FLATHEAD – Wired to Succeed

By Will Freihofer with Photos & Multimedia by Megan Jae Riggs

Before she built circuit boards, she beaded.

The steady hum of electronics hung thick in the air as Tammy Koehler peered through a magnifying glass at a blank piece of familiar green circuit board.

Using a pair of tweezers, she budged an electrical component the size of a sesame seed around its surface. The weight of her hand rested entirely on her pinky finger. It’s a trick used to lift her wrist from the counter, preventing even the faint rise and fall of her pulse from affecting the careful placement of such miniscule pieces.

“They’re easy to lose,” Koehler said.

Tammy Koehler prepares to assemble circuit board pieces at S&K Electronics. Koehler said she knows there are jobs available in her field in other places, but she enjoys the mountains of Montana.

Tucked into her blue anti-static jacket, her employee access card’s lanyard is adorned with a tightly woven bead ornament — sky blue, with a sunset-hued strip splitting its center.

“I think it’s all hand in hand — small work soldering and beading,” Koehler said. “It has a lot of the same technique.”

Koehler’s lanyard reads S&K Electronics, her employer for the last 18 years. The ‘S&K’ stands for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation.

When it’s finished, the electrical board built by Koehler will be launched into space by NASA as part of a satellite designed down the road at Salish Kootenai College.

If all goes to plan, the board will power the camera on the first satellite ever designed by a tribal college. It will be an orbiting testament to the growing electronics industry taking root in the Mission Valley.

The U.S. government’s history of purchasing goods from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes began with the Lewis and Clark expedition. The explorers bought horses from the Salish to aid in the party’s crossing of the Bitterroot Range. William Clark was impressed with the horses, calling them “elegant” in his journal.

“IT WAS A VISION TO TRY TO FIND WAYS OF DEVELOPING DIVERSITY WITHIN THE FLATHEAD RESERVATION IN THE WAY OF ECONOMIES”

Larry Hall, General Manager
S&K Electronics

The government no longer needs horses from the tribes. Instead, it’s looking for trustworthy and durable complex electronic components for missiles, night vision scopes and fighter jets. And today they still seem pleased with the products they find on the tribal lands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes south of Flathead Lake.

The present-day Flathead Reservation differs vastly from the six other reservations scattered across the state, beginning with its population. Roughly three out of every four residents are non-native, according to the census data from 2000. It’s a stark contrast from the demographics found in more remote reservations in Montana like Rocky Boy’s or Fort Peck. Unemployment is also lower and average income is higher than on other reservations in the state.

At S&K Electronics in Ronan the demographic ratio is flipped, with close to two-thirds of the company’s workforce registered as native.

BY THE NUMBERS

1985 Year S&K Electronics was incorporated

98 Number of full time employees at the company

180 The most people employed by S&K Electronics at any given time

60 percent — Portion of S&K Electronics employees registered as Native Americans

40,000 Square footage of S&K Electronics manufacturing space

$2.2 million — Size of the contract with BAE systems for M16 rifle scope components announced by S&K Electronics in June

$20million – Total sales of S&K Electronics in 2010, it’s fifth consecutive year in the black

10,000 mph — The speed at which S&K Electronics assembled circuit board will orbit the Earth

Inside the company headquarters a hallway of framed native art leads to a large boardroom, where inside sits S&K Electronics’ General Manager Larry Hall. Hall’s hair is close-cropped and white, and it’s with the cautious meter of a man used to watching his words that he explained how the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes came to be involved in the business of manufacturing electronics components for the Department of Defense.

“It was a vision to try to find ways of developing diversity within the Flathead Reservation in the way of economies,” Hall said.

Before 1985, the majority of funds flowing through the tribe came from extraction industries – like agriculture and timber sales – as well as government services. Tribal leadership was eager to create future jobs on the reservation, and electronics manufacturing seemed a promising industry to explore. “Electronics was the buzzword in the ‘80s,” Hall said.

That buzz can now be heard in S&K’s factory floor in the steady drone of machinery and fans. It is here that the company has managed to continuously employ tribal members for almost three decades.

“We are now considered a sustainable, viable long-term company,” Hall said.

S&K hopes to continue its steady growth in revenue and attracting bids that allow it to provide jobs to aid the reservation economy. “One of our main goals is hiring,” he said.

Today, S&K Electronics has just under 100 full-time employees, 40,000 square feet of manufacturing space and annual revenues of more than $20 million. Though the specific tribal affiliation of employees is not tracked, as a native-preference employer Hall said the company has 59 full-time Native American employees.

S&K Electronics’ incorporation in 1985 would be the first rung in a ladder of tribal ventures into high-tech fields. Initially a small-scale venture with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as its lone shareholder, the fledgling company quickly qualified as an 8(a) small disadvantaged business under the U.S. Small Business Administration. It’s a valuable designation that gives preference to eligible companies in the high-volume field of defense contracting.

