Made in Eastern Iowa: Making computers 'rugged"' for extreme use elsewhere

The Crystal Group, in Hiawatha, has seen steady growth over the last decade, especially in the...
The Crystal Group, in Hiawatha, has seen steady growth over the last decade, especially in the military sector, in making the equipment to allow computers to survive extreme conditions.(KCRG)
Published: Apr. 3, 2017 at 3:56 AM CDT
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Have you ever spilled a Dr. Pepper on a keyboard or dropped a laptop down the stairs?

The Crystal Group holds a much higher standard for the technology it strengthens but, for its clients, the situations are also far more critical.

“We design and manufacture rugged computers, mostly for the defense industry but also for industries like oil and gas, telecommunication, mostly where a normal computer would not survive,” said Scott Kongable, longtime president of TCG.

Over the past dozen years, this Hiawatha-based company has seen steady growth. With the United States Navy as a major client, The Crystal Group needs to produce the protection – to “ruggedize” computers – to keep them operating when just about every environmental condition is extreme.

Executive vice president of engineering Jim Shaw offered a demonstration while holding a motherboard.

“We load circuit boards into this device, there’s a screen printer that puts solder paste on and this is called a chip shooter,” said Shaw. “ It actually is taking tiny, surface-mount chips in terms of resistors, capacitors, conductors and actually placing them on the board using our robotic camera for alignment. It does that automatic so we can maximizes the production process.”

About 170 customers work between the multiple buildings on Hiawatha’s north side – one for the engineering end and one for the more traditional manufacturing process.

Mike Kruger, vice president of operations, showed the floor, where computers go through what is called a “24-hour burn” to make sure the units can handle extra stress.

“Our final test area for our server burning behind us, “ said Kruger. “Here we produce all of our products here. We’re very a high-mix, low-volume producer and we try and do everything in-house that we can, from CNC manufacturing to electronics manufacturing.”

Kongable said, in 2003, The Crystal Group started in the military market and, since 2006, the company has experienced “very rapid growth”. He said a primary goal is to grow about 15 to 25 percent each year and that TCG has been able to do that over the past decade.

Here is an example of the stress test for the units that, eventually, leave Hiawatha for other corners of the globe.

“We had different vibration chambers where we put it onto a plate and shake it for an extended time,” said Kongable. “We have temperature chambers where we take it up to very high temperatures or put a lot of humidity into the chamber to make sure the equipment operates through that. We have chambers that simulate the crash of an aircraft to make sure that the computer doesn’t break free and cause harm to other people during the impact.