards for medical device manufacturing.
If you’re working with needles or [components that require] sterilization or different aspects of medical devices, there are other considerations. But for electronics, there’s not a huge difference between the electronics that are used in medical devices, versus other devices. They still all need to be reliable and manufactured in a similar way. But you do want to have a special emphasis on BOM (bill of materials) control, which is very important.
D2P: A number of technology trends and market factors are currently impacting manufacturers, particularly in electronics. What’s having the most impact on how you do business today—specifically, the services that you provide as a supplier?
GE: Component availability and supply chain is a very big and important topic right now. It has forced us to be a lot more flexible when we’re developing products, particularly since the biggest issue for availability has been around microprocessors and high-end chips. So we’ve been looking at ways of being able to simultaneously develop across multiple processors, and we have variations on our designs to be able to have flexibility in that way.
It used to be that you’d pick a microprocessor, a microprocessor company, and just go with it. But now, we’re looking more at trying to do cross platform development—microchip and ST (special technology)—and we can swap, depending on what we can get. So there has been a lot of engineering development around that. Also, on the purchasing side, we’re having to develop processes for evaluating alternate components because of supply chain concerns, and to be agile, to be able to jump to what [components] you can actually get.
As I mentioned, we have very tight controls over BOM. We’ve developed new procedures to continue to give us that control while improving communication with our customers about possible alternates that are available, and being able to rapidly do engineering evaluations on those parts to confirm that they’re actually going to work properly in the final assembly.
Those are innovations that we’ve had to develop over the last couple of years, just through trial by fire. Longer term, hopefully, these supply chain issues will start to resolve themselves.
Beyond that, we see a continued movement towards cloud-based products and people wanting to get products connected to the internet, particularly with being able to use over-the-air updates for firmware. We think it’s very important to be able to make sure that you’ve got security baked into that, and it’s something that we’ve really been focusing on.
D2P: You mentioned the new processes that you’re developing for evaluating alternate components. What do those processes consist of?
GE: It’s a combination of working closely with our customers, in terms of getting them data as quickly as possible, so that they can look at it. But also, we’ve got several levels, internally, of evaluation.
When we’re building prototypes ops and doing troubleshooting, we’ve got our engineering technicians. They are the first line to review alternates now, so they’ve had special training and special programs around that so that they can evaluate data sheets and look and see, from a first line. We also have a full engineering team that can do deeper evaluations if those are required.
So, it’s just a question of setting up flows for the organization and making things happen rapidly.
Because one thing we’ve found is, when you find a part available through a broker or whatever, you’ve got to move quickly. You can’t wait two weeks and then come back and decide that it’s going to work or not work. So you need to be able to rapidly review data and be able to make good judgments.
D2P: Everybody’s talking about inflation today. What has it caused you to do differently as a business?
GE: It’s a combination of inflation and the supply chain issues. As you know, we’ve kind of moved away from Just in Time on components, and are trying to stock more. And if we just buy stuff upfront, we think that’s a better investment rather than risking not being able to get it, or having to buy it at a higher price down the road. And, just in general, we’re really scrutinizing all the costs of a product to try to do what we can to try to keep any increases as minimal as possible.
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