Not Your Average Engineering Firm
D&D Automation Inc. is a fast-rising provider of factory automation control systems headquartered in Stratford, Ontario. The company is growing at a rate of 25 percent a year and was recently named one of Canada’s Top 100 Small and Medium Employers. Clients include BMW, GM, Ford, Toyota and ThyssenKrupp, among others. It has done projects for automotive firms, Australian paper mills, Jamaican breweries and Chilean copper mines.
D&D president Michael McCourt attributes the company’s success to a culture of what might be called pragmatic innovation.
“Everyone thinks innovation is dreaming and imagining, sitting around in a bean bag chair … that’s part of it, but the other part is this rigour you have to put to it to make sure you’re actually finding the right solutions,” says McCourt, who co-founded D&D in 1992 with a business partner shortly after graduating as a controls engineer from Fanshawe College, based in London, Ontario.
Innovation, in other words, is a process that needs to be carefully managed to achieve practical results and is not an end in itself, he explains. It’s a philosophy that has fuelled D&D’s impressive growth, from two people at the start to “a little over 70” employees today, says McCourt.
Most employees work at the Stratford headquarters but a handful toil at D&D’s second office in Greenville, North Carolina. The Greenville branch was established four years ago so D&D could be close to its car client, BMW, which has a huge plant in the area.
The company’s product services include project management, consulting, conceptual design and custom software, while its technical services include engineering and mechanical design, controls programming, vision systems, robot integration and PLC programming.
One of D&D’s flagship technologies is the VERA (Vision-Enabled Robotic Assembly) cell. Unveiled in March 2014 at the Fabtech Canada automation trade show, VERA is designed to add flexibility to the manufacturing process. A VERA cell handles a variety of tasks that would normally require a series of robots. VERA, which relies on proprietary technology, is primarily used for automotive welding and assembly work.
The VERA concept was a collaborative effort with input from several employees, says McCourt. In this manner, VERA is one of the crowning achievements of D&D’s culture of innovation. It’s a culture that McCourt has carefully nurtured.
“What I realized very quickly is that people have their environment – their desk – where they work. The desk is not where they put their head down to think, however. So what we did, we created a space called ‘Shark Tank,’ then we filled it with robots, vision systems, controllers, a 3D printer … we made it a free space,” he recalls.
Employees were encouraged to visit the Shark Tank room to do pet projects or conduct experiments with various pieces of equipment. The Shark Tank workspace “was the best money we ever invested because it lit a fire under innovation,” says McCourt.
Employees were not the only people intrigued by the room: “Our suppliers became engaged in it too … they bring in the latest technology,” says McCourt.
Another method of inspiring innovation grew out of an employee session with a Guelph, Ontario corporate training firm called Juice. Juice specializes in the i5 process (In the company’s words, this is “a strategic, five-stage process and set of tools that fuels innovative thinking.”). The five ‘i’s involved are identification, implementation, ideation, investigation and impact.
Shortly after the Juice sessions, D&D put together a so-called ‘Seal Team’. “The Seal Team is leadership embedded within the company,” explains McCourt.
One of the Seal Team’s first assignments concerned a very practical matter. The team was charged with finding a way to take the burden and anxiety out of finding a good parking spot in D&D’s lot. In 2013, the Seal Team instituted a program in which drivers who take the furthest spots from the D&D building are rewarded with points, redeemable for gift cards. At a stroke, this solution added an element of fun to what can be a highly frustrating workday chore.
Outside of settling parking woes, D&D’s innovation culture also led to the breakthrough that is VERA. VERA technology is designed to address a key problem with robotic manufacturing: while robots excel at doing the same thing over and over, they are not so good at handling abrupt changes in part type and size or job function. A task involving say, welding a series of different bolts to a car fender, would typically require multiple operators and a series of robots, each doing one specialized chore. The VERA system, by contrast, uses a pair of vision-enabled robots to multi-task.
“Each one of our VERA cells can accommodate hundreds of different parts and nut styles. A single operator loads a part onto an in-feed conveyor, and a robot recognizes and locates it and transports it to the welding station. A second smaller robot then chooses the correct nut from an assortment of nuts presented and takes it to an automated welder. This eliminates the risk of nut contamination as well as making sure that the nuts are in the correct orientation … once the assembly is completed, it is either placed on an outfeed conveyor or a parts bin and delivered back to the operator,” explains D&D’s website.
VERA “is great for short runs. It’s great for flexible runs. Great for prototyping. You can have one of our VERA lines in the plant that runs 200,000 parts a year. But, when a new part comes out, you need to be able to run 20 or 50 of the new part to test it. [With VERA], it can run off the same equipment. You don’t need to build prototype equipment, which is very expensive,” says McCourt.
The VERA cell does not require special fixtures or multiple operators. In fact, according to D&D, a single operator can handle up to four VERA machines at one time, thus saving labour costs.
The VERA cell “comes as a kit … you bring your part to it and teach it to run that part,” continues McCourt.
After introducing VERA, D&D had to “educate our clients because it is such a shift. You’re not buying a custom piece of equipment that runs a specific piece anymore. When you buy the machine, it’ll run anything. It’s a complete rethink. That’s innovation,” he says.
VERA technology might help with ‘reshoring’ efforts—that is, bringing offshore manufacturing back to North America, adds McCourt. Companies that set up manufacturing operations overseas, to take advantage of cheap labour, might be tempted to return home thanks to the cost-cutting possibilities of VERA.
D&D was included in the list of Canada’s Top Small and Medium Employers for 2015. The editors of the list graded firms on the physical workplace, work atmosphere and social life, health, financial and family benefits, vacation and time off, employee communications, performance management, training and skills development and community involvement. The results were published in The Globe and Mail in March 2015.
Being on the list was an impressive achievement for a company which such humble roots. However, even in the early days, McCourt had big ambitions. Growing the firm was foremost in his mind after he co-founded D&D in the early 1990s.
As McCourt recalls, the fledgling company began adding new employees “almost immediately, because we just kept on landing larger and larger projects. We just kept taking on more and more projects.”
The firm is privately held, and McCourt would rather not reveal its bottom-line, although he does say that revenues are growing at a healthy clip.
Asked why he thinks D&D was included on the Top Small and Medium Employers list, McCourt says, “It’s really our culture. Culture will help you maximize your good days and minimize your bad days.”
Part of that culture involves offering staffers ample opportunities for recreation and socializing. The day McCourt was contacted for a phone interview, D&D was hosting a chili cook-off (“Smells awesome in here today,” McCourt noted on the phone.) D&D has a Fun Time program which keeps employees entertained and engaged. The D&D Team has access to a special fund that gets topped up when the company hits corporate targets. The Fun Time program has resulted in field trips to hockey games, baseball games, go-kart tracks and even the Kentucky Derby.
D&D believes in working with its local community. To this end, the company has given presentations at local high schools, universities, colleges and elementary schools. In summer, D&D runs a “TechKnow Robotics Camp” for kids.
“We bring in kids, and we run day camps on robotics. We’re filling up quickly for this coming summer. [During the school year] we go to classrooms, set up teams, like school soccer teams. We set up robotic teams and bring them here to compete,” says McCourt.
McCourt predicts that D&D’s skyrocketing growth will continue over the next few years. He says there’s no reason why D&D cannot eventually become a large tech firm, employing upwards of 1,000 people.
“All our plans are built around [expansion]. A big part of that is we have a strong culture. We think we’ve got it right, and that attitude fosters growth. It helps recruit great people; it retains great people. Clients love it. We’re not just your average engineering firm,” says McCourt.