Cutting-Edge Technology and Customer-Oriented Values
Autotec Engineering of Toledo, Ohio prides itself on its technological turnkey automated solutions, engineering philosophy, and customer-oriented values. The firm designs and builds customized robotic, material-handling and product-finishing systems for a wide range of clients. In-house services include mechanical and electrical engineering, programming, machining, fabricating, assembly, installation and start-up.
“We’re a vertically-integrated company. We can even help with installation and start-up, and we have a whole aftermarket division to help with lifecycle of the equipment,” says Sales Director Brian Steenrod.
As a systems integrator, Autotec engineers the machinery, equipment and controls for its robotic and material-handling solutions. The company buys its robots through its partnership with KUKA Robotics and uses Allen-Bradley Rockwell controls “probably ninety percent [of the time], but we also have the capability to do Siemens,” says Steenrod. It uses Solidworks 3D software for design purposes and is an authorized KUKA Robotics System Integrator.
Autotec does manufacture its own custom equipment and finishing machines. “Virtually everything on our finishing machines is designed and built by us in-house,” says President and Owner Tom Ballay.
The company’s main clients can be found in such sectors as packaging, building products, foil, rigid plastics, pharmaceuticals/healthcare and flexible packaging, among others. Systems built for such customers might include gantry robots, activated roller belt conveyors, palletizing and de-palletizing equipment, transfer carts, or stretch wrapping gear.
In October 2016, it moved from Sylvania, Ohio to Toledo, roughly doubling in size in the process. The current headquarters is 42,000 square feet.
“The new location has more space, and as importantly, it’s got room for us to grow. It’s on a six-acre site,” says Ballay.
Material handling and robotics are Autotec’s largest segments, and the company has created some intriguing solutions for customers in these fields. For example, Autotec recently put together a system that centers on the foil found in consumer packaging. Another job involved building a system for a customer that makes the film used to wrap everyday food items.
While it has sold equipment to Mexico and Brazil, the company does not actively market itself outside of North America. “Most of our customer base is all over the United States and some in Canada,” says Steenrod.
“We are really comfortable working with projects as small as a quarter-million dollars and are currently working on a project valued at $6 million. We have dedicated project managers here, and we’re more than capable of handling any size system,” he adds.
Autotec was founded in 1972 by one John Schuster, a mechanical engineer. Schuster imbued the firm with an engineering ethos that it has retained ever since. In the face of lower-cost competition in its early days, with an emphasis on engineering design, documentation and evaluation, Schuster was steadfast in upholding this ethos. Customers have grown to appreciate Autotec’s engineering abilities and the firm has become a success.
“We’re going to stay focused [on engineering]. We’re an engineering company. We actually changed our name. We used to be Autotec Incorporated. We changed it about four or five years ago to Autotec Engineering,” says Ballay. It has also developed a set of four basic company values.
“First and foremost, we’re an engineering-based problem solver, an analytical-logical based problem solver. Secondly, we embed into our customers, so their problems become our problems. A successful project for us [is when the customer] views us as an extension of their business. Thirdly, we believe in doing the right thing. We’re professional. We do what we say we’re going to do; we don’t misrepresent. We believe in fair value. We look for customers that appreciate that. We want someone who appreciates our values – treats us fairly. We’re going to treat them fairly. And fourthly, it’s what we call stick-to-it-ness – perseverance. A lot of companies will get to a certain point and move on. We show up with our lunch pail and stay until the job’s done,” says Ballay.
These four values determine “how we run our business internally and how we sell our business … That’s how we sell, and that’s how we hire, and that’s how we promote, and that’s how we build our business – with those four values,” he adds.
Ballay, who started working at Autotec in 1992, is the son-in-law of John Schuster. He acquired the firm from Schuster in the mid-1990s, when the company founder retired.
At present, Autotec has “about forty-five employees, and about fifteen of them are engineers,” says Ballay. Last year at this time, the firm had around thirty personnel. Much of this recent growth “has to do with material handling and robotics applications. We see a nice future there,” he states.
The company has strict criteria for new hires, beyond the obvious qualifiers of previous experience, knowledge, and skills.
Ballay says Autotec’s biggest challenge at present is “finding good people. As we get new opportunities, we need people and finding qualified people is almost a full-time job for us. We have a very energetic effort right now for recruiting and finding the right people.”“I would say the thing that I look for as a key is that they’re passionate about engineering design, passionate about machine and equipment design. The key is the passion for engineering. That’s not just our engineers. That’s also the people who work in our shop, who put our machines together and make them run. It’s across the board. If they don’t have the fire in their belly for the type of work we’re doing, then even if they have a degree [we might not hire them],” says Vice President Paul Sieben.
Given the central role of robotics in the firm, Autotec is well versed in the latest technology trends in the industry. The company is very interested in the possibilities presented by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT—an online network linking machines, sensors and computers in factory environments to make it easier to gather, share and communicate information).
In a similar vein, Autotec prides itself on creating systems that can absorb “large amounts of data,” says Steenrod.
He gives the example of a customer that “has north of one thousand different SKUs [stock keeping units]. We have a great deal of experience [creating systems for] handling that product, tracking that product, reading bar codes, sorting, grouping back together, creating master shipping labels, and all the associated data management that goes with that,” he explains.
The company uses cutting-edge vision sensors in its robotic and material handling solutions. Autotec typically uses 2D vision to identify or inspect products and is completely capable of integrating 3D vision as well.
Autotec can provide computerized robot simulations for interested customers. Such simulations are typically done when “someone comes out with a product that may move at a super high speed or may need to be manipulated in a certain fashion. We can actually prove out on the computer screen that the robot and the robot programming can do what they’re asking for,” says Steenrod.
In addition to these simulations, it can do research and development for customers seeking insights and opinions on potential products they are thinking of taking to market. Most of these product pitches fall into the packaged goods category.
The company is a member of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). As such, the company follows RIA codes for ensuring safety and quality in the systems it builds. Safety is “integral to every single material handling, robotic and finishing system that we send out the door. We wouldn’t send it out the door if we didn’t have the accompanying safety [information],” says Steenrod. This safety information covers potential areas of caution in operating an Autotec system and offers guidelines for safe use.
Such attention to detail is clearly paying off. On May 15, 2016, the company was presented with the KUKA System Partner Outstanding Growth Award at the annual KUKA summit conference in Naples, Florida. It earned this honor by being the KUKA robotics partner with the highest overall percentage growth in volume for the years 2014 to 2015.
While Autotec Engineering has a website, social media presence, a sales team and marketing materials, promotion, to a large degree, is based on reputation and word-of-mouth referrals.
“Quite honestly, the way we promote Autotec right now is through a lifetime of personal relationships. We have a very experienced team … I always say the customer you have is the easiest customer to keep. We always make sure we treat our customers right,” says Steenrod.
As well as its Toledo headquarters, the company has a sales office in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is structured to increase its sales effort in Chicago, Illinois as a result of numerous projects in that region. While the plan is to maintain Toledo as the company hub, Ballay says he could see the need to open other sales and technical support offices as Autotec expands.
In five years, Ballay hopes the company will be “doing the same thing, just bigger. We’re going to continue to grow. Our projections – we’re shooting to maintain a twenty percent growth rate yearly. We want to build upon our existing customer base. My objective is for our customers to view us as the best company they have in their supply chain. Our objective is to go beyond satisfying our customers. We want to be part of their business.”