January 15, 2009
by Andrew Joseph, Features Editor
Changing with the times has rarely been a more critical requirement for staying in the manufacturing business these days—especially with the wheels appearing to be coming off the North American automotive industry at the speed of light.
Fortunately for folks at the Burlington, Ont.-based Tech-Con Automation Incorporated—an automated material handling and robotic systems integrator whose past work for the likes of General Motors, Ford, Johnson Controls and Honda of Canada Manufacturing has fueled a decade of solid business growth—the company’s management saw warning signs early enough to start shifting its focus to other, more promising industrial sectors such as packaging.
“By no means are we saying that the auto industry has disappeared,” says Tech-Con’s president and chief operating officer Casey DiBattista, “but it certainly presents significant challenges to its supplier base, especially with North America’s Big Three car manufacturers now looking for financial assistance from all levels of government.”
Having joined Tech-Con just over two years ago, “It was shortly after my arrival that I recommended we diversify our custom systems to the packaging industry and other non-automotive sectors,” DiBattista recalls. “This initiative has already paid dividends for the company, as we’ve been able to increase our bookings and revenues.”
Located at a lively, 40,000-square-foot facility in an upscale southwestern Ontario city an hour’s drive west of Toronto, the 50-employee company markets itself as one-shot source for complete automation solutions, according to DiBattista.
With its own manufacturing activities centered on designing automated material handling and industrial assembly systems, the company has acquired a lot of expertise in the area of programming and integrating industrial robots from some of Canada’s leading robot suppliers—including Yaskawa Motoman Canada Ltd., FANUC Robotics Canada, Ltd. and ABB Canada.
“Although we don’t manufacture the robots, we do manufacture the customized grippers on each servo robot,” says DiBattista, pointing out that Tech-Con’s standard pneumatic grippers developed for the packaging industry can handle cartons up to 32×16-inches with eight three-inch suction cups that are grouped in two zones of four cups each, with each zone able to operate independently.
“Depending on how porous the surface is, our end-of-arm tool is able to lift up to 100 pounds per zone,” says DiBattista.
“One of the unique features on our system is contained within the frame—the integral support frame has spaces specifically designed for forklift tines to allow the whole robot system to be picked up for redeployment in other parts of a facility,” notes DiBattista.
DiBattista says he’s been pleased with the success Tech-Con has had in diversifying its client base, citing major food multinationals such as Minute Maid, Rich Foods, McCain’s and Unilever, as well as leading pharma producers like Apotex, GenPharm and Biovail, as some of the newer clients looking to automate their packaging operations further.
“Because we are a privately-owned, custom machine-builder, we have chosen to manufacture everything here—except for doing the painting and powder-coating,” says DiBattista, noting the importance of taking ownership of each project from the start by conducting real-time, three-dimensional computer simulation of the proposed systems.
“Because it’s always better to measure twice and to cut once, we will examine the workcell layout, robot paths, pallet configurations and cycle-times to work any wrinkles, and to do all testing prior to the actual hardware being built,” reveals DiBattista.
“After the design satisfies the customer, the actual unit is assembled and demonstrated on our shop-floor before it ships,” he says, with Tech-Con technicians also making a trip to the customer’s facility to set up the robotic system, test it under actual operating conditions, and train the client’s operators to run the system.
“Although there are a lot of smaller shops doing what we do, and a few larger ones, we cater specifically for the mid-range clientele,” reflects DiBattista, singling out the company’s new palletizing line, launched this past summer, boasting a self-contained loading system incorporating a five-axis robot, with standard or custom end-of-arm tool;
a pallet stacker; a pallet conveyor; and a box conveyor.
States DiBattista: “The most important thing in any plant is real estate, and what we do is offer a palletizing system with a versatile five- or six-axis robot—depending on the box weight and pick weight required—all in a compact workspace.”
While Tech-Con is an authorized Motoman solutions provider, the company is not limited to using this one robotic manufacturer for its palletizing systems, DiBattista relates, saying that it is just as likely to use FANUC or ABB robots if they provide a better fit to the clients’ individual application requirements
DiBattista says that while the company loves to tackle full line integration projects, it is also as proficient at designing stand-alone systems that can be easily plugged into the client’s existing infrastructure.
One of the company’s more popular such systems, according to DiBattista, is the
“The stand-alone pallet conveyance system can be installed over an existing pallet conveyor,” he explains, “or the basic system can be expanded via the addition of a pallet conveyor.
“Make no mistake, we offer a hard-working, durable robotic system that is affordable as well, with an ROI (return-on-investment) achieved within a single year—factoring in three workers over a standard three-shift day,” DiBattista asserts.
“Beyond the stand-alone systems,” he stresses, “Tech-Con can put its years of system integration and custom machine- building experience to work for the client, providing seamless integration of the palletizer into an existing or larger automation system.”
So despite the ongoing problems in the North American automotive sector, DiBattista is fairly confident that the company’s technical know-how and a new strategic focus will serve it well in coming years.
“With the change in our company’s approach to reduce our dependence on automotive applications and more focus on packaging,” he sums up, “we believe have we set ourselves up for a greater chance to succeed not only for now, but for a long time into the future.”