Leesburg-based Electronics Instrumentation & Technology last month sold its manufacturing operations to Zollner Elektronik AG.
The transaction provides an expanded U.S. footprint for the family-owned German firm that has grown to become one of the world’s largest electronic manufacturing service companies. And it marks a new chapter in the life of EIT founder Joe May, who will continue his engineering work through a rebranded company: EIT 2.0.
May said the sale will be a big win for Leesburg, as Zollner is expected to significantly increase manufacturing operations at the plant near Leesburg Executive Airport. Meanwhile, EIT 2.0 plans to build a new headquarters just across the street, where it will focus on ultraviolet measurement technology, avionics and applied technology.
“I’ve sold the manufacturing arm. When you say that it sounds like I’m cutting and running. I’m not cutting and running, in fact far from it. We’re actually going to work in an area where I think is beneficial to everybody involved if we can do it properly,” said May, 85, who founded EIT in 1977.
May said the increasingly price-driven manufacturing market isn’t as satisfying as his work designing new products.
“I’ve had a lot of success with inventing things, and I’ve got some more of that in me,” said May, who holds 28 patents, with a few more pending. “I’m coming to the end of my career. I plan to work another five years and I want to work on things that I’m honestly proud to be a part of. “
Much of that work is in the field of UV measurement. Today, the company is working with healthcare facilities to develop systematic ways to ensure the disinfection of patient rooms with the goal of reducing the rate of hospital acquired infections. EIT’s ultraviolet measurement tools are designed to lower infection rates, lower healthcare costs, and keep people healthy.
May recently returned from a visit to a West Coast hospital where he was working to help measure the amount of UV radiation that was being applied in an operating room. “They don’t know if they’ve got too much, not enough or none at all, because you can’t look at it and tell. So, we designed a nice little instrument to do that.”
While UV radiation is growing in use to disinfect surfaces where COVID or MRSA may be an infection threat, May’s work measuring UV radiation goes back four decades. At EIT’s former plant in Sterling, the company received a shipment of circuit boards that weren’t properly cured, a $40,000 loss.
“I ended up designing an instrument to measure how much UV they were putting on the printed circuit boards to cure them. That was just self-defense in my case. In fact, I gave them the first instruments and said, ‘Here it is. Use it.’”
“That little product turned into other little products, and we now sell into 53 countries,” he said.
The company’s expansion into avionics is more recent—and increasingly important because of the advent of increased air traffic and the use of electric powered aircraft.
It began when, at age 73, May got a license to fly helicopters.
“It was sufficiently challenging that I ended up inventing and getting patents on two safety devices for helicopters,” he said.
“Quite a few of our products have come along by someone calling and saying, “Hey, can you think of a way to …,” he said, with the now ubiquitous first-down line on televised football games falling into that category.
Another reason to expand with a new company, May said, is his staff, many of whom have served with him for decades.
“It would bother me a great deal to shut down what we’re doing. Forty-five years of good history is useful,” he said. “I like what I do and I think the people who work here like what they do and take pride in it.”
In addition to the engineering work, the new building for EIT 2.0 also will house the May Family Foundation, the family’s philanthropic arm that has focused on providing educational opportunities to students who otherwise might not see their talents fully realized.
May reflects on his own experience as a poor student who faced expulsion from high school until he promised his principal he would do something productive with his life. Just weeks after graduation, he was at Fort Jackson, SC, for Army basic training. There, he was sent to electronics school and assigned to a guided missile unit—and found he had a knack for it. After serving three years, he was, with a little help from his principal and others, admitted to Virginia Tech’s engineering program. He excelled there, rising to number 9 in his class ranking until he started dating his soon-to-be wife, Bobby, and then he “tapered off a little bit.” The couple, now married more than 60 years, started EIT together on their kitchen table. That once failing high school student also went on to serve 20 years in the House of Delegates.
“We’ve chosen to make assisting kids academically one of our family foundation objectives,” May said. “It is amazing to us how many really talented kids there are out there who are going nowhere fast. Kids like me. I didn’t even know what an engineer was. No idea.”
The foundation is involved locally providing scholarships to high school graduates through the Loudoun Laurels program and at Virginia Tech by helping to expand opportunities for engineering students, among other activities.