Tuesday , December 11, 2018

Eclipsing the Competition

From robotic arms on automotive assembly lines to energy regulators for utility companies, automation is everywhere. For Eclipse Automation Southeast, located in the Whitehall Technology Park, this means big business.


Eclipse Automation Southeast (SE), along with Eclipse Automation Southwest located in Fremont, Calif., are the newest appendages of Eclipse Automation, Inc., headquartered in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.


Eclipse Automation SE President Eric Nitsche explains, “Eclipse Automation was started by four individuals who had been in the automation industry for some time. They all left the company they worked for and started Eclipse in a 3,200-square-foot space and the company has grown steadily over the last 13 years. Even through the financial collapse, Eclipse managed to grow and was able to acquire a number of struggling companies along the way.


“In the latter part of 2012, customers forced expansion,” continues Nitsche, “and the question became whether to continue to expand operations in Canada or to make the leap into the U.S. That was a straightforward choice because 80 percent of the company’s customer base is in the U.S. That’s when they contacted me and asked me to head up their U.S. expansion.”


The Custom Automation Operation


Nitsche was not altogether unfamiliar with Charlotte. “I had worked for another automation company for many years,” he says, “and that company had sent me to Charlotte in 1998. When Eclipse approached me to take over their U.S. expansion effort, I immediately recommended Charlotte as the first location.


“The Southeast is extremely vibrant and Charlotte is situated with the I-77 and I-85 sector right here, providing easy access to virtually anywhere in the Southeast. If you have to go further, there are few better airports than Charlotte-Douglas. Also, being a Charlotte resident, I knew the market, and I knew we had access to an abundance of skilled trades and engineers.”


One of the keys to Eclipse Automation’s success, both in the U.S. and in Canada, is the fact that all of the owners are involved in day-to-day operations. As Nitsche explains, this is incredibly important as the process of turning a concept into a finished piece of custom automation can be quite involved.


“The conceptualization process is important because what we deliver doesn’t yet exist,” Nitsche explains. “You can’t open a catalog and point to something and say ‘You need this.’ So, to start, we go out there and find a need. From there we develop high level concepts and build our proposals.


“If we’re fortunate enough to win the work, we generally start with a detailed mechanical engineering process. This takes the concepts and starts adding details to them from a mechanical perspective. We then layer over the controls phase, which is simply put, the electrical side of solution. I often like to analogize the mechanical side to the brawn and the controls side to the brain.


“Once the design is evolved, we move it out to the floor where we manufacture all of the bits and pieces that we’ve custom-engineered and procure the engineered-to-order content or off-the-shelf commodity parts. Once that’s complete, the assembly phase begins. Everything starts with a concept, moves through mechanical and controls engineering, and then we complete a mechanical and electrical build. Once the assembly phase is complete, we program things on the software side—the brains of the machine.”


He adds, “Then we debug and integrate, so all of the guys are out there on the floor making sure everything is working accordingly. Once we’re sure the machine is ready, the customer comes and validates, we deconstruct, move it to the customer’s site, rebuild, and revalidate.”


Nitsche smiles, “After all of that, everybody comes home and we start the next project. With a team of our size, we have roughly 12 projects going at any one time in different stages of completion.”


A Customer-centric Approach


Eclipse Automation serves a number of tech industries. The Charlotte facility focuses primarily on automotive at present. Currently, the Southeastern region is experiencing high growth in the automotive sector as many manufacturers abandon the Midwest.


However, Nitsche expects the North Carolina facility to begin taking on more work in other industries going forward. With North Carolina being home to a number of universities, health care providers, and energy companies, Eclipse Automation SE is poised to take on those industries as well, something the Canadian headquarters already does a lot of.


In addition to providing custom automation services, Eclipse Automation also offers engineering services.


“Sometimes, customers need help trying to plan and execute strategies to go to market,” explains Nitsche. “Whether it’s design for manufacturing, a plant layout, proof of principles, engineering services, or design of experiments, we can make it happen.”


He adds, “Because many companies are finding themselves strapped for resources, they often look outward for engineering services to help them decide how to approach things.


“No matter the job, our purpose is to become an extension to our customers’ engineering teams. We practice customer-centricity, trying to understand and continually learn what challenges the customer is experiencing and what solutions they need in order to be effective in their missions.”


Eclipse Automation has been equally purposeful in its mission develop their own enterprise database system to provide total customer service. Unable to find software to meet its needs, the company decided to create its own SQL database application, and today, this database ties together everything the company does to meet customer expectations.


“Other companies try to mesh together different software platforms,” explains Nitsche, “but it just doesn’t flow as seamlessly as needed. Here, everything is automated, right down to employee login. From there, virtually any aspect of the business, depending on the employee’s level of clearance, can be accessed within about five clicks of a mouse.


