It is not often that a business can survive thirty years, let alone one in the rapidly evolving manufacturing industry, yet Robbins Manufacturing Inc. can proudly wear that badge of honor.
Founded in 1989 by Greg and Jan Robbins in Columbus Wisconsin, Robbins Manufacturing Inc. (RMI) began as a custom metal fabricator for all types of industries. Greg and Jan met at the University of Wisconsin-Stout where Greg studied industrial technology, and Jan studied merchandising. They both went on to work for Allen-Bradley and got married. Greg had always dreamed of having his own business in which he could work with his family, so he took the experience he gained from working in metal fabrication and quality, and he and Jan made the leap into running their own company.
The facility from which the company operated was a modest one, but one that enabled it to expand operations enough that, in 1991, it could purchase some state-of-the-art metal fabrication equipment – a key selling feature of its services. By 1993, it could not keep up with the demand. Both sales and employees doubled, and Robbins Manufacturing was well on its way to becoming the company it is today.
In 1995, it opened a second facility in Fall River, Wisconsin (which expanded into its only location), and took delivery of its first robotic welding system to support its desired entrance into the recreational vehicle market. Sales between 1995 and 1996 increased by sixty-three percent and RMI grew to fifty employees working on two shifts. RMI also acquired two additional robotic welders, a metal fabrication laser, press brake, punch press, and a computerized inspection system.
In 1999, RMI was named both Wisconsin manufacturer of the year and Columbia County manufacturer of the year, an honor that it was awarded again in 2012.
The Robbins had two children, their son Bob and daughter Juli grew up in the business as they were building it. Today they are still involved with Robbins Manufacturing, which means Greg and Jan were able to live out the dream of their family-owned-and-operated business.
By 2002, sales had increased to the point where the company could purchase more equipment, including a separate powder paint line. It eventually began to diversify operations into another area as well: Juli and Bob began another business called Riverstone Machining, which is located down the road from the Fall River facilities. This machining business supports the integration and the one-stop shop concept. Every operation can now be controlled and be completed seamlessly for the customer.
In early 2017 Greg and Bob purchased HMA Fire, which builds ultra-high pressure fire suppression systems. Building a finished product rather than components had been a longtime desire for Greg. Bob was a proponent of the purchase and has taken the helm of managing the company.
In 2017, after almost thirty years, Greg and Jan decided it was time to start looking to the next phase of their lives and started the transition towards retirement. It was at this point when they asked Dan Miller, a customer with whom they had done business with for over fifteen years, to join Robbins as president and chief executive officer.
Dan was also at a point in his career where he was looking to make a change and was excited to take on the lead role at Robbins. He had been impressed with the way he had watched Greg more than double his business over their fifteen-year relationship, something that many people who operate a family-run business do not get the opportunity to do, and so taking the helm of this company was an opportunity he could not pass up.
RMI currently employs approximately 280 employees with extensive capabilities. These capabilities include state of the art technology in many areas such as three Amada ATC (Automated Tool Change) presses – these are three of the six automatic tool change (ATC) machines that exist in the state of Wisconsin. The company also has several Mitsubishi fiber optic lasers with automated material handling as well as a Kinetic Plasma cutter / machining center. Other capabilities include manual welding, robotic welding, painting to include powder coat, and wet-paint including CARC, utilizing both automated lines and large capacity batch booths (which gives it the ability to paint very large or very small parts).
Robbins also offers the added value of being able to assemble, kit, and ship the products it manufactures directly to its customer’s customers from a new assembly / shipping facility that was built on the Fall River property.
“What differentiates us from other manufacturers is that we’re a one-stop shop,” said Miller. “In other words, we do everything for the customer and have that capability from the time the steel gets fabricated in the first operation. We have the lasers to cut it; we have the press brakes to form it; we have Riverstone to machine it; manual and robotic welders to weld it; we have three paint systems within the plant with powder paint and wet spray as well as CARC. Most recently we’ve added the value add capability of kitting, assembly, and direct shipment to our customers customer!”
When Dan came onboard, he wanted his focus to be on ensuring the RMI continued to be the supplier of choice, and achieving that comes from delivering the right product, at the right time, for the right value. It would also be achieved through customer service.
“Relationships are important,” explained Miller. “We want to be a trusted partner and be easy to do business with. We like to collaborate with our customers to do the best we can to meet their needs and expectations. It’s not a one-way shop here. We like to work together, and it gets down to people. Working together and communication is key both internally and externally.”
He also wanted to make the business even more efficient in all aspects, integrating technology, processes, and people. The first step was finalizing implementation of a new ERP (enterprise resource planning) software system called Epicor which oversees all aspects of the business.
“Since implementation, we’ve improved on how we manage the shop, including the benefits of improved direct and indirect labor,” said Miller. “We are also focused on inventory reduction along with improvements to on-time delivery. We expect further success in these areas as well as process improvements and productivity enhancements.”
RMI has also been fortunate to have a dedicated team that believes in the businesses’ values. “Within our organization, we thrive on teamwork and promote an entrepreneurial spirit. I think that increases our competitiveness which really drives an acceleration to our customer responsiveness,” said Miller. “In this competitive environment this sets us apart from the competition.”
Like most manufacturers, however, RMI has felt the impact of a skilled labor shortage, and finding people to hire people is its biggest challenge. But Miller also says that the biggest opportunity that goes along with that challenge is to continue to expand capacity through automation.
“When you aren’t going to be able to get the people, you’re going to want to be able to do more with automation within the plant,” he explains. “Today, we utilize multiple fiber optic lasers, which have automated sheet feeding systems right into them. Laser cells are fed with material stored in a tower, providing the ability to run lights out. So basically, we can pack up that shift and go home at night and just let those machines run.”
Miller says that he sees automation as the future of the operation. “I might not be able to hire a welder, but I can hire a welding robot operator. For this next generation, I can put a controller in their hand and teach them how to operate it, and they’re willing to do that much more so than put on their leathers and go hand-weld something.”
This does not mean that he sees automation replacing skilled laborers completely; he believes there will always be hand welding because you cannot automate everything, but Miller understands that the company needs to continue to automate as much as it can. For example, it is currently looking into offline robotic software to program the robots, creating more efficiency on the shop floor.
It also recently purchased some new software called Costimator, that uses technology to estimate costs of production product – driving consistency and value in pricing. “This software provides us with the ability to compare our price with what the market would charge for a part, so it gives us a good cross-check,” said Miller. “We’re trying to drive efficiencies in all areas of our business.”
For innovative manufacturers, the future is full of opportunities. Greg and Jan Robbins can look at the legacy they are leaving behind with pride, feeling confident that this business will continue to grow and evolve.
“People want to be with a trusted supplier that they can count on and know they are doing the right things. A supplier that is driving lean initiatives, working to stay as efficient as possible, and providing value,” said Miller. “Our customers stay with us a long time. We don’t have customers that pack up and leave; it just doesn’t happen. I think once you establish the collaboration and are providing value, then you have really established a relationship for the long term. That’s really our goal.”