By Eric Peterson | Jul 03, 2019
Conveyor lines and automation
Employees: 150 (AMT / Anysize combined)
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Conveyor systems and automation
Ingraham started AMT (short for Advanced Manufacturing Technology) with Luanne Mullen, controller and majority owner (and Ingraham's wife), and Rod Talbot, VP of manufacturing.
Talbot and Ingraham had worked together previously at Goldco, another beverage-focused automation company, and opted to start their own conveyor-line supplier in the wake of an acquisition. Amcor and Plastipak were early AMT customers, and remain customers today.
In 2008, the company released its pioneering Anysize system that allows bottling lines to handle different container shapes and sizes, but the volume was "really low" in the face of the financial crisis of the same year, says Ingraham. "We've had some ups and downs," he notes. "In 2012, we almost crashed and burned."
It was after the launch of the second generation of Anysize. The flow rate was off due to a technical glitch, and there were mechanical problems to boot. "It would underfill, overfill, underfill," he says. "We shipped 35 of them before we realized."
The company subsequently lost more than $1 million rectifying the issue with "a mechanical solution to a software problem," says Ingraham. "2012 was a catastrophic year. '13, '14, '15, and '16 were climbing out of the ditch."
He adds, "It didn't just hurt our bottom line, it hurt our reputation as well."
The fourth generation of Anysize started shipping in March 2019. The "jumping-off" point for a limited system is $12,000, but they commonly run in the six figures.
Through it all, the system has emerged as a bottling industry standard. "Anysize is pretty much at every beverage plant in the United States," says Ingraham. "It's a dominant technology. A lot of people try to copy it. The patent system works very well for us."
It follows that Anysize licenses its technology to AMT's competitors in the conveyor industry. "We don't force people to buy our system," he says.
Beverage companies, however, don't need to be forced to buy Anysize. Pawelski says they're guided by a simple equation: "The faster these lines are, the more profitable these lines are."
He continues, "In the last decade, we've added on Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Refresco -- all the major fillers. Any plastic bottle you'll find in the store is probably run on our equipment."
That includes milk, energy drinks, soft drinks, and beer. "Left Hand was the first craft brewing line," but the company has also done "odds and ends" for New Belgium, Odell, and Boulevard. "We also work with AB InBev, Coors, and other breweries."
He notes that the budgets of craft breweries are often a mismatch for AMT's systems. "It's difficult. We're custom engineering. A lot of local breweries are using off-the-shelf products."
AMT developed Anysize as a response to beverage brands' increasing efforts to differentiate through packaging. Catalogs expanded from stock 12-ounce and one- and two-liter bottles to a wide range of different shapes and sizes of plastic bottles.
Ingraham says it all started in 1994 when Coca-Cola launched a plastic bottle that resembled a vintage glass one. "Sales went up by billions of dollars," he says.
It led to a revolution in beverage packaging. "Now some of these lines run 10 bottles, 20 bottles," says Pawelski.
That's where Anysize enters the picture. "You can just press a button and the line will run a different product."
Consider this: The bottling industry considers a single jam per 250,000 fills an acceptable rate of failure.
That means high-speed bottling lines need to be engineered down to the millimeter, or else things can go haywire. "When things go wrong in our industry, it's the same thing repeated 1,000 times," says Pawelski. "All it takes is one loose bolt or one flagging guide rail and it causes a jam."
"When you can only have one failure per quarter-million, you need to keep it as simple as possible," says Pawelski. "You have a precision spring and an air cylinder -- one moving part. All you have to do is vary the pressure and the position changes."
The notably energy-efficient system features as many as 50 positioners on a single air line that move in synchronicity. "Daisy-chaining a bunch of pneumatic cylinders together with a single air line is very simple," says Pawelski. "They're intuitive and easy for someone with limited mechanical knowledge to operate."
That's key as bottling plants move towards more automation in markets with high labor costs. In places like South America and Mexico, labor is often cheap enough to eschew automation and solutions like Anysize, but that's rapidly changing.
Friction is a big issue. "We use linear bearings wherever possible," says Pawelski. New in 2018, AMT's AirDeck line "is like an air-hockey table," he adds. "It lifts from the bottom." And it's just one of a growing number of innovations AMT has brought to market.
In order to supply out-of-state conveyance competitors, AMT spun Anysize off as a sister company. The combined workforce of both operations is 150 employees in side-by-side buildings in Loveland.
The structure allows Anysize licensees to offer the technology on competing conveyor lines. "When you're dealing with the Pepsis and the Cokes, they're required to have two bids," explains Pawelski. "They're not going to give 100 percent of their business to one company."
AMT now has about 500 lines in the field in every state in the country, about half of which have Anysize. "All new lines need to be swing lines," says Pawelski. "Almost every single new line has Anysize on it."
The supply chain is largely local and includes welding and machine shops on the Front Range. "We do 10 percent of our fabrication here and 90 percent within 100 miles of our plant," says Pawelski.
On the sales side, AMT works with a number of integrators like fellow Loveland company BW Integrated Systems and Kentucky-based ProMach. "It's good for us, because we can focus on innovators in our field," says Pawelski.
Revenue for both companies combined has topped $20 million in recent years, but there are expectations for a banner year in 2019. "This year is a huge year," says Pawelski. "We'll probably be breaking records."
"Our growth potential is very strong now," adds Ingraham, forecasting annual growth of 15 to 20 percent for the next five years. "Anysize technology is a big part of it."
Another factor is competitors "going out of business lately. We're talking last of the Mohicans now."
But Ingraham has taken a step back from day-to-day operations in the last few years and passed the baton to employees. "The younger generation has to do it," he says. "My life force got spent out on the road getting us to the 20-year mark. . . . I'm not going to let the place steal my life."
"People my age complain about young people all the time," adds Ingraham, 61, "but I ain't one of them."
Challenges: "Really, it's just being cost-competitive," says Pawelski. "A typical line is $1,000 a foot, and our typical line is 300 to 500 feet."
"We use a lot of steel," he adds. "Metal prices right now, with these tariffs, we have to eat some of the cost."
Opportunities: Diversifying Anysize outside of the beverage industry; targets include manufacturers of paint, automotive products, salad dressings, and sauces.
"It used to be high-speed bottlers thar needed swing lines," says Pawelski. "Now it's anyone making products that go in a grocery store needs a swing line."
As beverage currently accounts for 90 percent of sales, there is plenty of room to grow in other industries "selling Anysize systems to TV dinner or paint companies," says Ingraham. "The big challenge right now is the selection of what we want to go after."
Needs: Talent. "For us to grow, we need a certain type of skilled engineer and a certain type of skilled person, and there are very few of them," notes Pawelski.
With AMT in 30,000 square feet and Anysize next door in 15,000 square feet, space is another need. Ingraham says the plan is to expand the Anysize facility. "We can double the size of the building," he notes.