Ken Bahl,President & Founder

Ken Bahl

President & Founder

A man of few words but massive ambitions, Ken Bahl always strives to do things better than the rest. Renowned in the tech industry for his technical expertise and determination, Bahl, in the initial years of his professional life held a number of engineering positions with Honeywell and Simmonds Precision Products. While in these positions, he was required to use Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) that were often inefficient and error prone, which eventually led Bahl to ask himself: “Why couldn’t I do it better?”

"We are a one-stop full turnkey shop, with multiple unique processes, producing highly complex PCBs under very fast turntimes"

Digging deeper into the challenge to understand it better, Bahl realized that the problem lies with the practice of customers designing the PCB and manufacturers producing it. “There is inherently an error in this process—the customer often designs outside of the scope of the manufacturability of the manufacturer,” explains Bahl, President, CEO and Founder, Sierra Circuits. According to him, the correct model is for manufacturers to define a set of rules as per the ideal process parameters that will yield expected results, and for customers to follow those rules while designing.

This very realization led Bahl to invest his entire savings of $35,000 and start Sierra Circuits in 1986, venturing into the PCB prototyping industry. The company started working with hundreds of engineers, giving them invaluable feedback to make their designs work better. However, the process still remained a costly affair because many a times customers do not follow the specific set of rules while designing, leading to loss of time and money in rectifying the error, in case the design doesn’t work as expected. Also, due to reality of schedule, it is sometimes impossible to redesign a PCB, which eventually leads to compromise in cost, time and performance.

To help the designer community and make the prototype process efficient, Sierra came up with the unprecedented idea of combining its software tools, and products and services in a way that helps the PCB designers design manufacturable products that are cost effective from the beginning. “We help them shorten the design cycle time and get better results in the process, saving time and money,” states Bahl.

Creating a Niche

Today, headquartered in Sunnyvale, CA, Sierra is one of the leading names in PCBs that has etched a success story of its own—partly with its ‘lightning speed’ delivery of fabricated PCBs in as quick as 24 hours and fully turnkey-assembled PCBs in 48 hours; and partly by assisting customers throughout the PCB manufacturing process.

We provide our customers unprecedented quality, reliability, and a single point of support

The company offers layout and design services, including free Bill of Materials (BOM) tools as well as Design for Manufacturing (DFM) and Design for Assembly (DFA) checks with complete component engineering support. Further, Sierra works directly with component distributors to procure components before assembling the boards. From receiving the Gerber file to shipping the board, the process is seamless and designed to prevent any delay. Often, the BOM that companies use has issues with long lead time components or information that doesn’t cross-check. Sierra came up with a BOM check that is free for customers to use and find availability of components. It answers all the queries from choosing the right part number to the components being reasonably priced.

Sierra compliments their services with an end-to-end customer service that provides 24-hour support on all orders to make sure that all the boards are successful, reliable, and cost-effective. “We are a one-stop full turnkey shop, with multiple unique processes, producing highly complex PCBs under very fast turn times,” states Bahl.

While Sierra offers New Product Introduction (NPI) review to ensure smooth transition from PCB design through prototyping to fabrication as well as assembly, Bahl well understands that the prototyping process is inherent to errors. One ground rule for the prototyping process to yield favourable results is to allow seamless collaboration between the fabrication engineer and the PCB designer. By facilitating this interaction, Sierra offers one-on-one services that result in customers receiving zero defect products within a week. Sierra also allows a customer, after placing an order, to view every step of the process and have real-time communication with Sierra in case of any emergency. “This is of tremendous economic value to our customers racing to enter the market first in a new segment, or introduce a competitive product. We don’t just say we are partners, we actually work like one,” expresses Bahl.

With a strong list of clientele that includes HP, Boeing, Siemens Medical Solutions USA, and Communications Holdings, Sierra has created a niche in the PCB industry. John Levreault, the President of Orvelle Technologies, one of Sierra's customers, sought the company's help to manufacture a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) board, which was routed in six layers with microvias, buried vias and multiple laminations. Sierra not only built the board, but along the way, guided Levreault in architecting it to achieve the most efficient, manufacturable design.

Revolutionizing the PCB Industry

Sierra handles all aspects of PCB production in-house at its Sunnyvale facility which minimizes delays and errors, allowing the company to offer quicker turntimes than other board shops.
“Since we fabricate and assemble all boards in-house, we can confidently say that our customers receive unprecedented quality, reliability, and a single point of support,” says Bahl.

Since its inception, the company has continuously re-invested in its capabilities and training to manufacture the best PCBs possible. Sierra makes up to 22 layers on a .185-inch thick board and its high technology boards have features like Blind/buried vias, filled vias (hole in pads), controlled impedance, high aspect ratios and micro-Ball Grid Arrays (BGAs). In addition, Sierra is involved in creating specialty products like Lead-free boards, Burn-in Boards, Polyimide multi-layers, Thermount multi-layers, Metal Core PCBs, and carbon paste.

Having pioneered the semi-additive process with fine line capabilities down to 25 micron—which facilitates the ‘plating-through’ of the holes in multi-layered boards to produce conductive vias in the circuit board—Sierra is now investing heavily on its microelectronics division to produce PCBs with as small as 1 mil trace. “For our microelectronics PCBs and PCB substrates, we provide build-up technology with fine lines and spaces down to 40 microns, high temperature materials, stacked microvias, buried resistors, and multi-tiered cavity PCBs,” says Bahl.

Exploring New Horizon with Technology

Always striving to stand unique and embrace technology that will revolutionize the PCB world, Sierra is focussing on a technology that will enable manufacturing of cost effective HDI PCBs. As Bahl expresses, “at some point, the traditional way of making a PCB will run out of steam, and that is when the value of our patented PCB manufacturing technology will come in.” The company’s technology is being tested for commercial use and will enable the densest possible electronic package with the incorporation of landless via that has been pioneered by HP. It comes with many benefits for blind and buried vias, and greatly improves spacing issues with HDI. When coupled with Sierra’s fine line and spacing manufacturing technology, landless via is expected to open new frontier for electronics.

Another area of interest for Sierra is Field- Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) that often has very high layer count boards. Sierra is investing in a technology that will enable a PCB designer to effectively accomplish the same performance with minimal number of layers in the circuit board. “The logic is simple—minimizing the number of connections enhances the signal integrity of the total package,” explains Bahl. The initiative will reduce time and cost, all the while giving a performance edge.

By working on more than hundred designs per day, Sierra has the experience to assist customers with unique designs and requirements. The company, having established itself as a prominent player in the U.S. is now planning to expand its manufacturing in India and other countries, thereby increasing its exposure.