It may seem like magic, countless wires and work hours are hiding behind every automated task within a manufacturing plant. Breaking every task into simple actions takes experience, planning and strict control of delicate machines.
Lowell Kempfert has been in the field more than 30 years and today is chief engineer of Neenah-based A-mation LLC. He’s top boss, too. But they don’t sell products. They sell mindware. It’s electronic efficiency putting people and machines together. Applications are infinite, and often not what one would expect.
You contributed to the dawn of Disco?
A theatrical company I was working with said, “Hey, we’ve got a customer building a new kind of night club, and the owner wants their lights to work in patterns and sequences.” That ended up being the lighted dance floor that Travolta danced on in Saturday Night Fever. I helped design that at the Odyssey club in Brooklyn. I was also in New York working for the Xenon Club and Studio 54, and some of the other bigger clubs.
What led to becoming your own boss?
I had a business in Rockford, Ill., similar to what I’m doing now. The economy in Rockford was not doing well. High Tech Control Systems ended up buying my company and letting me keep my job as a lead engineer, or project manager. We closed the Rockford office and moved me up to Neenah when they opened the office here.
I had been with High Tech for ten years. Management was young, and it didn’t really feel like there was much room for advancement. I ended up going to a different company for a couple of years to get away from a non-compete agreement, and then I started A-mation about nine years ago.
When I first started it was just me working out of my house. After a couple years I was getting more work than I could handle. We added another engineer, and I thought it was time to get some real industrial space. We had a lease space at the south end of Neenah right under the water tower for a year. Then we found the space that I’m currently occupying. We’re a block east of J.J. Keller, out on State Highway 76. I’ve got about 3,000 feet of industrial space.
What do you do there?
We design and build the electrical control systems that make machines work the way they’re supposed to work. It can involve robots or vision inspection using cameras. We can get involved with some of the pneumatic systems.
We will often bring old machines into the shop and strip off all the old controls so we can install a whole new system. Or we can take a bunch of different machines, add programming, and add connections and make all the machines talk to each other to make a cohesive manufacturing cell.
We’ve done a lot of work in the paper industry, a lot of work in food processing, and the packaging industry for all kinds of different projects. We have several significant customers in personal care products.
How complex can your work be?
Automation is not necessarily just robotics. There’s a lot more to it. Whether it’s a computer or an industrial control, you have programming that’s going to make that controller perform its task. So, we worked on political buttons.
You’d be surprised how difficult that is. There are a lot of variances. The pins are not all the same size, and they come in different thicknesses. A machine will open up that pin and insert it into the metal back.
Performing that task goes through several processes. You’d have a station that would open the pin, a station that would insert the pin, a station that would close the pin, then a station that would inspect the placement with a sensor, and finally you’d have a station to count off 1,000 of these into a box. It’s never as easy at it looks.
What’s the range of costs for automated controls?
It’s really all over the map. The programming I’m doing right now is just a small addition to an existing line. It’s a $2,000 project. But if one of my customers is building a paper machine that’s going to sell for a few million dollars, the controls portion easily can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A large project for us would be somewhere in the $80,000 to $100,000 range.
How do you find new clients?
I have a sales rep who specializes in what we’d call the service industry. He does a lot of the legwork for finding customers and setting up interviews, but we’re fortunate that more than 75 percent of our business is repeat business.
(For a recent job in Pennsylvania), the client remembered me from 30 years ago, during the six years I worked for the Eaton Corp. There’s no one in the world who knows more about those controls than I do, because I was the technical expert and wrote all the training manuals. But now they recognize that the controls, being 30 years old, really need to be updated to current technology.
What’s the best part of your job?
The problem solving. That’s the challenge. I personally like to get hands on and dig into a project to figure out how to make things happen. That’s the fun part. Every now and then I take on a project so I can keep my hands in it and keep myself up to speed. The business administration, to me, is more tedious.
When I was working for someone else, I had to meet their expectations and their schedules and do things their way. Being my own boss freed me from all of that, but now I have to meet the customer’s expectations and the customer’s schedules, and I have to meet the banker’s expectations. So it’s a different kind of stress, but it’s still a lot of stress.
What’s your management style?
I believe in trusting a person until they prove to me that I can’t. That’s one of my personal basic philosophies. I’ve had bosses that were control freaks and it drove me nuts. The more flexibility and freedom that I was given when I was an employee, the happier I was. I treat my people that way as well because they’re a valuable resource.
I believe people will work best on their own schedule. They have things going on at home with their families and their kids, and I don’t want work to get in the way of that, just like I don’t want family stuff to get in the way of work.
Will humans become obsolete in industry?
There’s a common misconception that automation is going to replace humans. But I don’t predict that’s ever going to happen unless artificial intelligence makes great strides in the next few decades.
There are always analytical decisions. Something always happens that is out of the ordinary. Control systems are built to be repetitive. But when something breaks, or a part doesn’t fit, the machine isn’t going to be able to deal with that. It’s just going to fault and say, “Hey, I can’t make this work.”
Humans have to be there to intercede, to correct problems and solve issues. What you’ll see is that automation in general is going to make humans more efficient.