People who can set up a small shop to assemble material handling manipulators and tooling might consider themselves competitors to Positech Corp., but that is not the way President Mike Olson sees it. “We consider our strongest competitors to be about a dozen [companies], but if you look at people who sell material handling manipulators and tooling, they’re probably in the hundreds,” Olson calculates. “Anybody who can build this little piece of equipment in their garage gets to consider themselves qualified, but we don’t agree with that.”

A certain amount of expertise is required, he maintains. “We build our products to meet certain standards and don’t always feel that is what we are competing against,” he asserts.

Positech’s competitive advantages are numerous, such as its service group. “The fact that we supply service for all our products and are able to manufacture repair parts for machines all the way back to 1976 is a real big plus,” Olson declares. “Our machines and equipment are long-life machines – robust, by and large – and last a long time.

“We have a full-service group that has the ability to travel to the location and do work onsite,” he adds. Positech also operates a free telephone hotline to aid customers. “They can call in and we’ll help and assist them as much as we can. Sometimes you have to be onsite to solve the problem. We pride ourselves on the fact that service is a very important part of our business.”

Positech matches the equipment with the customer’s needs. “Our objective is to help you acquire equipment that puts as little between the operator and the material being handled as possible,” Olson emphasizes. “You can quote a really sophisticated piece of equipment, but maybe it is more than you really need. So we are going to help you to make sure you get the right product and at the right cost-to-feature ratio. Our objective and our goal are to do it right. We’re a little more conservative than most, to make sure that you’ve got the proper support and proper service. In the end, you will have a piece of equipment that you are really happy with.”

Smarter Machines
Olson sees a trend toward smarter manipulators. Many of Positech’s products that use hydraulics and some using pneumatics are including programmable logic controllers to control the machine and tooling while monitoring their position. “A trend we’re working on right now is along the lines of providing smarter machines that will have the ability to help you know where you’re supposed to be as an operator,” Olson explains.

For example, a machine using a cross-torquing pattern to tighten bolts and nuts will be able to tell the operator the order in which the bolts should be torqued and confirm its position. Switches will disable certain features if an operator is working in the wrong zone, or it will not allow a conveyor to start until the operator is out of a zone with a product.

In Positech’s 60,000-square-foot single facility – which includes the manufacturing plant, storage areas and offices – the company uses a combination of automation – including computer numerically controlled flame-cutting and programmed machining operations – and manual methods to produce its products. Some of its lathes and mills are operated manually, for example.

More than 50 percent of its manufacturing is custom, so its in-house engineering staff uses 3-D models to design the machines and equipment it makes. “This has been very helpful,” Olson declares. “We are able to get quite a bit more done with fewer people, and it allows us to be much more accurate from a weight and size standpoint.”

‘A Real Advantage’
The company uses lean manufacturing methods to collect all the parts for a product in a bin by number. “So you don’t have to go to multiple places to find your parts – they will all be in one place,” Olson explains. Positech also is working on reducing the number of steps required to complete a process.

“If we can come up with a large sum of money, we’d like to rearrange our building layout,” Olson muses. “That’s one of those things that is a lofty goal, so we can restage things a little bit in terms of where the materials come in, where they get welded and so forth.”

Part of Positech’s company culture is to deliver quality products and services and strive for continual improvement. “We are focused very heavily on that,” Olson emphasizes. “We keep track of rework. We know where the problems are and solve them.”

Managers work with employees to improve products instead of always looking over their shoulders, micromanaging and setting up rules. “We’re not the yelling, screaming type,” Olson maintains. “We’re all very proud of our employees. We have a very good set of employees here. I think the average tenure is around 15 years. Our longest employee tenure is nearing 50 years; they could retire, but they don’t want to. They started in high school.

“The fact that people stay here says something about our atmosphere and is beneficial for the customer,” Olson asserts. “If you’ve been working with person X, they’re probably going to be here if you need help and assistance. So that’s a real advantage.”