By Eric Peterson | Apr 24, 2017
Founded: 2013 (division); NFT founded in 1984
Employees: 100 (company-wide)
Industry: Industrial & Contract
Products: Custom automation solutions
Founded more than 30 years ago with technology to handle nuclear materials, NFT has expanded into aerospace with Paradigm and vessel fabrication with EPD. In 2017, the company's automation division division has emerged as a driver of growth.
In the mid-1990s, NFT developed robotics to deal with the venting of drums of nuclear waste. "We have been involved in automation for most of the history of our company, but we were in the nuclear industry only," say Allbery. "We had the experience and a great set of engineers. At the same time, Rockwell Automation approached us and said, 'You guys are really good at what you do and we think there's a need in the marketplace.'"
Rockwell Automation subsequently trained some NFT staffers to get them up to speed at their Colorado Service Center. The division quickly took off. "It quickly exploded into serving the commercial market," says Allbery. "About 25 percent of the business is now dedicated to automation."
NFT Automation targets "companies that have all these manual tasks," says Allbery. "It's boring, dangerous, mundane work. They have terrible retention problems. Give them more challenging jobs and you'll reduce turnover."
"Robots don't make mistakes," adds Terry Wickland, NFT's senior VP. "They don't have bad days."
The primary markets are industrial manufacturing and food and beverage processing, "creating new, higher-level jobs” in the process, says Allbery. "What we're trying to replace frankly is minimum-wage jobs that don't have a value-add. . . . There is way more work than people to perform the tasks."
Domestic manufacturers need to automate to be competitive in the global economy, he adds. "In developing countries and markets, they have the advantage of low-cost labor. If we're really going to make America great and be competitive, we think one of the answers is automation robotics."
Allbery offers a case study of an undisclosed client, an industrial manufacturer. The company was running production through three shifts of numerous teams of six employees working seven days a week. "They were unsuccessful in recruiting more people and they were in growth mode," he says. "They got sort of in a pickle."
NFT automated the whole process with custom robotics and reduced per-unit production time from about 15 minutes to 15 seconds. That allowed the six-person teams to be "redeployed," says Allbery. "Instead of having six people, they had a full-time machine operator and a half-time assistant. . . . None of them lost their job and some of them got higher paying jobs." Three shifts were consolidated into one, with a number of efficiencies gained.
The big headline for the project: ROI was ”less than six months," say Allbery.
Efficiencies are also gained through more and better data. "By using automation, you get a lot more metrics to manage by," says Allbery, highlighting QA, throughput, and uptime. "If you've got manual processes, guess what? Your metrics are also manual."
Echoes Wickland: "The machines are feeding plant managers data, so the managers can make better decisions."
Another example of automation is at NFT's core business making vented drums for radioactive material. "We practice what we preach," says Allbery.
The drums' filters need to be individually tested to be sure they screen out sub-micron particulate. What was a full-time job is now performed by a robot. "Now those same people are running this robot while they're doing other jobs in the shop," says Wickland.
Rockwell Automation's MagneMotion is next-generation conveyance technology that's increasingly popular with NFT clients. "It's driven by powerful magnets -- no chains, no belts, no danger," says Allbery. "It stops automatically without serious injury."
Adds Wickland: "MagneMotion's electronic conveyance system works collaboratively with your human workforce. There's less guarding, less footprint, and much more flexibility."
According to Allbery, NFT Automation's custom projects typically have a budget of $150,000 to $1 million, but most are $300,000 to $400,000. "If the ROI isn't less than two years, we will counsel our customers to go another way," he adds.
NFT moved from 26,000 square feet in Golden's Corporate Center to a 54,000-square-foot facility in the Coors Technology Center in March 2017. "Here we've got 33,000 square feet of open space," says Allbery. "Workflow is really good right now."
The Lean-friendly space has also allowed for improved quality control that's better integrated with engineering, precision machining, and production.
"There are a lot of high-end machine shops, there are some great engineering firms, and there are some great automation shops," says Allbery. "We are very unique in that we have that all under one roof and it's fully integrated."
Because of that, he adds, NFT can develop solutions in-house without soliciting bids from outside firms. In one case, "We probably changed a two-month process to a two-day process."
Challenges: "Greater visibility is a challenge," says Allbery. "One is a we know we're not a household name. Much of our business comes from word of mouth."
But that's not a bad thing: "There's nothing better than a customer telling someone, 'You need to go with these guys.'"
Opportunities: Automation for food and beverage manufacturers is a bigger-than-expected market. "We didn't predict this," says Allbery. "We didn't think food and beverage was going to be our hot spot. What we found is all the food and beverage guys talk to each other."
One current project involves an automated distribution system for packaged consumer products, involving a custom delivery system with MagneMotion conveyance that can package three to 21 units into boxes to be shipped. It's integrated with the customer's ERP system.
The growth plan calls for a focus on` local customers. "There's so much work in Colorado. It's amazing," says Wickland. "Through the economic downturn in '08, industrial manufacturers cut their engineering teams. We happened to be here when the turn started and it's gaining speed. It's a common theme: Automation is diversifying their resources."
Needs: Automation engineers and senior machinists. "We're blessed with the School of Mines down the street and we have an internship program with them," says Allbery.