Companies with federal contracts to supply the Department of Defense are required to subcontract at least a portion of their work with 8(a) businesses, a requirement which helped S&K Electronics to develop working relationships with enormous multi-national companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Such relationships have helped lead to continued work in the industry, including a $2.2 million deal with BAE systems to make components for night vision scopes for M16 rifles announced in June.

Success in the industry also spurred the 1999 spin-off of S&K Technologies in St. Ignatius, which today has six companies under its wing tailored to a variety of contracting fields including aerospace and environmental restoration. S&K Aerospace announced a $975 million contract with the U.S. Air Force in March, and though the majority of the funds will go to purchasing and jobs outside Montana, its ownership by the Salish and Kootenai tribes suggests its success will pay dividends elsewhere in the Flathead Valley.

In the boardroom at S&K Electronics, the portraits of four employees are mounted on a display stocked with S&K-branded pens, notepads and ceremonial sweetgrass. Each employee wears an unmistakable proud grin, and holds a different product exemplary of S&K’s manufacturing niche toward the camera — like anglers mugging with a prize catch.

Guy Stinger inspects a circuit board component on the assembly line at S&K Electronics. Of S&K’s 100 employees, 59 are native.

The four wear distinctive light blue jackets hatched with a faint grid of thin black lines – wires, which prevent static shock from zapping delicate circuits. One man holds a fist full of orange, white and blue wire harnesses, another holds a DVD player-sized electronics box used in chemistry labs.

Tammy Koehler, the constructor of the NASA project circuit board, is featured in the display’s center, and balanced between her two steady hands is a grass-green circuit board. Its surface is decorated like a cityscape, crowded with silver-rimmed black boxes and rectangles common to any modern device that beeps or blinks. Her smile is the widest of the four.

Having risen from an entry-level job as an assembler to her current title of production coordinator, Koehler’s position now entails ensuring things run smoothly on the circuit board manufacturing line, which Hall said accounts for some 80 percent of the company’s business.

“There’s a big responsibility to organize things to make sure they happen on time – or to make them go even faster,” Koehler said.

Growing up on the reservation, Koehler envisioned herself working for the Navy or attending beauty school. She left the Flathead for a year to work in cable assembly at Tamsco Instruments in Seattle, but found the bustle to be too much.

“It was too big for me. I’m not a city girl,” she said.

Returning to Montana and beginning work at S&K, Koehler learned the ropes of circuit board assembly — experience she now uses to train new employees to the task. Koehler said patience is an essential virtue for this line of work, one that she practices while beading or putting together puzzles on her own time.

Tammy Koehler interacts with co-worker Charles Merritt. Koehler said in her years at S&K Electronics, her work has become like a second home.

Though now in a management position at the company, she said her duties still include hands-on work assembling boards by hand — as she does now, with Hall peering over her shoulder.

This satellite-bound circuit board the two held before them is a prototype, different than the majority of those shipping from Pablo under the S&K brand. For starters, only one will be made. That means it must be assembled by hand rather than passed through the whirring bowling lane-length sequence of white and black machinery in the front of the facility. This board is simple by S&K standards, and the company is building it free of charge.

The size of a playing card, its job will be to power and transfer data from a postage stamp-sized camera mounted in its center. Its operators will be a few miles away at the Salish Kootenai College campus, and will be the first tribal college to design, build and operate a satellite that will orbit the Earth.

Two and a half miles south of S&K Electronics at the Salish Kootenai College campus, five students sit in a white walled laboratory stuffed with computer stations and electrical components. On the floor, a shoebox-sized robot attempts to find its way around a backpack while computer engineering professor Thomas Trickel looks on. It bumps the pack, backs up, turns, and tries again.

“The first task is to get the robot rolling, the second task is ‘now, let’s make it react,’” Trickel said.

SALISH KOOTENAI COLLEGE CubeSat PROJECT

Students at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo are working on a miniature cube-shaped satellite which the group hopes will be the first ever designed by a tribal college to orbit the Earth. Following the passage of a flight readiness review by NASA in August of 2013, the 10 centimeter-sided cube will be cleared for inclusion on a NASA rocket which will eject it into the atmosphere some 300 to 400 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. While in space, the CubeSat will travel at speeds up to 10,000 mph while communicating with a ground station on the campus of Salish Kootenai College and attempt to capture pictures of the Flathead Reservation from space. Such a mission requires rigorous engineering, according to program mentor and tribal college professor Tom Trickel. “We’ve got to work up in space, which is a rough environment,” Trickel said.

Here in computer engineering lab three, Trickel is using simple robotics systems to acquaint students with the interplay between software, hardware and mechanics. This complicated relationship is necessary to craft working systems in the engineering world.

A former electronic engineer at Intel in California with wire-frame glasses and a storm cloud gray beard, Trickel found his way to western Montana when his wife came to teach at the tribal college’s nursing program. While explaining Salish Kootenai College’s CubeSat program, the NASA project named for the small, cube-shaped satellite being built, Trickel’s eyes were drawn to students’ workstations around the room monitoring their progress.

“I see this satellite as a vehicle for training,” Trickel said of the project, which is sponsored by NASA. “A lot of engineering is building to learn, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Trickel is one of four faculty mentors overseeing a group of engineering and science students at the tribal college working on the satellite.

