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Tinkering Proves a Profitable Investment for Spartanics

June 12, 2013
How One Machine Builder Stays Curious and Invests in Longer-Term Features and Enduring Contributions So Its Machines Can Become Running Sources of Work and Profit
About the Author
Tom Kleeman is CEO of Spartanics, Rolling Meadows, Ill., which builds hard-tool and laser die-cutting machines, screen printing and re-registration equipment, machine-vision inspection and finishing systems.Even though we're celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, one of our three founders, engineer Sam Willits, continued to work part-time until he passed away about a year ago. He received a U.S. patent for a hot-stamping device last year, too.

Machines, technology and how to improve them were the things that Sam thought about when he woke up at night.

SEE ALSO: Pushing Innovation

That's how Spartanics' entire culture developed. Our founders were very good businessmen who recognized the need to serve customers, but they also had true passion for technology and researching new things. So, we ask a lot of questions as well, and work closely with users to create die-cutting, re-registration and other machines that deliver a competitive advantage. As a result, we've developed many close, long-term relationships with individual clients and their companies — some lasting 40 years that are still beneficial today.

The number one job here is what needs to go out the backdoor now or the service call that just came in, of course, but we don't have a lot of walls or an isolated engineering department. Everyone jumps on whatever job needs to be done or whatever problem needs to be solved. It might not look efficient on the surface, but it keeps the engineers and us in the real world solving our customers every day challenges.

However, when we go to buy a piece of machinery from supplier and ask questions about it, it's sometimes difficult to find and talk to an engineer. When we do get to an engineer, it seems like they feel that they can't spend much time with us. We know the world is a lot bigger and more corporate now, and that everything has to be very scheduled and regimented, but there needs to be a balance so useful customizations can be developed, too.

Unfortunately, we also see that customers are sometimes reluctant to explore possible innovations because they have a business model to follow — and they must get 5% faster. That doesn't leave much time for tinkering, and so I think they could miss some opportunities.

I know it's easy to get stuck behind the eight-ball, and have to chunk out another machine, but that can lead to the hasty decision to just do what's expedient and safe. If you think you're only building the next machine, then there's no incentive to innovate. If you're thinking about more than one, or maybe many in the future, then you have a reason to innovate, and not just take the safe way.

Besides building machines, we also do system integration work, and in all these projects, we seek to bring something special and proprietary to the table. If you have to build a machine in just a few months, you could have to use off-the-shelf components, but you might not have much time for tailoring and customizing. But, if you can take a longer-term perspective, then you can pursue some new ideas, and invest the time to develop capabilities that are better than anyone else.

We took about 10 years to edit and optimize parts of our motion-control components and Visual Basic software to steer the mirrors and cutting beans in our laser cutters, but it was worthwhile because now we have the fastest cutting speeds on the market.

While we complete plenty of jobs, we also try to stay curious and invest in longer-term features and enduring contributions to our machines that can become running sources of work and profit for us. If we're not adding something special, then anyone else can do it and perhaps offer it cheaper. When engineering cost is included, the first version of a newly designed machine might not produce the margin we'd like. But when we build the next one, that investment can really pay off. With the laser cutters, we were able to head down a path that set us apart.

Now, most of the magic is in the software, but there's just as much potential innovation because software has to work with hardware in order to end up with peak performance. So, exploring the operations envelope still provides the chance to achieve 20% better performance.

It just takes a combination of understanding customers and their markets, but also being willing to get out in the field and explore. It's better for our customers, it's better for their operations and it's better for us.

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