“The most important part of our business is how we service the customer,” says Gerry Breshears, general sales manager of Automatic Systems, Inc., of Kansas City, Mo. The company has been producing high-quality, integrated materials-handling systems for nearly 30 years; some of its products have, in fact, revolutionized the manufacturing of automotive equipment, farm machinery, fiberglass and appliances.
Automatic Systems manufactures a wide range of integrated conveyor systems, electrified monorail systems, BDLR/CDLR systems, power and free systems, process equipment and product-transfer equipment. The company is a major player in one of the most highly competitive manufacturing markets in the nation. “A lot of companies make the same basic systems that we do,” says Breshears. To set itself apart from the rest of the materials-handling pack, Automatic Systems adopted a simple philosophy — dedication to customer satisfaction.
The company has institutionalized this philosophy under its Automatic Advantage program. Automatic Advantage commits the company to designing every system according to customer specifications. Automatic Systems engineers, manufactures, installs and debugs its systems to operate on schedule, within the customer’s budget and guaranteed to perform at levels meeting or exceeding the customer’s specifications.
Configured for Contact
Automatic Advantage is the natural outgrowth of Automatic Systems’ unique organizational structure. The company has configured its organization to provide the closest possible working relationship between its personnel, the customer, consultants, suppliers and subcontractors.
Under this structure, Automatic Systems places each project under the direct supervision of a project manager. This individual is responsible for all customer contact, from the initial proposal phase to the final acceptance of the project. The project manager also carries the responsibility for estimating and pricing, and ensures that all Automatic Systems departments meet intermediate and final schedule dates. In addition, the project manager oversees and spends an extensive amount of time at the project site during installation and commissioning, to ensure that of all of the company’s contractual obligations under the project are fulfilled.
This method of fulfilling projects has played a huge role in increasing customer satisfaction. It puts customers in increasing direct contact with the project’s actual decision maker in the Automatic Systems organization, ensuring that Automatic Systems directs immediate attention onto all of the project’s requirements. Satisfied customers, says the company, are “the best sales force a company can have. Establishing solid working relationships with all our customers by providing a quality product at a fair price, and treating our customers as we like to be treated by our suppliers, has made (Automatic Systems) the preferred supplier of our past and current customers.”
Automatic Systems opened its doors in 1972, and quickly established a forefront position supplying integrated materials-handling systems to automotive, fiberglass, appliance and farm implement manufacturers. Its market eventually stretched into Canada and to countries outside the Western Hemisphere. In 1981, it was acquired by LICO, Inc., also based in Kansas City.
In 1998, LICO was purchased by Columbus McKinnon, the Amherst, N.Y.-based manufacturer of materials-handling products. Columbus McKinnon announced the deal just two months after it acquired Univeyor, another producer of materials-handling systems. Combining the Automatic Systems, LICO and Univeyor products under its umbrella enabled Columbus McKinnon “to provide an integrated material-handling solution best suited to the customer’s specific application requirements,” said Tim Tevens, then the parent’s president and chief operating officer and now president and chief executive officer.
At present, Automatic Systems’ annual sales capacity is about $200 million, depending on project schedules and product mix. The company handles contracts ranging in size from several thousand dollars for components to as much as $80 million for large turnkey systems. Its Kansas City plant measures about 125,000 square feet; additional capacity is available from outside fabrication shops which Automatic Systems prequalifies to ensure that they meet ASI quality standards, and that they can meet all schedule requirements. Automatic Systems supplies its products either as a prime contractor — with turnkey responsibility for conveyors, automation, robots and custom-designed process equipment — or as a supplier of conveyor equipment, working closely with the customer and other equipment providers.
At present, Automatic Systems’ employees total about 260. Included in this count is the company’s staff of experienced engineers, which covers the mechanical, civil, structural, electrical and software engineering disciplines. The engineers design, detail and commission every project, ensuring that every system conforms to ASI standards. In addition, the engineers make themselves available to train customers in the systems’ correct and safe operation, and in system maintenance.
Another key part of Automatic Systems’ corporate structure is its installation department. Consisting of 25 experienced field supervisors, the department oversees installation on an as-required basis. Generally, the department assigns one or more field supervisors per job site, who in turn hire local crafts people through AFL-CIO hiring halls near the customer’s location.
Along with its customer base in the automotive and farm-products industries, Automatic Systems has traditionally been a key supplier of conveyor systems to steel mills and foundries. Today, its systems also claim customers among an even wider variety of manufacturers in their assembly, production and paint-finishing operations. This broader customer base now includes manufacturers of aircraft, furniture, appliances and recreation equipment, as well as package distribution centers.
Moving to the Future
Breshears believes that the general manufacturing sector offers promising growth opportunities in the years ahead. Automatic Systems and the other sectors of the Columbus McKinnon organization have been aggressively positioning themselves for the time when the manufacturing sector emerges from its current soft state. The company’s automotive customers also remain vital to its business going forward.
Automatic Systems’ electrified monorail offerings place the company in a market that promises “phenomenal growth,” according to a recent study released by Frost & Sullivan, the market research firm. The study examines the present state and future possibilities for both electrified monorails and automated guided vehicles, both of which are growing in use in a variety of industrial sectors. “If the manufacturers of these systems can penetrate more alternative end-user segments, revenues for the industry could top $1.6 billion by 2005,” says Frost & Sullivan.
One of Automatic Systems’ electrified monorail product offerings is the ASI Intellitrak — which, according to the product literature, is “designed and manufactured with onboard intelligence.” The same might be said for the organization, manufacturing, customer-service initiatives and strategies for all of Automatic Systems. “Onboard intelligence” is clearly a way of life at this company.