The OpExChange conducted its inaugural plant visit of 2024 on January 23 at Sealevel Systems, located in Liberty, SC. Established in 1986, Sealevel has witnessed substantial growth in the past four years, with a nearly doubled sales figure, an expanded market share in critical communications industries, and the achievement of their largest-ever energy design contract.
This success has translated into a 10% increase in profitability and a notable 45% growth in employment.
Founded in 1986 by Tom and Susan O’Hanlan, Sealevel remains a family-owned company, anchoring its values in decades of experience and a commitment to excellence.
During the plant visit, OpExChange participants were guided by representative of Sealevel’s leadership team, including Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Brandon Hansen, Senior Vice President of Sales Earle Foster, and Director of Engineering Jeff Baldwin. The trio navigated a comprehensive presentation that delved into the details leading to Sealevel’s success. Not only did they transparently share the achievements, but they also provided insights into the challenges confronted on their journey. Additionally, they shared details on approaches employed to sustain Sealevel’s ongoing commitment to operational excellence.
Earle Foster highlighted Sealevel’s foundational identity stating, “At our core, we are an electrical design company.” With a focused team of around twenty engineers specializing in electronic printed circuit board design, Sealevel has solidified its reputation over its three-decade legacy. During this time, they have earned a reputation in the industry for the exceptional quality and reliability of their products.
Specializing in the design and manufacturing of industrial I/O and embedded computing systems, Sealevel has delivered reliable I/O solutions since its inception. Their product range includes digital and analog I/O products enabling dependable monitoring and control for applications spanning from single inputs to entire networks. Sealevel holds the distinction of being the first company to provide a lifetime warranty on all standard I/O products. This is a testament to their confidence in the rugged durability of their products, particularly considering the harsh and demanding environments in which their products operate. Sealevel products can be found in deserts, oceans, battlefields, and even in space.
The Sealevel team has a long-standing history of designing shock and vibration-tolerant solutions, with their products having proven their efficacy in intense environments. CEO Tom O’Hanlan affirms their commitment, stating, “We make products that are so good, we have no hesitation in offering a lifetime warranty.”
Manufacturing – Proudly Made in USA
In the last twenty years there has been a huge industry trend of offshoring electronic assembly operations to China, India, and other lower labor markets. Sealevel is proud that they have gone the opposite direction. The design and assembly of all their electronic assemblies are produced in their Liberty facility. This not only ensures a more rapid response to customer needs but, more importantly, fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to the team’s dedication to quality and reliability. The phrase “Proudly Made in USA” can be found not only in their literature but it also resonates in conversations with the Sealevel team.
During the OpExChange visit, participants were divided into three groups for a guided hour-long tour of Sealevel’s operations, including their automated surface mount assembly area, through-hole soldering section, box build assembly, and functional testing areas. Among these, the high-speed surface mount assembly line stood out as particularly impressive. State-of-the-art automation completes tasks such as applying solder paste, picking and placing components on the circuit board at speeds of up to eighteen components per second, and soldering them in place using a forced convection reflow oven.
The placement equipment incorporates a sophisticated vision system that confirms the use of the correct part. It also orients the component and places it on the circuit board with precision accuracy. All of this is accomplished in fractions of a second per component. At the end of the line, an automated optical inspection (AOI) machine meticulously examines every placed component and solder joint.
Although there are as many as three thousand components on a single circuit board, there is precise traceability for each serialized circuit board. Not only are the part number, manufacturer, and lot number recorded but also the time it was manufactured and the personnel operating the machines. This information is married to the completed final assembly along with information on other safety-critical parts.
In the through-hole assembly area, components are soldered through holes in the circuit board, providing greater mechanical strength for enhanced product reliability. All operators in this section are certified to IPC soldering standards J-STD-001 and IPC-A-610 for assessing the acceptability of electronic assemblies. Brandon pointed out that they were able to secure grant funding to help pay for this training with guidance from the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (SCMEP).
From Low Volume to High Volume
Sealevel recently secured a contract to design and manufacture custom controllers for GE Vernova, marking the company’s most extensive design agreement to date. While this opportunity posed various challenges, the Sealevel team, driven by their resourceful “can-do” spirit and American fortitude, effectively tackled each hurdle. The adaptations they implemented not only ensured the contract’s success but positioned them to handle even larger production volumes in the future, while maintaining their niche capability for high-mix, low volume as well.
Capacity concerns on their automated surface mount line was at the top of their priority list. To increase line productivity, they purchased and integrated the FuzionXC2-60, the latest technology available from Universal Instruments. This cutting-edge equipment reaches a speed of up to 65,500 components per hour, resulting in a substantial 328% increase in placement speed.
