COMSTOCK PARK — One West Michigan manufacturer of stamping dies hopes to leverage a self-funded automation business into its primary money maker in the years ahead.
Preferred Tool and Die Co LLC of Comstock Park has primarily manufactured stamping dies and stamped components since its founding in 1966. However, after taking over the business from his father in 1998, Tim Launiere saw an opportunity to bring the organization to the next level by developing automation equipment.
Using his own funds, Launiere began designing a series of automation equipment targeted at the stamping industry. He noted the combination of fitting automation into his core stamping business, his personal interests and “the challenge” led him to pilot the automation program at his company.
Eventually, Preferred Tool and Die created an internal unit, DieBotics LLC, dedicated to advancing the automation business.
Specifically, DieBotics focuses on developing robotic walking beam transfers, mechanisms that move components along the manufacturing process. While these products exist in the stamping industry, they’re primarily controlled through mechanical or pneumatic means. Instead, DieBotic’s product utilizes a programmable robotic arm.
“We think we’ll be competitive,” said Launiere, who serves as president of Preferred Tool. “We have a completely new design, there’s nothing out there like it on the market so far. If it appears to be as good as testing shows, we should have something to scare the competition.”
While stamping work has long formed the basis for the company’s book of business, Launiere believes sales of automation equipment will outpace it in the coming years.
“A lot of our increases are because of our new automation,” Launiere said. “Now that we have a partner, we’re pushing to make it a standalone company that’s not dependent on Preferred Tool and Die. We’re working on much larger offerings.”
Preferred Tool and Die generated approximately $10 million in annual sales, compared to $1 million for DieBotics, but Launiere expects that dynamic to change. He projects DieBotics soon will outperform Preferred Tool and Die.
“We’re going to try to double sales each of the next four years,” Launiere said. “With the new products coming online, we feel like we have a good chance to do that.”
It’s likely that DieBotics will find a receptive audience for its robotics equipment among manufacturers, particularly as the use of robotics, machine learning and other technologies continues to skyrocket as companies struggle with personnel constraints.
Total shipments of robotic equipment in North America reached 30,875 units in 2016, up about 10 percent compared to the prior year, according to new data published by the Robotic Industries Association. Likewise, capital invested in robotic equipment increased roughly 13.1 percent over the same period, reaching $1.81 billion last year, compared to $1.6 billion in 2015.
In addition to focusing on its automation business, Preferred Tool and Die also plans to invest $1 million in a 6,400-square-foot expansion project to accommodate a larger stamping die press. For Launiere, the decision to expand his business was relatively straightforward.
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Comstock Park-based Preferred Tool and Die Co. plans to grow its business primarily by developing automation equipment under its sister company, DieBotics LLC. While Preferred Tool and Die currently generates $10 million in annual sales compared to DieBotics’ $1 million, President Tim Launiere expects DieBotics to double its sales every year for the next four years. The company currently employs 28 workers at its Comstock Park location.
“Tooling is becoming more complex as the tools that we have become more capable, such as die design tools, draw simulation, that sort of thing,” he said. “When the dies get bigger, you need more tonnage. We purchased a larger press so we need to put an addition on to house that press.”
The expansion will also free up space on the shop floor to grow the DieBotics portion of the business.
The company currently employs 28 full-time workers and would like to hire more, but it’s struggled to find available talent, Launiere said.
‘OUR NEXT ENGINEERS’
Beyond the additional space for Preferred Tool and Die’s operations, the expansion will also open up room for a student robotics team, which the company has housed in its facility for the last two years and supported since 2013.
That ONE (Our Next Engineers) Team operates through First Robotics, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization that hosts robotics competitions for young adults.
That ONE Team consists primarily of homeschooled students and other youths from schools without robotics programs.
While Launiere began the program as a way to work with the students and give back to the community, he’s come to realize programs like it are essential to building a reliable talent pipeline in the region.
“(The program) has been good for us,” Launiere said. “I’ve actually hired a few people from the team, most on an intern basis. But eventually, when they get through college, I hope to have some of them come back to work for me. … I think it’s good for the young people and a way to give back to the community.”