Custom-Made for Custom Production
In a 21st century, post-COVID economy, automating business processes will become not merely a production concern but one of safety. Yet automation presents challenges of its own – namely, affordability, practicality, and necessity.
In Rancho Santa Margarita, California, just outside the Greater Los Angeles area, one company is overcoming automation issues through a wide and versatile product line and a customer-centric philosophy. ATS Systems offers all aspects of automation machining, from tools to support parts, as well as the ability to install and service anywhere in the United States.
ATS began from a simple need, like so many companies. In the early nineties, machinist Bill Murphy needed a collet chuck for his small machine shop, and unable to find one that met his delivery needs, he decided to make one. After learning of his success, his peers came to him for requests for similar collet chucks, and realizing the potential value of what he had made, Murphy acted quickly, and the fledgling company of ATS Workholding was soon born.
Starting with a small product offering, the company had big ideas. “We’re going to be the Nordstrom’s of collet chucks,” recalls President Ken Erkenbrack of those early days, referring to the popular U.S. department store. “Not only are we going to have the best product, but we’re also going to have the best service and customer experience.” Despite having a tiny phone-based sales team, ATS quickly gained new followers through its dependable and adaptable products.
The modern version of ATS was formally born in 2006 when the company acquired local machine tool accessory importer SMW systems, known for its power chucks, rotary tables and barfeeds. As Erkenbrack notes, it was for mutual benefit. “Where we were strong, they were a little bit weak, and where we were weak, they were a little bit stronger.”
With a rapidly expanding sales and service presence and product line, the company has enjoyed steady growth ever since, today managing its primary facility in California and an equally important CoolJet manufacturing facility outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Always up for a challenge, this dynamic company offers machine tool accessories, engineering and automation solutions that increase manufacturing productivity and throughput. Customers come to ATS to solve a number of challenges: whether they need help meeting their productivity goals; are facing profit-killing downtime; are struggling with throughput; are having trouble finding good workers; are seeking automation solutions; lack a reliable machine tool partner; or are simply finding it difficult to deal with other vendors, ATS’s solutions lead to profitable results for all its customers.
Indeed, because of its roots in machining, ATS has a unique perspective on machining and automation that sets it apart from its peers. “We’re a machine shop, but we also represent product,” Erkenbrack says. “We understand what the customer’s pain points are because we’re a manufacturer ourselves.” The company’s resulting business model is largely customer-dictated; customers list their needs, and ATS determines how best to fill them.
“We’re in shops all the time, and we listen,” he continues, explaining that this receptive philosophy allows clients to lay out their needs. “We’re constantly looking at that and reviewing the industry and what’s out there.” While this could be seen as a reactive rather than proactive business model, the staff prefers this client-driven approach. A pre-set product line may limit the company’s options to customers, so ATS has taken the opposite approach by creating, manufacturing, installing, and servicing highly adaptable machine tool accessories that suit a wide range of customer needs.
Having expanded far from its initial line of collet chucks, ATS now offers a wide and versatile range of adaptable automation solutions. These include bar feeders in multiple configurations that are capable of fitting up to four-inch-diameter bar stock; five-axis CNC automation systems, including tombstones, trunions, and four-axis and five-axis rotary indexing solutions, allowing clients to seamlessly add four-axis and five-axis machining capabilities without having to rely on doing complex cuts by hand; Accu-Rock Rotary Tables, with both four-axis and five-axis, and as the potential addition of rotary or dual helical cuts; and Xcelerate robotic arms, which are fully programmable and turn any small shop into a high-precision, high-volume operation.
The company remains true to its roots, offering a wide array of collet chucks, power chucks, and innovative four-jaw universal chucks capable of clamping round, rectangular, and geometrically irregular parts. Due to its products’ versatility and adaptability, ATS is poised to meet its clients’ specific and evolving needs.
Indeed, while ATS may pride itself on its automation tools, it offers all aspects of machine shop maintenance and servicing. “We don’t just do automation; we have solutions to make any machine more productive regardless of vintage,” Erkenbrack says, highlighting ATS’s high-pressure coolant and filtration systems that keep machines running in top shape, as well as replacement filters, chip and sludge removal systems, mist and smoke collection systems, and metalworking fluid chillers.
As a result, ATS can handle all aspects of a client’s automation model. “We’re able to combine all of our product lines into an automation project,” Erkenbrack says, whereas competitors might be farming out certain aspects to others. “We source all of that from our own products to come out with the solution we provide.” ATS offers a lot of value to its customers and has made machine shop owners a lot of money over time providing solutions that increase their productivity.
The company also offers a nationwide service net, with software identifying ‘pockets’ of intense activity. While ATS’s service technicians obviously cannot be everywhere, they can be strategically positioned to perform installations and repairs as quickly and efficiently as possible. The company has had particular success in employing veterans; with previous mechanical or engineering training, these employees are suited to the arduous task of service calls across wide coverage areas. “It’s a great way to find good-quality technical service people,” Erkenbrack remarks. The company is now working to further strengthen its service network to allow same-day installation and servicing as needed.
ATS’s success is evident through its clients’ testimonials. Erkenbrack relates that, when a client was weighing options for an automation system, ATS could provide forty percent more capacity than its competitors. “We could load our system with more parts than the competition can do now.” The client can now run their automated system round-the-clock, without having to stop and unload finished parts and load in fresh raw material.
Similarly, a Texan business owner was having trouble finding qualified employees. But ATS was helped the owner completely automate his shop. “Now, he doesn’t have any employees anymore; he’s the only one,” he states. Though it was an admittedly heavy monetary investment, the business has continual throughput.
These success stories help bolster the company’s mission of removing the stigma from automation. Erkenbrack says that automated studies revealed how many business owners found the process intimidating, expensive, and unnecessary. More poignant was the fear of highly specialized automation systems. If anything in the business model changed, that system would no longer be useful.
This, he says, has helped ATS develop its model of highly programmable and reprogrammable parts. “They’re not overly customized to where, if the job goes away and they lose the job they were running, [the owner] can easily adapt them to any other job in their facility,” he says. “What we really try to push is getting customers to understand that automation really isn’t as scary as it appears.”
The company’s high-caliber service team has a wealth of real-world experience. “We have a handful of people who have actually installed automation systems throughout the world,” Erkenbrack says, adding that the company’s staff is equally as important as its products. “When I look at our business… you can’t leave out the people,” he says. “We have very skilled and very loyal ATS employees.”
This core staff enabled the company “a chance to step back,” as he puts it, during the worst of COVID-19 and focus on internal development without layoffs. Foreseeing upcoming shortages, the company invested in inventory accordingly and now is largely unaffected by the rising supply chain woes intensifying worldwide. “We invested in inventory and have had very little disruption with our supply chain at all.”
With business returning and the North American workforce continuing to change rapidly, ATS is ready to help machine shops automate partially or completely as their business models require. “We are always looking for potential add-ons and acquisitions,” Erkenbrack says. The company is currently experiencing successful ongoing partnerships with vendors for products such as those offered by Irvine-based KME CNC.
The trick moving forward, he continues, is trying to stay ahead of the ever-changing field of machine tool technology, capability and automation and deciding ATS’s best investment. “What product would help our customers compete, not only nationally but globally?” he asks. Whatever proves to be the answer, ATS Systems will be ready to provide it.