In response to the expanded workload, Sealevel also hired additional personnel, added assembly workstations, and expanded their manufacturing footprint in the facility.
Recognizing the significance of cybersecurity, not only for the GE Vernova contract but also for other mission-critical projects, Sealevel took decisive action as well. They transitioned to a hybrid on-premise-secure cloud solution, implemented a comprehensive security suite, and initiated companywide cybersecurity training. The company is currently undergoing certification processes for both CMMCC and NIST 800-171 compliance.
Investing in Operational Excellence
Sealevel has consistently prioritized investments in their people and processes, achieving notable advancements in the last four years. From a technological standpoint, the implementation of a new ERP system has introduced enhanced capabilities in data management, access, and communication, resulting in a reduction of time spent on non-value-added tasks.
In this same time frame, Sealevel acquired significant capital equipment for both their engineering and manufacturing teams. This includes two additional state-of-the-art SMT machines, a next-generation high-bandwidth modular oscilloscope, and a 3D AOI machine. During the tour, the 3D AOI machine on the production floor was highlighted, featuring high-speed 3D inspection in contrast to the previously used 2D inspection. This newer technology not only swiftly inspects component presence, type, and orientation but also assesses the wetting angle of the solder joint, ensuring even greater reliability and quality assurance.
While investments in technology and facilities play pivotal roles in Sealevel’s pursuit of operational excellence, their most important focus remains on investing in their people. Over the last four years, Sealevel has dedicated over one million dollars to the development of the Sealevel team through tuition support, training programs, seminars, and courses. In closing discussions during the visit, Susan O’Hanlan, President and Co-founder of Sealevel, shared insights into their tuition program, emphasizing their encouragement of education and academic achievement. A specific example was given of a technician who is on the verge of completing his bachelor’s degree in engineering, with a corresponding promotion to Design Engineer. Susan added that Jeff Baldwin is an example of one of their success stories. Jeff began his relationship with Sealevel as an intern from Clemson University in 2006. He progressed through a series of responsibilities and promotions and now leads the engineering team as Director of Engineering.
Beyond education, the team also emphasizes camaraderie and fun, as evidenced by an upcoming event where the entire engineering team will attend a talk by a renowned astrophysicist at the Peace Center in Greenville.
An Example of Reliability
During the tour, Brandon shared an example of how their reputation in I/O reliability led to further embedded system business. One of Sealevel’s clients operates within the fracking sector. Sealevel provided them with a robust I/O device, which the client then integrated into an assembly sourced from another supplier. Unfortunately, the alternative solution from the other vendor consistently experienced malfunctions, primarily due to the intense vibrations associated with fracking operations. Through a thorough failure analysis, the client discovered that the failure modes were attributable to the other vendor’s components. The client then approached Sealevel with a request to redesign the entire solution. Sealevel’s design team created a complete solution that met both the performance and environmental requirements. The resultant prototype, subjected to rigorous vibration testing, not only met but surpassed expectations, achieving a remarkable success that had never been attained before. This was a significant achievement, considering the client had initially accepted a 20% failure rate. This client has been a continuing and delighted customer since.
Poised for Future Growth|
The OpExChange visitors left Sealevel Systems impressed – not only in the company’s cutting-edge operations and innovative products but also in the engaged culture and within the facility. Throughout the tour, members of Sealevel’s production team willingly shared their expertise, showcasing not only a deep understanding of their roles but also a heartfelt passion and pride for the products and the customers they serve. A notable moment was when Hunt Grogan, a production employee approaching his 25th anniversary with Sealevel, proudly detailed the intricacies of the functional testing he was performing.
The fact that such reliable and sophisticated products are crafted under the banner of “Proudly Made in USA” by a company in upstate South Carolina is a source of collective pride for the OpExChange. Susan shared that while their current growth is impressive, there are even greater plans on the horizon, with additional expansions already in the works.
Sealevel Systems, Inc. advanced the industrial I/O and embedded computing industry with the first RS-422/485 communication adapter for the IBM PC. Since 1986, Sealevel has continued to redefine design, engineering, and manufacturing for industrial computers, carrier boards, Ethernet serial servers and adapters, and robust firmware. All Sealevel products are engineered and manufactured at our ISO 9001:2015 registered headquarters in Liberty, SC – with a quality and availability promise to outlast your mission. For more information, visit sealevel.com or call +1 864.843.4343.
The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. If your company is interested in participating in this collaborative effort to improve both the competitiveness of your operation and South Carolina, contact Mike Demos (Mike@OpExChange.com). More information and upcoming plant visits are available on the OpExChange website www.OpExChange.com.