It is not easy for any company to shift product focus and open itself to a larger market. It takes meticulous planning to ensure success, and the confidence to know that the company will be able to handle its reinvention. Columbia Marking Tools believes it is ready. Some companies find a niche market and stay the course, while others constantly evolve, striving for new developments. Columbia is a company that has been able to accomplish both, and says its next product line in the marking industry – I-Mark™ – will separate it from its competitors.
“It will offer Columbia’s largest growth potential in the years to come,” President Michelle Krembel says. I-Mark is innovative to the marking industry because it is using the latest in software and networking technologies. The company has already developed a niche business from its 50 years of success producing marking tools that mainly specialize in identification markings such as serial numbers and date codes, as well as indenting, inscribing and lasers. It creates an entire breadth of tools from stamps and numbering heads to dot-peen and scribe systems.
I-Mark is a new direction for the company. It is completely programmable, and is the only piece of programmable equipment that can perform both dot-peen and scribe in one process, allowing for 2-D code. Columbia patented its high-resolution 2-D marking process, which scribes a matrix of small square cells to provide superior readability. Krembel notes that Columbia has an edge in the market because it’s the only company with machines of this capability.
Another unique aspect to I-Mark is the systems controller. “It’s the first-of-its-kind to be able to control anyone else’s machine,” Krembel explains. “You can hook it up to [another manufacturer’s] dot-peen or scribe and you can control it. If a customer wants, they can match an old machine with the new controller.”
The I-Mark system also is completely networkable. If a manager has a computer and Internet connection, there is no need to be on the floor to control the machine. “A manager can sit in their office and control all marking on the floor,” Krembel explains. “They can download a program to see what is going on on the floor, and operate it from the office, or anywhere worldwide with network access.”
The idea of developing a completely programmable marking tool occurred to Columbia several years ago. Krembel says the company knew there was a programmable opportunity out there, and knew it was going to happen in the industry, but did not know when.
For several years, Columbia has been partnered with European company Richter Systems & Machines. However, Krembel explains that when the economy began to drop in 2005, and the value of the euro went up, it became more difficult to provide European-based products in the North American market. Columbia started looking for opportunities to create its I-Mark system. The company planned and developed the new product, and hit the go button for manufacturing 18 months ago.
“The biggest competition out there are already familiar with us, so I think we are going to be recognized for our new product,” Krembel explains. “The most difficult challenge ahead of us is getting this information out to the industry users who use this type of equipment.”
Although Columbia already manufactures on the international level, Krembel believes the I-Mark will push the company to have a greater presence. “We are having an international representative conference in March, and we already are working with companies to distribute and sell our I-Mark systems in China and Brazil,” she says. “What’s really nice about the new I-Mark software is that it’s easily localized. Immediately when loading the software, the user can have it in the local language – such as Chinese – and that makes it great for the world market.”
An Exciting Time
Krembel credits Columbia’s employees for the company’s ability to move forward with its reimaging. “We have long-term employees that have a lot of experience in making marking equipment,” she notes. “That makes Columbia a strong company.
“To change this much in our 50th year, it’s pretty exciting.” Krembel states. “It has been a long-term goal, and years in the making. In each of our product lines, we continue to look for production advancements. For instance, in our steel stamp line we do CNC (computer numerical control) manufacturing now. We have been able to drop production time and compete with other companies.
“We are continually trying to reinvent ourselves to meet the demands of the world market,” Krembel continues. “It’s going to be really interesting. We took our biggest downturn last year, and we made our biggest investment [in the I-Mark]. Our biggest challenge will be marketing this year.”