35 Years of Excellence at Cirris System
We all love reading the bootstrap stories about manufacturers in the wire harness industry. It’s important to remember, however, that many suppliers to our industry share the same humble beginnings. That’s why it was such a pleasure to sit down with Joe Klekas, U.S. Sales Manager, Sarah Landeen, Marketing Communications, and Ray Jenkins, Software Architect of Cirris Systems, to hear about the company’s history and formula for success.
Back in 1984, Marlin Shelly was working for a well-known printer company. The company was having a problem with the wiring components of their printers. They needed a way to test the circuits, but there was no low-cost solution. He began to tinker in the garage of his Salt Lake City home and developed a simple tester that his company could use. The unit was a hit, and Marlin began to think about the commercial viability of such a simple circuit tester. What he found was an untapped demand for low-voltage continuity testers. Joe explained, “Everything out there was so expensive and Marlin saw the need for a fast and efficient tester.”
Having proven the validity and usefulness of his creation, along with the market viability, Marlin began construction of the first commercial model, he called the Cirris Signature 1000. Like the prototype he designed for the printer company, it had one position of internal memory, or one internal test program. As Joe explained, “Each series of electronic connections produces a unique signature. The claim to fame of those first units was that they were able to produce an algorithm to learn, verify and test the connections, cables and harnesses very quickly and economically.” That principle remains at the heart of Cirris testers sold today. Ironically, Cirris was able to buy back that first tester and the working unit sits in a case in Cirris’s lobby (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Original Cirris tester
By the time he introduced that first tester, Marlin had moved his operation to State Street in Salt Lake City, and began to build his company. From there, his new team developed the next unit which was the Signature 1000 M, the M standing for memory. “They spent the first half dozen years expanding the number of test points from 128 on up to 1024 points.” Joe chronicled.
Having gained a great deal of insight into the needs of his customers on the low voltage spectrum, Marlin began to explore high-voltage, or hipot testing capabilities. “Like the low-voltage testers, the hipot units on the market were very expensive, and he developed a low-cost unit that could perform the DWV (Dielectric Withstand Test) and the IR (Insulation Resistance) on the high voltage end,” Joe detailed. That unit was known as the 1000 H and opened up a large field in a myriad of industries for Cirris.
Not long after, Cirris developed the 1000 R that provided LV resistance measurement and also the ability to test and verify electrical components such as resistors and diodes. “I guess the underlying thing about all of this,” Ray recanted, “is that everything out there was too expensive for small companies to afford, and Marlin really wanted to be able to fill that part of the market.”
It was a good place for Cirris to find themselves. “Marlin’s philosophy at that time was to stay in the blue water by providing solutions without having to compete with other, larger companies,” Ray said. “Our initial customers were the cable shops who supply the OEMs, so that’s what made the price point so important.”
Ray joined the company in 1992 and discussion had just begun about PC control of the Cirris line of testers. “When I was hired, they had just added serial communications to the testers, but we soon came up with commands that we call CTL (Cirris Test Language) that would send test programs to the tester and manage information and results from a PC.” This was about the time Windows was gaining a foothold as a PC operating system. “We decided to jump right in with the Windows market and came up with Easy-Wire™ software. It was the very first Windows software for running these types of testers, and it really helped us have an advantage over other companies who were using DOS based programs.”
These units were then given the “C” designation, C standing for computer controlled. On the high voltage side, the 1000 CH+ became a rack-mounted system with up to 100,000 test points (CH2). On the low voltage side, the CRunits went up to 20,000 test points. Joe added, “Fifteen years ago we introduced the Touch 1which had a touch screen and PC integrated into the unit, with today’s unit being the Easy-Touch™ Pro.” The units continued to upgrade to the current lineup:
- The Easy-Touch™ Pro (Figure 2) with a built-in PC for an all-in-one test system.
- The CH2 compact high-voltage tester used for harness testing.
- The 4200 Series (Figure 3), the newest benchtop tester for easy testing.
- The CR, a versatile low voltage tester often used to test during assembly.
