In 1967, when a small group of Wisconsin-based hydraulic engineers envisioned that the future of motion controls was in sophisticated digital drive systems, they planted the seeds of today’s UNICO, Inc.
At that time, heavy industry used hydraulics to control machine motions. Hydraulic control systems were bulky, inflexible and maintenance intensive. Why not, the group posed, take advantage of emerging technological advances to build electronic controls for direct-current electric motors? By extending concepts already being applied with fractional horsepower motors in the machine tool industry and marrying them with new developments in power electronics, the group introduced the industry’s first servo controller for high-power electric motors.
Since this pioneering effort, UNICO has remained at the forefront of developing and incorporating new technologies into practical, reliable control solutions for industry. From a fledgling firm operating out of a rented storefront, UNICO has grown to become a multinational organization with 300 employees and sales approaching $50 million.
UNICO directed its early marketing at original equipment manufacturers in the United States, particularly those building machines to feed and cut coiled steel. The automotive industry was quick to realize the potential of UNICO’s thinking. Chrysler became one of the first users of a UNICO high-speed press feeder — a machine that cuts steel blanks that are formed into fenders or other auto body parts. Since then, the automotive market has become an integral facet of UNICO’s business, and the company has built relationships with many of the world’s auto makers.
In 1971, UNICO helped usher in the computer age in factory automation by developing a minicomputer-based controller. The first of a long line of intelligent controllers, it paved the way to one of the company’s strongest assets — its software prowess. Computers replaced hardwired controllers with flexible, powerful, programmable intelligence that permitted better control of increasingly complex processes. The company’s ability to tailor software solutions to meet customer needs became its hallmark, and an ever-increasing body of application knowledge was cultivated. Today, UNICO invests a great deal in developing software, and the majority of the company’s approximately 150 engineers are software engineers.
As UNICO’s capabilities became more sophisticated, so did the systems it engineered. While early controls were limited to single motors, computerization opened the door to integrated systems. By the mid-1970s, UNICO systems were coordinating entire production lines. The company quickly established its ability to tackle complex, high-performance applications — a reputation it aggressively maintains today.
Opening More Doors
UNICO’s products quickly proved themselves in other markets as well. The company innovated techniques for improving lumber yield from logs and for producing veneers used in making plywood. It developed performance controls for rotary knives and other machinery used in producing paper and corrugated products. It also expanded into the metal-forming industry with sophisticated controls for presses.
While the company has always manufactured its own drives to support its systems business, in the early 1990s it began marketing drives directly to others who could integrate them and benefit from UNICO’s know-how. A broad line of products intended for general- and high-performance applications was launched. The company remains one of the few domestic drive manufacturers in an arena dominated by imports. It prides itself on manufacturing smart drives, not necessarily
Diversification has not been limited to just products and applications. As UNICO’s business expanded, so did the company’s global reach. In the early 1970s, the company established its first international presence in Europe. In the 1980s, it opened offices in Japan, Mexico, Canada, China and the Philippines. The company’s most recent expansion was to the oil fields of Venezuela, where UNICO drives help extract heavy crude from deep wells. Domestically, UNICO drives have penetrated rural regions with irrigation and farm applications that are helping to bring U.S. agriculture into the 21st century.
UNICO markets itself using a number of approaches. It works closely with OEMs within target industries, lending expertise to help them design and properly specify controls for new lines. Another important source of business is retrofits. Since many machines have a life expectancy of 20 years or more, technological improvements frequently outpace them. This makes it attractive to update the controls every seven to 10 years for greater productivity.There are two avenues connecting the company with the consumer. Direct sales accounts for a substantial amount of both new and repeat business.
A knowledgeable sales force provides a regional pipeline directly to UNICO’s resources. The balance of sales activity is the result of the company’s network of alliance partners — value-added resellers that buy products from UNICO and market them within their particular niches. One of the most important advantages UNICO enjoys is its small size. Bigger isn’t always better, and the firm’s responsiveness allows it to nimbly outmaneuver the lumbering giants with whom it competes. Customized, special projects are frequently out the door before larger companies could have finished discussing or designing them.
Moreover, the company is usually willing to assume a higher level of risk. Because the firm is closely held rather than at the mercy of stockholders driven only by profit, management is free to put investing in the success of its customers ahead of its bottom line. As a people-oriented company, the employee-owners share in the company’s success. For the three founders who are still members of the UNICO family after nearly 33 years, it’s a matter of pride to have witnessed the company’s growth and accomplishments and realize that their collective dream for the future has come true.