Success Story: AMI and H2Ok Innovations

An aerial view of FORGE partner AMI's headquarters in Winthrop, Maine
An aerial view of FORGE partner AMI’s headquarters in Winthrop, Maine

Electronics contract manufacturer makes products and components for innovative companies

FORGE partner Alternative Manufacturing Inc. (AMI) isn’t your average electronics manufacturer (EMS). By leveraging production processes around a lean manufacturing process, AMI doesn’t need its customers to place huge, high-volume orders. This business model makes it uniquely friendly to innovators and startups, who might need to order a printed circuit board (PCB) assemblies for a prototype or a small batch first production run. FORGE’s connections between AMI and innovators have yielded fruitful relationships for both. We interviewed AMI about how it works with innovators like AI IoT liquid-monitoring company H2Ok Innovations (H2Ok) and how partnering with FORGE can bring business benefits.

FORGE partner Alternative Manufacturing Inc.’s alternative style fits smaller companies and experimental products

The outside of AMI's manufacturing facility
The outside of AMI’s manufacturing facility

AMI’s production team of 65 is located in its lakeside headquarters in Winthrop, Maine. The team builds PCB assemblies, complete electronics box builds, and is able to load software to PCBs. They (the team, not the PCBs) own the company through an employee stock ownership plan. 

Jim Barry, VP of Sales & Marketing at AMI, said “Our profits are our retirement, so we work hard to win contracts in diverse industries!” AMI cut its teeth on industrial electronics and power generation. It’s since expanded to robotics, clean tech, IoT, and medical technology, and has recently begun to support the defense market.

AMI prides itself on price transparency and maintains the unusual policy of providing detailed material pricing, labor cost and even showing profit margins to customers as part of its quotes. The most unusual thing about AMI, though, is its flexibility. As opposed to the large, fully automated lines of most EMS companies, which can only fulfill high-volume work, AMI’s approach has been to support the business with many small production lines. All its pick-and-place and solder-paste machines are independent, enabling AMI to assemble in high or low volumes. AMI’s lean process setup lets it test individual boards to detect defects early, resulting in very high internal yields. 

Also contributing to the artisanship and high yield of AMI’s manufacturing are its ISO Quality certifications, (AS9100 for aerospace & ISO13485 for medical). Because AMI has attained and is maintaining these certifications, AMI customers can be confident that AMI has processes and controls in place to provide customers with products that meet their quality requirements. AMI’s facility is certified to the IPC J-STD-001/IPC-A-610 quality standard(another rare quality in the industry), and the company is ITAR-registered as well.

The power of FORGE’s connections

One of H2Ok Innovations' proprietary sensors continuously capturing fluid data
One of H2Ok Innovations’ proprietary sensors continuously capturing fluid data

AMI and FORGE first connected when AMI opened its prototype shop in Somerville, MA near FORGE’s headquarters. Soon AMI was participating in FORGE’s Rocket Roundtables, panel discussions, and office hours . FORGE regularly refers startup companies to AMI, such as cleantech startups and other  startups that have an identified manufacturing or supply chain need with which AMI can help  AMI has also connected with startups through FORGE’s Startup Showcase events and gained visibility through promotion on FORGE’s social media and website. AMI is currently working with 12 FORGE-referred companies. 

“One nice thing about FORGE is that all the startups are collaborating and learning from each other. The word-of-mouth is great. If I could have 10 FORGEs, I’d be in heaven,” Barry said. 

One FORGE referral is H2Ok. H2Ok combines networks of sensors with machine learning and process insights software to optimize liquid and fluid processes in manufacturing, providing precision automation. Its systems help industrial users save time, cut waste, and improve margins by using data about what’s in their pipes, whether that’s water, mayonnaise, or chemicals. 

Barry first met H2Ok’s founders Annie and David Lu when they were pitching at the grand opening of FORGE’s Lowell office in 2021. H2Ok wasn’t ready for manufacturing yet, but the founders saved Barry’s business card. Soon, H2Ok had more orders than it could keep up with while hand-assembling its own sensors and edge gateways. H2Ok approached AMI about a possible partnership to manufacture H2Ok’s circuit boards.

H2OK Hardware Engineer Tim Dorn said, “We partnered with AMI to meet demand from customers and open up bandwidth for our in-house engineers to do more R&D tasks. We’re excited about this engagement – they assemble our components more efficiently and deliver quality products.” 

“We appreciate FORGE’s vetted in-house recommendations of trusted vendors such as AMI,” H2Ok Head of Operations Karin Bloom said. Recently, AMI shipped its first batch of products to H2Ok and is positioned to support hundreds of orders as H2Ok ramps up in 2024. For more information about H2Ok, see the company’s website.

Looking forward: meeting sustainability goals and teaching innovators to plan ahead

Between COVID-19 and component shortages over the past few years, the electronics industry has had to adapt to significant upheavals and changes. But one upside of that struggle is the number of EMS companies in the United States is growing.

“The U.S. has finally woken up and realized we can’t depend on foreign companies for all our tech,” Barry said. “For example, with the CHIPS Act, companies are starting to build domestic electronics factories.” 

He recommends that hardware innovators get in touch with EMS companies in their region early in the design process – if they can find a company like AMI that works with startups. Forming a partnership early on can be very helpful as they move to larger production volumes – and getting a curated introduction to a FORGE partner is a great way for innovators to find startup-friendly manufacturers and suppliers like AMI.

“Most startups have never been to a PCB shop or an EMS facility,” Barry said. “If you involve someone like us from the get-go, we can help you avoid design mistakes. We want to help you avoid overly expensive components and manufacturing issues.” 

As for H2Ok, its team expects to keep working with AMI as they scale up to meet their customers’ demands. Many of their enterprise customers are trying to meet sustainability goals by 2025 and want to use H2Ok’s product as part of their solutions. 

Dorn said, “We’ve got a lot of sales in the pipeline, which is what drove us to find AMI. As we scale and grow, we have been talking to AMI about how they can best support us. I could see us sticking with them for the foreseeable future.”

The FORGE team is happy to have made another successful connection between a FORGE partner and an innovative company and we can’t wait to do it again!