Figure 2. EasyTouch™ Pro
Figure 3. 4200 Series
Joe informed that the company has been perfecting the Easy-Wire software for 20 years. “We continue to have people across the military/aerospace, medical, and industrial industries who are blown away by the simplicity and intuitiveness of the software.” Ray added to that line of thought saying, “That’s really the goal for the company is to make our systems not only economical, but also easy to use.”
Sarah mentioned Cirris also manufactures adapters to fit all of the testers, allowing the attachment of various cables and harnesses connectors to the different test systems. “We have a team dedicated to building both standard and custom adapters for any cable assembly.”
High levels of success require an intense focus on customer service, and that is certainly the case at Cirris. “A complement to our technology is the high level of technical support we have,” Joe stressed, “and we always get very high feedback from our customers on our customer service that are way above normal levels for similar size companies.
That intense dedication to customer service and product developments comes from the company culture Marlin instilled from the beginning. The team described the close-knit culture at Cirris as being very much like a family. As Sarah elaborated, “From the beginning, Cirris has been really good about taking care of employees. From free breakfasts and snacks to some great parties and events throughout the year.” Marlin always fostered an active culture at Cirris. Many team members are cyclist and runners and head out for exercise during lunch breaks.
If it’s information you’re looking for, Cirris has accumulated a great deal of it, and Sarah suggested checking out the Learning Center on their website. “We’ve got thirty-five-years’ worth of free articles on our website. While many of these articles pertain to Cirris products, plenty of articles talk about general testing concepts that can apply throughout the industry.”
Sarah explained that companies often need specialized units to perform simple and accurate testing. Cirris also builds custom adapters, cable interfaces and racks for these needs. “These large rack-mounted test systems (Figure 4) can contain thousands of test points and dozens of connectors,” she explained “and our custom products group provides solutions to some really difficult situations.”
Figure 4. Rack-Mounted Systems
Above photo depicts a custom Cirris test system.
In 2013 Marlin Shelly decided it was time to think about retirement, and decided to sell the company. But rather than finding an outside buyer, Marlin sought to place his company in the most capable hands — those of his employees. “We were able to secure an SBA loan and convert the company to an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan),” Joe noted. “We appreciate the opportunity he has given us to be shareholders moving forward, and the company has doubled in revenue since the ESOP.”
Facilities and International Affiliations
The company has always been based in Salt Lake City. “We’ve had three facilities over the years, not counting Marlin’s garage,” Joe joked. “We were on State Street for about 10 years and then Marlin bought a 16,000-sq. ft. facility, and we were there for well over 20 years. Three years ago, we bought a 27,000-sq. ft. building here in what’s called the International Center near the airport, and it’s been a great location.”
Cirris has representation on every continent now, with direct offices in Great Britain, Germany and China. “I want to mention that those particular three affiliations have been key components to our growth,” Joe emphasized, “they were more than just distributors, they were almost divisions of our company.”
Above photos are the Cirris Expo Booth from 2005 (left) and from 2015 (right)
The subject changed to some of the challenges Cirris is facing these days, and Ray quickly quipped, “Well, the water isn’t so blue anymore.” Other larger companies have entered into the market space Cirris had carved out. As such, they need to remain at the cutting edge of innovation to hold the top spot.
Ray pivoted to another challenge, the task of managing the efforts of what is now a much larger company. “We’re no longer a mom and pop shop so we have to make sure we have the right processes in place.” It’s not like it was in the early days with Marlin at the top controlling everything. There’s now a board and management team in place. He further asserted, “We are careful to grow at a planned rate so we don’t grow ourselves out of business.”
Recent AS9100 Certification
Cirris has been ISO 9001 certified since 1994. One of the more recent challenge hurdles, however, has been the jump to the AS9100 certification. Sarah explained that these processes were already in place, but certification just made them more formal and will ultimately provide even better quality to customers. She was proud to say, “The auditors told us it takes most companies two to three years to become certified, but we did it in nine months.”
Cirris had a great start and was given a solid foundation under Marlin Shelly. He handed the employees a great company, and through their market savvy and determination, they’ve made it even better. The team wished to relay they are committed to providing reliable products with excellent customer service, and are always looking at innovations to meet market needs. Joe summed it up nicely saying, “About 80 to 90% of our business is with repeat customers, and that speaks volumes about our relationship with our customers. We are appreciated, and we appreciate the many customers we have had through the years.”