Slightly larger than a Rubik’s Cube at four inches to a side, the instrument will use solar panels to power a camera system capable of imaging the Earth and astronomical objects, as well as transmitting and receiving communications from a ground station on the Salish Kootenai College campus.

Provided the project passes its flight readiness review in August of 2013, the satellite will be launched into the earth’s orbit by a NASA rocket.

“The team’s preferred launch date is in July or August of 2014 when the skies above the Flathead reservation are most likely to provide a clear image for the satellite,” Trickel said.

Computer engineering professor Tom Trickel troubleshoots with Robbie Davis during a computer engineering lab at Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation. S&K Electronics made a circuit board pro bono for Trickel as part of the NASA CubeSat program, which will launch a satellite into the Earth’s orbit in the summer of 2014.

As always, funding is an issue, and Trickel said that Hall’s offer to construct the specialized electronics boards required for the project has been welcome. “S&K Electronics has been a huge help,” he said.

Paying for the single board to be assembled elsewhere could cost close to  $1,000, Trickel said.

The project hopes to trigger the camera mounted on the circuit board built by Koehler at the precise moment the satellite passes over western Montana. The result will be a picture of the Flathead Valley from space that will be used to get students excited about science and technology.

“We want to go into classrooms and say ‘here’s an actual picture we took in space of the reservation,’” Trickel said. “We’re going to try to get them to say ‘That’s possible? We can really do that?’”

Another objective will be to use images from the camera to analyze aerosols in the atmosphere. “That’s the goal,” said Ryan Young, a computer engineering student and CubeSat team member, “to contribute to the scientific community with factual information.”

In the robotics laboratory’s far corner, Young and fellow computer engineering student Robert Sanchez assemble a gearbox for a separate project. The piece will help make tiny adjustments in the orientation of a spectrograph, an instrument capable of tracking the sun across the sky from ground level. The piece will measure the electrical current in the sun’s rays to determine what gasses the light is passing through.

Growing up on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, Young says that his interest in science and technology led him to seek out and attend a summer science camp held at Montana Tech in Butte while in high school.

Tammy Koehler points out an electrical component on one of the circuit boards she is assembling. The components come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Joining the Navy in 2001, Young worked in aviation ordinances while stationed in Everett, Wash. “I was a bomb builder,” Young said. “When I was in the service I noticed that the engineering department was having more fun than my department.”

Now holding a research position funded by NASA’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Project, Young hopes a successful CubeSat program will draw more young students to follow his footsteps. “I think engineering programs need to have more outreach, because that’s what got me interested,” he said.

The computer engineering program has graduated three students since its start in 2008, and each is gainfully employed in the field. One is the director of information technology at Salish Kootenai College. Another, Kody Ensley, worked for NASA’s Robonaut program to help design the hand of a man-shaped robot developed for use on the International Space Station.

Trickel hopes that the hands-on experience offered by the CubeSat program will help equip his students to work, be it for an existing entity or as entrepreneurs.

“The hope with this program is that they might be able to start businesses on their own,” Trickel said.

For Hall and S&K, the situation is a win-win. As a native-preference employer, the more educated the local workforce is in the fields of science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM), the better.

“We’re always supporting STEM efforts in the school system,” Hall said.

“THE HOPE WITH THIS PROGRAM IS THAT THEY MIGHT BE ABLE TO START BUSINESSES ON THEIR OWN”

Thomas Trickel, Professor
Salish Kootenai College

With careful planning, execution and a little luck, an operational testament to the Flathead reservation’s high-tech chops will orbit the globe in the next few years. Though the college’s selection to participate in the highly competitive NASA CubeSat program is a major step, Trickel cautions that anything involving rockets in outer space is far from a sure thing.

Montana State University has been involved with three NASA launches and only one success. One rocket exploded after launch and another ended in the Pacific Ocean, Trickel said. “It is rocket science, after all,” he said.

For Trickel, one of the intriguing subplots to school programs in computer science and engineering lies in the hope of meeting the growing worldwide demand for solutions in the field.

“Our ability as a country to continue to produce science and engineering students is going to affect how we’re able to compete,” Trickel said. “China puts a lot of money into their STEM programs.”

S&K Electronics general manager Larry Hall values sustainability and people in the company. S&K is a tribally owned electronics manufacturing company located in Polson, Mont.

Hall also hopes that investments being made into high-tech fields on the Flathead Reservation will continue to pay dividends. But it’s no small task to attract the large contracts that allow him to add positions at S&K Electronics in the global marketplace of manufacturing.

Hall recalled a time in 2003 when his work force was as large as 180 employees. That was when S&K had the contract to package power tool accessories manufactured by the Jore Corporation in Ronan. Those jobs have since faded.

“We can only maintain those jobs if there’s work to do,” Hall said.

For now, there is work to be done, evidenced by the 98 full-time positions currently on the S&K Electronics payroll. The parking lot is full. The machines are humming.

The company, like the tribal members it employs, is working.