For 28 years, Integra Technologies has operated in relative obscurity — at least when it comes to the Wichita area.
That's largely because the high-tech, 200-employee firm does nearly all of its business far outside of Kansas, executives of the northeast Wichita company said.
Aside from family and friends of employees, about the only people who know of Integra locally are in the engineering department at Wichita State University, Mark Marshall, Integra's vice president for engineering, said jokingly this week.
That's where it recruits some of its electrical engineers.
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But the company at 3450 N. Rock is a known quantity in the industry it serves, manufacturers and users of semiconductors — tiny electronic circuits used in computers, calculators, two-way radios and TVs — including Texas Instruments, Honeywell and Northrop Grumman.
"They are a critical part of the semiconductor world," said Tom Morrow, chief marketing officer and executive vice president of global emerging markets for SEMI, a 40-year-old trade group for semiconductor makers and related businesses. "They do a lot of the core work that allows state-of-the-art semiconductors to reach the market."
Some of the semiconductors Integra tests are used on equipment operating in harsh environments such as on the battlefield and in space — NASA's Hubble telescope, for example.
"We have some of the most sophisticated test equipment in the world, right here in Wichita, Kansas," said Kent Wade, Integra's vice president for sales.
He said the company has about 400 customers in a diverse range of industries.
And in an industry where rapidly changing technology is the norm, "we've constantly got to invest in new equipment," Marshall said.
Wade said the company spends about $1.5 million a year on new testing equipment.
In an average year, the company's staff — who work three shifts around the clock, seven days a week — test about 60 million chips, Wade said.
Integra was established in 1983 as a test facility for NCR Corp., a manufacturer of digital cash registers and ATMs, which had a 1,000-employee manufacturing plant at 37th North and Rock Road that is now occupied by NetApp.
Through a series of acquisitions and divestitures in the 1990s, the testing center had a number of ownership changes by Bell Labs, AT&T and Lucent Technologies.
In 1998, the testing center was purchased by its management team — including Wade, Marshall, current president Becky Craft and Joe Holt, Integra's Phoenix-based vice president for business development.
Two years later, the management team sold the center to Amkor Technologies, a Chandler, Ariz.-based company that is a contract designer, assembler and tester of semiconductors.
Craft said that in 2005 Amkor decided to sell the Wichita testing center because it was moving that work to its operations in Asia. Once again, the same management team made a buyout of the center.
"They were shopping it," Craft said. "We really wanted to keep it in Wichita."
In 2008, Integra did an employee stock ownership plan, which made it a "100 percent employee-owned" company, Craft said.
"We wanted to let the employees benefit from the performance of the company," she said. "It was the best method to make that happen."
Besides Wichita, Integra has an operation in a 3,000-square-foot building with six employees in Santa Clara, Calif. That operation was established in the early 1990s.
'Not a good year'
Integra's business has benefited from Moore's Law. The law, developed in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of semiconductor maker Intel, says that the number of transistors on a chip, or semiconductor, roughly doubles every two years. The more transistors on a chip means the greater the capabilities of the chip.
As chip technology has improved, so has technology as a whole. More complex chips mean a personal computer today has more computing power than all the computers used in NASA's Apollo program, SEMI's Morrow said.
The physical shrinking of chips combined with their greater complexity and capability has driven the explosion of technology use, from PCs to smartphones and tablet computers.
"It's amazing. For 30 years we've been on that (growth) curve," Marshall said. "It's good for the business."
None of Integra's executives would disclose the company's annual sales. On average, Integra's Craft said, the company has a 10 to 15 percent annual growth rate.
According to SEMI, semiconductor testing is a $25 billion business, with about 1,000 companies involved in that work, most of whom are much larger companies than Integra. Those companies also are largely based and operate in the Asian continent. The fact that Integra is based in and operates in the U.S. makes it unique among its global competitors, SEMI's Morrow said.
"It's a very challenging marketplace and to survive takes great skill and great wisdom, and that's why companies like it are so hard to find," Morrow said. "They (constantly) have to figure out how to test the most advanced chips."
And like nearly every other industry, Integra is susceptible to the swings of the U.S. and global economies.
That was the case in 2008, with the national and global recessions. For two years Integra's business contracted and company officials responded by having a "very small layoff" and temporary salary cuts, Craft said.
"It was not a good year or two," Marshall said.
But in 2010, business started to pick up. Integra restored salaries and began hiring: 50 employees in 2010 and 20 employees so far this year.
Integra's executives are expecting the growth to continue, as well as the markets it serves, including among medical device manufacturers and automakers.
"The more touch-screen stuff you want on your car... just means good things for us," Craft said.
The company is wrapping up a 7,000-square-foot expansion at its Wichita facility, which will grow its production test floor by 30 percent.
"The electronic content in everything continues to grow," Wade said.