“Our customer relationship management, our engineering databases, our training modules, our scheduling, our project management, everything resides here. This allows us to be effective for our customers and it encourages everybody in the company to communicate.”


The Evolution of Automation


As Eclipse Automation has grown, the scope of the company’s projects has evolved. Starting out, only a handful of employees were available to work on projects, limiting the clients Eclipse Automation could bring in. Today, however, Eclipse Automation works with some of the biggest names in manufacturing.


According to Nitsche, “If you name the top 10 manufacturers in the world right now, we probably work with eight of them. Part of how we’ve remained competitive is to have a fairly flat hierarchy. We just get it done.


“Our team consists of myself, department heads in the manufacturing area, the mechanical and control teams, someone who takes care of the supply chain side, a controller on the finance side, and a project management team. This allows Eclipse Automation to remain nimble while still being able to take on large projects from top manufacturers.”


Another key to the company’s success is word-of-mouth advertising. While Eclipse Automation does attend trade shows and use traditional advertising on occasion, Nitsche says that doing a job well is the best way to market. In addition, digital tools such as social media are being implemented in order to get the Eclipse Automation name out.


At the heart of it all, however, is the employee selection process. Eclipse Automation recruits skilled tradespeople and engineers based upon experience, aptitude and education. Additionally, all employees are supervised by veterans, and teamwork is a must.


Nitsche explains, “All that we do is team-based. Collaboration is crucial in our business, and having brought in a lot of people from different backgrounds has been challenging, but it’s worked out great because so many people have different experiences and skill sets. While we’re working with the tools that our headquarters has provided, we’re doing so with a whole new cast of characters.


“As far as measuring success, ultimately, it comes down to three things: Can we be proud of the end product? Is our customer satisfied? And did we profit at the end of the day?


“Because we’re a team, there’s not necessarily a key performance indicator. Unlike surpassing the last month’s sales expectations, performance is evaluated different in our industry. As a company, we certainly have goals, objectives, and measurable, but it takes a team to get things done.”


Manufacturing Making a Comeback


In an interesting turn of events, manufacturing as a whole is making a comeback in North America. Although many companies have gone offshore in recent years, they have been met with unforeseen challenges. Quality control issues have been a thorn in the side of many in the offshore manufacturing sector, and natural disasters, such as the tsunami that struck Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor, have crippled many in the industry.


“Manufacturers are starting to realize that, with all of these issues, they are losing control of what they can and can’t do, so a lot of companies are rethinking things and bringing their businesses back to North America; yet they’re still pressured to be competitive, and automation is a key component in that,” says Nitsche.


“The world we live in today changes and turns over so quickly. If you do today what you did last month, you’re already behind. But it’s a fine line. You have to leverage engineering where it makes sense. You don’t want to keep reinventing wheels, but you don’t want to ignore new technology. There’s always better ways to do things.


“For example, we have already started to utilize 3D printing in some ways. It’s a complimentary technology that I’m sure we’ll find more and more ways to utilize.


“In order to get things right, now and going forward, we have to plan, plan, plan,” Nitsche maintains. “When a project comes along, the tendency is to jump right in, but what we have to do is slow down for a minute and gather everyone and plan. Everybody needs to be on the same page.


“That could take two hours, it could take two days, it could take two weeks, but it’s a make-or-break point. Everyone needs to understand the requirements and budgets and effort required, and then plan the project accordingly, and then monitor progress in real-time and follow the plan through.”


One challenge that Nitsche mentions is finding qualified people in a competitive market. He says, in fact, that sometimes Eclipse Automation SE has had to look outside of the region for skilled employees, but fortunately Charlotte isn’t a hard sell.


“Because Charlotte offers so many amenities…good school systems, professional sports, entertainment, museums, the weather…it’s easier to attract employees to Charlotte versus many other areas of the country. Charlotte has a lot going for it, and when we have to go outside of the region to recruit, we’ve got a good story to tell,” Nitsche comments.


As for the future of Eclipse Automation and the automation industry as a whole, Nitsche is enthusiastic and excited.


“Looking forward, first off, Eclipse Automation has always been extremely successful, and now that we’re here in the Charlotte area, I think it’s going to open doors that were never open before.


“We have a tremendous legacy and tools and processes that we’ll be able to offer to a far bigger audience. When people start to see what we have to bring to the table, it’s going to explode.”


He laughs, “In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if our American operations ‘eclipse’ our Canadian operations somewhere in the next decade. The opportunity and audience are just that much bigger.


Will we have more locations in the U.S. going forward? That’s certainly possible, although not on the drawing board just yet. But, even just here in the Charlotte area, the opportunities are immense, the industry is ripe, and to me, the sky is the limit.”


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