Wolf Robotics' high-tech cut and weld systems are used by a who's who of global manufacturing brands. Innovative workforce development is sustaining growth
After getting its start as Heath Engineering, making machinery for Colorado's sugar-beet industry in the 1940s, the company moved into manufacturing robotic welding systems in 1978.
The company was spun off from Swedish parent company ABB in 2003 and subsequently boomed. The move was based on ABB's consolidation to focus on Detroit's auto industry. Most staffers in Fort Collins didn't want to move to Michigan, and engineered an acquisition by Ohio-based Rimrock that would allow the company to stay in Colorado.
Since that time, Wolf has emerged as a leading innovation partner for manufacturers in a diverse range of industries, with a growth curve to match. "We were 22 people [when Wolf broke off from ABB] in November 2003," says President and CEO Doug Rhoda. "Today we're at 130."
With more than 8,000 installations in North America to date, the company serves a who's who of big manufacturers in agriculture, construction, mining, energy, and other industries.
Market diversity has been key to Wolf's long-term growth, says Rhoda. "In hindsight, we chose wisely," he says. "We focused where we had strength and competitive advantage. We've been working very hard to grow with our key customers."
Innovation "is one of the things we pride ourselves on," he adds "That's driven by the customer." Even as part of multinational ABB, "A lot of innovations emanated from this small division in Colorado."
Wolf Cell Control is a new graphical user interface for robotic welding systems. "We spent a lot of time and effort to ease operator interaction," says Rhoda. The product allows manufacturers to "capture key operating data and act on it, then learn from that to improve system uptime and performance."
Another new offering that works atop Wolf Cell Control, WolfLink relays data from Wolf Cell Control to Fort Collins, allowing users to "capitalize on the 100 experts we have here to diagnose, troubleshoot, and capture data remotely," says Rhoda. "It's what we see the future being."
WolfLink can save a manufacturer a service call -- which usually costs in excess of $5,000 -- and downtime -- which is usually even more expensive. Customers have recently recovered in two hours, versus a day and a half for a traditional house call. WolfLink users include manufacturers of wind-turbine blades, railcars, and agricultural equipment.
While Wolf's installations and integrations are primarily custom, the company also offers a modular suite of products, newly branded as WolfPacks. "It's new nomenclature, but the idea has been around for a long time," says Rhoda. "They're pre-engineered systems. The idea is we've got off-the-shelf products that are lower-priced and we can deliver more quickly."
Challenges: Downturns that keep manufacturers from investing in upgrades. "There's some volatility. Some sectors are up and others are down, says Rhoda" Mining has stalled in 2014, for example, as construction has come to life. "When the sales really drop, capital equipment is one of the first things to drop off."
Also challenging is the lag between industry upticks and orders, he adds. "It takes awhile for contractors to have enough confidence to buy another backhoe."
Opportunities: Re-shoring formerly overseas manufacturing operations with more automated systems is opportunity #1. The automation increases productivity, but it's driven in large part by a gap in the labor market: Rhoda says there's a shortage of 200,000 skilled welders nationwide right now, meaning manufacturers have no choice but to go robotic. With two retirees for every new welder, "There's a need to automate this work," he says.
Opportunity #2: exporting the Wolf model to manufacturing facilities worldwide. "Key customers want to replicate what we've done in North America elsewhere," says Rhoda. "We have employees in Mexico and Brazil now."
Needs: Finding, training, and retaining talent. To this end, Wolf runs a 30-student internship program with Colorado State University and other institutions for a "pipeline" of potential new hires. "We're actively recruiting to get the best people in the business we can," says Rhoda.