By Eric Peterson | Jul 24, 2017
Utility and industrial control panels
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Utility and industrial control panels
Real-estate developer Howard Lacy was unimpressed with the utility control panels on the market in the late 1950s in Denver. "He came out of the military and was doing wastewater engineering and was dissatisfied with the equipment," says Inboden. "He started the shop on a bet, so to say."
An acronym for Utility Control & Equipment Corp., UCEC has since broadened into controls for the oil and gas, recycling, communications, and manufacturing industries.
Inboden's late father-in law, Chris Kitsos, bought UCEC in the late 1980s. "[Kitsos] worked here for 37 years," says Inboden, who joined the company in 2001. "He's the classic immigrant story. He came from Greece, started in shipping and receiving, and ended up buying the company."
When Inboden took over as president and CEO in 2003, the company had 17 employees. The staff has since doubled it to 34.
Inboden says he's taken cues from industries from high tech to craft brewing. "My background was not in this at all," he says. "My background was in the financial world."
But Inboden proved a quick study on the company's products and brought some forward-thinking strategy to the company. "I learned the business from the back end," he says. "My big thing was I came from a large company and was used to managing very large products in multiple areas."
At UCEC, the expertise was already in place, he adds. "It was up to me to put the pieces of the puzzle together."
Keeping on the front end of innovation has remained a constant. "Obviously, technology is a huge driver of the panels we build," says Inboden. When he started, almost all of the panels UCEC made were relay-based, but that's changed to almost all programmable logic controllers (PLCs). "Today you don't see relays unless it's a legacy thing," he notes.
That makes for smaller enclosures: Boxes that once had three doors now have one. "The footprint and the scale came way down," says Inboden.
He sees a similar trend today with the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT). "We need to look towards the future," he explains. "There are billions of devices that are connected. It's the same with control panels. Why do you need these big footprints when you have all the computing power you need in your phone?"
The integration of satellite technology and cloud computing represent a turning point for the industry, Inboden says. Why would you string together 10 miles of fiber when you can bounce the necessary data off of a satellite?
Most of UCEC's work for manufacturers involves control systems for automated production lines. "Everything we do is custom," says Inboden. "It's great for our guys because they don't do the same thing over and over, the widget thing."
"We do a lot of oil and gas, a lot of life sciences, can manufacturing," he adds. Over the years, UCEC panels have shipped to such large companies as Coors, Ball Metal Beverage Packaging, and Philips.
Business is "local, national, international," he adds. "We ship a lot of stuff over to China, which is nice to have it go one way rather than another."
UCEC subcontracts with other companies on many projects. "Our big thing is working with engineering firms," says Inboden. "Our interaction is with that engineering firm. We don't want to compete with them. We want to be an extension of them to their client."
SInce 1985, UCEC has been based in a company-owned 21,000-square-foot facility. About 75 percent of the space is dedicated to production, assembly, and engraving, where about 20 employees work.
"The biggest things customers face is quality and delivery," says Inboden. "We supply the best quality panels. Our people take care in what they're doing and take great pride in their work."
He also touts UCEC as nimbler than your typical panel manufacturer. "Typically, our turnaround time is four to six weeks."
He says that speed to delivery is the company's biggest innovation, and largely the result of a recent company-wide initiative to shave 20 percent off of turnaround times. "If you can provide things in a way that always meets people's deadlines, that's the biggest thing."
Part of the solution was logistics and "flattening" the organization, says Inboden. "Everybody's on a first-name basis."
The other major part of speeding production was a sizable investment in a 3-axis CNC ModCenter, a 3-axis CNC machine from Steinhauer (now Hoffman) that's now ubiquitous in panel manufacturing.
"We were way ahead of the curve," says Inboden, noting that UCEC's machine was just the third one west of the Mississippi River as of early 2014. "With that, we've been able to speed up a lot of our production. The upfront work is more, but once it's in the machine, you push a button, walk away, and you're ready to rock and roll."
He adds, "It was a significant investment." UCEC now runs the ModCenter about 36 hours a week on one shift. For slower companies, the ModCenter "would be a pretty expensive boat anchor."
"Year over year, we've had good, steady growth," he says. "The third and fourth quarter [of 2017] look quite busy."
Inboden continues, "Our job is to grow with our customers. We're not a great white elephant hunter. We're not trying to bag big game. We're trying to find good, steady customers and grow with them."
He credits his team for the company's successes. "We've got a really dedicated workforce," says Inboden. "We've got a younger management team that's coming up and that bodes well for us. . . . They adapt to technology so easily."
Challenges: "Like anyone else, you're trying to see what's going to be the next thing," says Inboden. "What's the panel shop of the future look like? What's the future of control panels? I always tell people I want to be the first shop to do a wireless control panel. At some point, does copper go away?"
Opportunities: The Internet of Things. Inboden describes intelligent controls and real-time integration with changing demand. "I see lots of opportunities with that," he says. "That goes into every industry. How can you do things better?"
Needs: Talent. "People are recognizing the workforce of the future and trying to recruit people who want to make things with their habs and learn a trade," says Inboden. "It's a lost art, but I think it's coming back."
Retention involves fostering a good company culture, he adds. "It's more of a lifestyle approach to things rather than that, 'Let's squeeze every penny out of everything.'"