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Athena Automation: The return of Robert Schad

One of the most recognized and storied names in plastics is back.


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January 30, 2012 by Canadian Plastics

Athena Automation's Vaughan, Ont., headquarters.
Athena Automation's Vaughan, Ont., headquarters.

One of the most recognized and storied names in plastics is back.

In 1953, Robert Schad, a recent émigré from Germany, started a small machine shop in a Toronto garage. He already had designed a snowmobile which he intended to build under the “Huskymobile” name. You probably know the rest. The snowmobile wasn’t a success, and Schad built the company into Husky Injection Molding Systems, a leading global manufacturer of hot runners, PET perform molds, and injection molding machinery. Sitting atop a billion dollar a year enterprise, Schad – who had taken Husky public in 1998 – sold his shares in 2007 and seemed to vanish into the quiet life.

Only he didn’t. He took over the reins at Earth Rangers, a non-profit organization he co-founded with partner Peter Kendall that works with children to protect endangered species, and also built a plant in Vaughan, Ont., to manufacture air boats – a hobby that can be traced back to his snowmobile beginnings. Not finding much satisfaction in this latter activity, he put together some ideas about hybrid injection molding systems, and worked with MacTier, Ont.-based contract molder Niigon Technologies Ltd. on lights-out plant automation. Enthused, he sold the air boat business and converted the Vaughan plant for development of hybrid injection molding machines and lights-out technology, under the new name Athena Automation Ltd.

It’s a project the 83-year-old Schad is finally ready to talk about.

GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY NEED

Athena’s 40,000-square-foot headquarters has everything you’d expect from Schad, a pioneering environmentalist: solar panels on the roof that tie into the province’s feed-in tariff program, skylights, motion-activated LED lighting, geothermal heating and cooling, energy-efficient washrooms, and low-maintenance landscaping for the company’s 50 employees. But if the facility is well-planned, the development of Athena was anything but. “The idea for the company came about very organically,” Schad explained. “I was tired of the idea of a public company and the attached bureaucracy, but I wasn’t tired of the industry. I simply prefer a more entrepreneurial approach, and especially enjoy working with customers to develop the things they need.”

So what exactly does the industry need? “I think processors have been oversold on all-electric machines,” Schad said. “It’s become a fad, and the machines aren’t always the best fits for the jobs they’re purchased for. I’ve always thought the hybrid was the better approach, and I wanted to build a very simple modular machine that can be customized for any given market.” Sounds simple enough, but turning the idea into reality took an enormous amount of work. “We expect it will take us four to five years to develop a product from scratch,” Schad said. Fortunately, he didn’t have to do it alone. “I surrounded myself with very experienced people, and hired a lot of very smart graduates from universities and colleges,” he added.

The result is a range (100 to 400 tonnes) of hybrid injection molding machinery that, Schad said, satisfies his wish list. “The units offer excellent shot-to-shot accuracy, noise levels consistently around 70dB, dry cycle times of about two seconds, the smallest footprint in the industry, cleanroom readiness, and easy configuration for specific markets.” Not surprisingly given Schad’s green credentials, efficiency was a paramount requirement. “The energy consumption of our units is on par with all-electric machines,” he said. “And the oil tank is less than half the volume of conventional hybrid tanks, with an expected oil change interval of five years.”

The first prototype of its 150 tonne machine has been validated over millions of cycles, Schad continued, and beat a comparable all-electric machine from another manufacturer in benchmark testing; the first units will be commercially available by June 2012. And Athena is also developing a small PET preform molding machine, expected to enter testing shortly. “Two of the primary markets we’re aiming at are medical parts manufacturing and packaging applications, but we’re interested in any market that benefits from our modular approach,” Schad said. “We might possibly compete with Husky to some extent, but we’re so small that the impact should be minimal.”

SPOTLIGHTING LIGHTS-OUT

The other side of the Athena coin is supplying lights-out automation technology for injection molders. The company has an ongoing pilot project with Niigon Technologies. Niigon’s seven molding machines, central materials handling system, backup power generators, UPS, 42kW photovoltaic panels, cooling towers and pumps are all tied into a single building automation system, with the result, Schad said, that Niigon now can run its complete operation with just two operators, who handle finished products and inspect part quality, but do not attend the machines. And all at minimal power consumption.

“We can now start a project to transport finished goods within the plant using automated guided vehicles,” Schad added. “The lights-out business complements our injection molding machine business. No other company offers quite what we do.”

FROM RED TO BLACK

In case you’re wondering, there are both pros and cons to starting a new company if you’re Robert Schad. “My name definitely opened some doors and helped me get the team I wanted, but the downside was a lot of attention that I didn’t anticipate and didn’t want,” he said.

Having the Great Recession as a development backdrop probably didn’t help, either. “It’s a crazy time to be putting together a new machinery company. Launching Athena in today’s climate can only work if we can supply leapfrog technology, coupled with faster and better machine customization than the competition offers,” Schad said. “It’s a balancing act; at the moment we’re printing red numbers, not selling anything, and have a very expensive development to maintain, but we expect to be in the black in about three years.”

On the plus side, Schad plans to apply some lessons learned from his more than 50 years of experience. “I don’t intend to turn Athena into a publicly traded company, because in my experience it blunts the drive to innovate,” he said. “Our team is very committed to innovation. Other companies think they can teach this to their staff quickly, but it can’t be done – innovation has to be in a company’s culture.”

So will the man who built one global manufacturing juggernaut be able to repeat the trick? “When I sold Husky I had two choices: go forward or get out. Well, I wasn’t ready to get out,” Schad said. “I’ve assembled the best team I’ve ever had, and I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to get to work in the morning.”

In other words, don’t bet against it.


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