Life in the Sun

We are seeing a warming trend in the solar industry, with Flextronics, Celestica and others publicly talking up the renewable energy sector.

In Juárez, Flextronics’ manufacturing plant has reached its maximum capacity production of 1.3 million solar panels a year.

Meanwhile, Celestica poured millions of dollars in the June quarter  into ramping production for solar lines in Asia. Speaking to analysts on July 23, CFO Darren Myers said, “[W]e think there is a lot of exciting opportunities for us within solar.”

It was just five years ago when the solar industry was growing like gangbusters, fueled by massive government investments and incentives. Then came the crash in 2012, which prompted some conglomerates to offload units (read: Dover) that had become dependent on those markets.

But the market has heated up again. In the US alone, one major trade group believes the installed solar panel capacity will double, to 40GW, between in 2014 and the end of next year. Another industry watcher forecasts a 36% gain worldwide this year alone.

Whether the gains will sustain themselves after US government tax credits on home installations run out is anyone’s guess. For now, at least, EMS companies are once again basking in solar’s warm glow.

EMS Q3: Cloudy, with a Chance of Pitfalls

Checking our pool of 30 or so publicly traded EMS companies that have thus far reported third-quarter earnings, we see an industry that is decidedly mixed.

Exactly half of those in our pool reported net income rose over last year. And 16 said sales are higher.

Of the Tier 1s, Foxconn and Jabil said sales were up, and Foxconn and Flextronics saw higher profits. Celestica and Sanmina-SCI saw revenues fall while Plexus’ and Benchmark’s rose. However, all but Sanmina took profit hits.

Confused yet?

The mid tier EMS groups were no easier to divine. On the larger side, Nam Tai and IMI had great quarters all around, Kimball saw operating profits and sales climb, and Venture’s sales ticked up too (it hasn’t reported profits yet), but Fabrinet (whose recovery continues) saw both figures slip. Key Tronic was up, CTS was down. Scanfil was up, Note was down. Neways was up, PartnerTech was down.

You get the idea.

The good news is, most companies, especially the larger ones, saw higher revenues in the third quarter than they did in the first. This could be another sign that the traditional seasonality has returned, which would be welcome at least because it makes things a little more predictable.

In listening to the various analyst calls and poring over the quarterly reports, it seems many companies reaped the benefit of existing programs in the September period, while those who didn’t were plagued mostly by new product starts, which are a drag on earnings. The former could hide some deeper some concerns, because all programs eventually come to an end, and if overall launches are on the decline, it could spell trouble down the road. This could be why several EMS companies, which collectively tend to be a bit gunshy bunch anyway, warned that the December quarter might be slower than the last.

Check out Board Talk, our new bulletin board:

After the Product Build

Some very interesting developments in after-market services these days.

One major player, Celestica, has been expanding its AMS for the past several years as it seeks higher margins. Higher-value services now represent roughly 5% of the company’s revenue, according to Deutsche Bank. (AMS in this case consists of everything from logistics to in and out of warranty repair.)

Skip Boothby, Celestica’s director of Global Services (which includes AMS), says they see two primary trends:

1.  Postponement regional configure to order: Celestica sees order fill rates falling because the decision (forecast) is made too early in the product life cycle. The response is that the product is built to the lowest common denominator and shipped to a lower cost region where it is then built to order.

2. Direct order fulfillment: Here, Celestica sees product being built in a low cost region and shipped direct to the customer within a couple days. An example is Apple building PCs at Foxconn in China. The opportunity for the EMS is to add the transportation element which, if it can master, adds a new profit center.

Boothby says Celestica is trying to execute a “control tower” strategy whereby they oversee everything from rework/repair to logistics/reverse logistics to warranty and field service. He said their transportation management service is “very profitable” (but didn’t put a number on it).

They currently sell these services a la carte. They have considered developing a licensing arrangement or other pricing models. They want to make it affordable for startups and companies where their client relationship is in the “low millions.” This is just starting to be rolled out. The average AMS account is $7 million, all of which is value-added (labor, not materials). Most customers are not existing PCBA manufacturing customers. Most AMS work is one-off.

Boothby’s comments came during the Outsourcing Navigator Council meeting, produced by Charlie Barnhart Associates and hosted at Teradyne. If you’ve never attended one of these meetings (they host one or two a year), they really are very valuable, and draw a good cross-section of supply chain executives. I’ll have more on this shortly.


Malaysia v. China

Don’t laugh: When it comes to manufacturing competitiveness, the divide between the two nations is not so wide.

Flextronics, Celestica, Plexus, Beyonics and other major EMS companies are heavily invested in Malaysia. Plexus’ largest factories are there, and the company has expanded of late. Flextronics has 11 factories alone in the country. Four of Beyonics’ six plants are there.

As Flextronics’ VP of supply chain Mark Shandley explains in this article today, customers like Malaysia for its lower and less complicated tax structure, the superior IP protection, and competitive labor rates (although Malaysia, like China, is experiencing large hikes). Sharp differences in attrition are noted as well.




The ‘Sale’ of Foxconn

Foxconn Precision Electronics, the cellphone manufacturing arm of — guess who? — Foxconn, is for sale.

Well, actually it has been sold.

To Foxconn.

Allow me to explain. Hon Hai, which trades under the Foxconn name, has myriad subsidiaries. Some of those subsidiaries have other subsidiaries. Despite the growing handset market, FPE’s parent, Foxconn International Holdings, has been losing money — $218 million last year alone. So despite sales of $6.63 billion last year, FPE  has been sold to China Prime Rich Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of — wait for it — Hon Hai.

