I have known Bob Tarzwell for more than 18 years, since he first called me looking for some help with his company. His first words to me were, “Hi, my name is Bob Tarzwell and I own a shop in Carleton Place, Ontario. I need your help. I have $50 million worth of quotes on my desk and I’m going out of business. There is just too much business.” Now, I had never heard of anyone going out of business for having too much business, so he got my attention. I had to meet this guy. I was living in Milwaukee at the time, but was going to be on vacation in Maine so I told him that I would take a ride up and see his place.
When I got there, I quickly realized that he had been telling the truth; he had a huge stack of quotes on his desk, all of them from blue ribbon companies like Ford and GM. The problem was that they wanted thousands and thousands of the heavy copper boards (and I mean really heavy copper, like 20 ounces!) and he was the only guy who could build them. But with his little 8,000 square-foot facility he was not able to handle their needs. Well, we worked through that problem together and thus Dan and Bob’s excellent adventures began. Since then, we have worked together at several companies, from Rockwell Collins, Taiyo America, and Sierra Circuits, to our most recent project that made us a lot of money, but that we still can’t talk about three years later.
During that time, Bob built an incredible resort in the Bahamas, refurbished and sold his record-breaking original Mini Cooper, built his own completely electric solar-powered Mercedes kit car, sold his resort and moved back to his beloved Canada. A few years ago, he took up painting and sculpting, and he is now successfully displaying and selling his art in one of the most prestigious galleries in Ontario.
I knew that he was settling into a career in art so it came as no surprise when he called me the other day and asked me to write his swan song in terms of his 53-year career in printed circuit boards. He has closed his consulting business, put all his books for sale on Amazon, and retired to his studio, which is where you’ll find him chiseling away on his latest creation.
But instead of writing his swan song, I thought it would be more fun to close out his career with one last exchange. So here is Bob in the words of that immortal sage Jerry Seinfeld, “telling us for the last time.” Enjoy.
Dan Beaulieu: Bob, you have given this to me in bits and pieces over the years, so now, once and for all, tell me the true, unadulterated story of your background.
Bob Tarzwell: I was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1950. In 1960 my family bought a farm in Georgetown, Ontario, so from the age of 10 I grew up on a farm, where I learned how to be self-sufficient. Growing up on a farm in the sticks of Ontario, you are pretty much on your own, so I had to learn a lot of skills that served me well for the rest of my life—especially when we built the resort in the Bahamas.
When I was 17 I enrolled in Sheridan College in Ontario, where I took three years of electronics and two years of media arts. I also attended a technical college where I took after-hours classes on welding, woodworking, machine die making, batteries, and solar systems. I eventually taught classes at the same college on solar.
Dan: You said you’ve have been in the board industry for more than 50 years. How does that work? Do the math for me.
Bob: I started making PCBs at a local shop, RDS Circuits in Georgetown, in 1964 when I was 14. I worked at that company weekends and after school. After a while I started making music amplifiers for local bands and I needed to build my own PCBs, which I also designed, and the owner allowed me to make them on my own. When I started at RDS, it was a single-sided shop. But over the next four years, I kept working there part-time and summers all through college. Then we got into double-sided. I remember their first drill was a drill press and I drilled each hole one at a time, by hand. I still have the scars in my fingers from the drill bits.
Dan: Where did you work after that?
Bob: Well, I was at RDS from 1964 to 1972, and then I went to Crawley Films and continued to make PCBs for them as well. Then I went over to the CBC.
Dan: The Canadian Broadcasting Company?
Bob: Yes, they needed PCBs for their electronics department, so I set up my own little board shop. After that I started making all-electronic PCBs. In 1984, I bought a Heathkit computer, 32K memory, very hot stuff for that time and I used it to write my own Gerber panelization software in Fortran. I bought a laser plotter and built my own multilayer press in 1986 and started making very fine lines for RF boards, and by 1987 we were making 1-mil lines and spaces. We also tested one of the first graphite carbon electroless processes and we were probably the first green shop, since all our water was recycled. After that I figured out that there was very little money in your standard technology PCBs, so I started making fine-line boards as well as heavy copper boards and high-voltage circuits. I invented much of the technology we use today. I have been awarded seven patents and two more are pending; I have been mentioned in 32 other PCB patents.
Dan: And when did you start your own shop?
Bob: I started making boards in my own basement, when we were building and selling solar controllers. We had to move after that first year because we had 13 people coming to work in my basement every day.
Dan: How long did you have this first little PCB shop?
Bob: I started it in 1978 when I quit my job at CBC Canada, went full-time in 1982, and I sold it in 2000.
Dan: That was Prism Circuits, the shop where I first met you. Why did you decide to sell it?
Bob: I had been at it a long time and it was time to move on. And, yeah, I wanted new adventures. I had three people wanting to buy my company with cold, hard cash, so I had an instant auction on the phone, and after two hours, the most aggressive buyer got it. We packed up our house in Canada, put it up for sale, and moved to the Bahamas. We also built a summer cottage in upstate New York. We went on a few cruises and a couple of trips to Europe while I thought about what I wanted to do next.
Dan: How did you get into consulting?
Bob: I had done some consulting while I owned Prism Circuits, mostly shop plating help. In 2000, I was hired to consult for a flex shop in Toronto. I worked for them for two years. Later, I was speaking at PCB West in Santa Clara and the owner of Sierra Circuits was in the audience. He came up to me and hired me to be his director of R&D. So I worked with Sierra for the next eight years. Since then I also have worked with several companies such as Taiyo Ink, Rockwell, Honeywell, Allied Signal and Apple, helping them not only with PCBs but with their designs and design for manufacturability as well. I have also helped numerous other companies with their board designs.
Dan: What were some of the highlights of your consulting career?
Bob: I really enjoyed showing companies how to do things they could not do, like enabling Rockwell to manufacture heavy copper PCBs for their RF radar jammers, or solving a printed circuit board problem for Boeing aircraft involving high voltage. One time, I was an expert witness for a lawsuit against a big appliance manufacturer over a poor flex design that was causing fires; I am very proud to say that we won that suit. While working at Sierra, we set up a complete microvia/HDI shop and invented some new technology PCBs, including one that was virtually indestructible. More recently, I worked more than five years for a large telephone company making a new phone switch. I was the only one in the country who could successfully build the board they needed; it was not an easy task, since this board had movable flex contact elements along with magnets and coils, all built into a 16-layer PCB.