If that wasn’t awkward enough, the sale price was HK$550.4 million, which in US currency is $70.7 million.

In other words, Foxconn bought from Foxconn an entity the size of Celestica for about four days’ worth of revenue. No word yet what the company directors paid themselves for what must have been an exhausting maneuver.

Only in China.


Predictions, Revisited

In mid July, I made five predictions for the second half of this year.

Here’s how I fared:

Prediction 1. All of 2009’s 10 largest EMS companies – Foxconn, Flextronics, Jabil, Celestica Sanmina, Cal-Comp, Elcoteq, Venture, Benchmark and Plexus – will be intact at year end, and with the exception of Elcoteq, will finish 2010 in the same order. Outcome: Fourth quarter sales remain to be reported, but given their outlooks, I nailed it.
Prediction 2. One of the mid-tier publicly traded EMS companies will be acquired, however. Outcome: Nope. After the Sanmina-SCI bought Breconridge (announced in late April), things became awfully quiet, especially given the amount of cash many top tier EMS players have on hand. I’m guessing concerns over end-market visibility coupled with tight external financing are keeping the major players on the sidelines.
Prediction 3. Component availability issues will not ease until mid 2011. Outcome: TBD, but parts are becoming somewhat easier — but not easy — to get.
Prediction 4. Foxconn’s many employee problems will blow over as the media tires of the story. Outcome: Got this right.
Prediction 5. “Computer-aided innovation” will become the big buzzword in software. Outcome: Wrong.
So for those scoring at home, that’s two right, two wrong, and one partial.

5 Predictions for the Second Half

Here’s my 5 predictions for the second half of 2010.

  1. All of 2009’s 10 largest EMS companies – Foxconn, Flextronics, Jabil, Celestica Sanmina, Cal-Comp, Elcoteq, Venture, Benchmark and Plexus – will be intact at year end, and with the exception of Elcoteq, will finish 2010 in the same order.
  2. One of the mid-tier publicly traded EMS companies will be acquired, however.
  3. Component availability issues will not ease until mid 2011.
  4. Foxconn’s many employee problems will blow over as the media tires of the story.
  5. “Computer-aided innovation” will become the big buzzword in software.

Add Ons

Now that the worst of the financial meltdown is (hopefully) behind us, one of the trends to watch will be how quickly EMS companies expand capacity.

Plexus, which has always been conservative in its approach, said this week it would first consider adding to its Penang, Malaysia, base, which is currently its largest campus, as well as alternatives in China and possibly Thailand. It said its next investment in Europe would likely be in Oradea, Romania, where the company already has two sites and feels “a more permanent location in very close proximity” would be in order.

Celestica, on the other hand, said it is looking to acquire fairly modest-sized health-care businesses, but hasn’t indicated plans to add capacity.

Flextronics and Jabil appear more set on building up manufacturing capabilities for alternative energy products. Foxconn, of course, looks like it might invest just about anywhere.

CEOs: Not Much EMS M&A Expected

Earnings announcements came out this week for Flextronics, Sanmina-SCI, CTS, Celestica, Key Tronic, IEC and a few others.

I’ve been listening to the quarterly analyst briefings, and it would *appear* that most of the major EMS companies don’t plan any earth-shaking M&A activity.

Most are taking the approach of Celestica CEO Craig Muhlhauser, who said they would focus on areas like health care where they don’t have tremendous established depth. Flextronics CEO Mike McNamara didn’t even raise the subject. Neither did Sanmina chairman Jure Sola.

And congratulations to CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY EMS Company of the Year Key Tronic on yet another profitable quarter. That’s six straight years, and counting.

When It Comes to Capacity, There’s Never Enough

Most industry observers believe the EMS industry suffers from overcapacity. When it’s difficult to make money in an upcycle, yet the majority of risk is shouldered by the manufacturer, it stands to reason that’s a fair assessment.

Which is why this exchange between an analyst and Flextronics’ CEO Mike McNamara during last night’s quarterly conference call was so interesting:

Matt Sheerin (Thomas Weisel Partners)

Could you let us know what the capacity utilization rate is right now? We’ve seen at least one of your competitors [Ed.: Celestica] decide that the utilization is too low and got another round of cost cutting. It looks like you’re keeping to your schedule and not increasing that cost restructuring, but could you tell us what it is and are you comfortable with that and growing into that number?

Mike McNamara

The activities that we’ve taken to-date and kind of the expected seasonal upside that we would anticipate even in a muted economic environment get us close to our near term target levels. As far as taking any more actions, we don’t think we need to do that. So when it comes to utilization levels, it’s just complicated. I think I saw the other competitor, in terms of what they say. Perhaps we look at utilization a little bit differently and may be I’ll go through it. I’ve done it in the past. We just look at it in three different ways. There’s people, which is the highest cost, and we believe that’s rationalized exactly to what we need today. There’s equipment, which we have access to. We probably have about 25% too much, which is the second largest element. Then the third largest element is facilities themselves, which is almost modest level, to be honest with you.

So we just look at capacity along each of those three different dimensions and we’ve taken the activities that we need to from the people standpoint. We’ve rationalized as much of the useless equipment as we can, but we’re not going to write off perfectly good equipment that has the ability to generate revenue in the future. We would rather go book some more business and take more market share. So, we just don’t look at utilization quite the same way and don’t have the same benchmark I think for you, because it’s just a little bit different how we do it.

Flextronics will take $250 million in restructuring charges this fiscal year, and has net debt of $1.07 billion, and its adjusted operating margin is 1.6%. But rather than acknowledge excess capacity, it “would rather go book some more business and take more market share.”

Even if it’s not profitable business?