This Unique Systems Integrator Celebrates a Corporate Milestone

ProVantage Automation
Written by Nate Hendley

ProVantage Automation, a Brantford, Ontario-based systems integrator and custom machine builder, marked its tenth anniversary in business this April. With its three in-house engineering and design disciplines of automation control, data management, and mechanical design, the company designs and builds automated solutions for clients in the food and beverage, paper converting, and consumer products sectors. ProVantage’s industrial solutions boost productivity and improve quality and efficiency for clients. The team at ProVantage has the expertise to design and deploy a complete end of line packaging system or cater the solution to be a retrofit versus a new asset.

“We refer to our business model as a three-legged stool, meaning that control systems are needed to support mechanical systems, and then data collection and data systems gather the information from each of those areas and provide more of a turnkey type of solution,” states General Manager and President Peter Graham.

“We are what’s called a systems integrator but we’re as much a systems integrator as we are an [original equipment manufacturer]. We build and design our own machinery from the ground up,” he continues. “We build custom machinery… and that’s generally why clients come to us. They have a need, and they either have a footprint that doesn’t allow for a commodity type piece of equipment from an [original equipment manufacturer], or they have a speed they need to hit or a product range that isn’t a standard range. That’s where we come in.”

ProVantage will perform pre-engineering studies to determine the scope and scale of a client’s needs. “From there, we collaborate with them to design this special purpose piece of equipment. We have the in-house capability to do all that from initial concept through to full design, manufacturing, assembly, installation, start-up, production support,” he says.

ProVantage has earned a reputation as an industry leader when it comes to complex motion control. As a Rockwell Automation Recognized Systems Integrator – Silver level, the company has commissioned over 500 servo axes and thousands of drives all over North America. ProVantage’s team of motion experts will size the appropriate system and ensure it performs to deliver maximum throughput. When it comes to industrial robots for its systems, the company partners with ABB and Yaskawa Motoman.

ProVantage performs turnkey safety upgrades on a regular basis. “This involves our engineering and applications team to conduct pre-engineering and risk assessments, and ultimately gain a good understanding of the operation and how our client will interact with the equipment,” explains Graham. “Safety solutions range from custom physical guarding to safety interlocks, light curtains, safe speed monitoring, and area scanners, all monitored by a Safety PLC. Making sure everyone goes home at the end of the day is priority.”

A solution for a food and beverage client might involve a retrofit or a new system like a palletizer, casepacker, vision inspection systems, and material handling equipment. For paper converting—the term refers to transforming a large parent roll of tissue grade paper into a consumer product such as bathroom tissue, facial tissue or household kitchen towel—solutions from ProVantage might incorporate upgrades to winders, wrappers, diverters, case packers, and palletizers.

At present, business is split evenly between customers in Canada and the United States. In addition to the head office in Brantford, ProVantage has a branch in Asheville, North Carolina that does sales and applications development.

While the company is always open to expansion in the United States, “continuing to grow within Ontario, at least grow the head office in Brantford [is our current focus]. We’d probably do another expansion in Brantford before we establish a facility in another country or another location in Ontario,” Graham says.

The company complements its automated solutions with excellent customer care. Client support “ranges from twenty-four-hour field service, whether it’s local or throughout North America, whether it’s a breakdown situation or it’s for a machine installation or an onsite, in situ upgrade. We send our team of engineers, technicians, project managers to the site… [we do] removal, installation, start-up support, training, and production support,” he states.

For all its achievements, ProVantage is determined not to rest on its laurels. The goal is to remain forward-facing and always be thinking of ways to enhance existing operations. Staying ahead of the technological and regulatory curve is one way it fulfills this goal. Among other things, this means keeping atop new safety legislation and manufacturing and electrical standards.

Safety is always “taken into consideration when designing a piece of equipment that operators and maintenance staff are going to be interacting with when it leaves our facility. Having [a safety] mindset right at the beginning of the design is key and understanding legislation and safety requirements is critical,” notes Graham.

Interestingly, given ProVantage’s wide range of services, the company’s focus was considerably narrower in the early days. Founded a decade ago by Peter Graham and partner Alex Shalamov, ProVantage was mostly concerned with controls engineering at the start. The business grew and its focus expanded.

“As we continued to develop, we noticed that we needed to build a team with some mechanical engineering competencies as well. We went from a controls focus to adding mechanical designers and engineers. It seemed that in order to grow with our clients, we needed that mechanical engineering facet of our company, to better support motion control and packaging machinery,” recalls Graham.

ProVantage has just over thirty employees at present. “It’s still about two-to-one when it comes to the ratio of controls engineers to mechanical engineers. We still are very strong and heavy on the controls side, but we still have a very well-rounded mechanical engineering team as well,” states Graham.

Growth has been accompanied by a commitment to values. After five years in business, the company introduced something called the STAR system. STAR stands for safety, trust, accountability, and respect—the core values that drive the firm.

“It comes down to, ‘How do we want to be treated? How do our clients want to be treated? What helps us make good decisions as an organization?’ If you look at STAR, the expectation is that every employee of ProVantage would make the same decision if you take into consideration those four key aspects of our culture,” he says.

In a space where tech companies come and go, ProVantage has thrived in part because of its culture, and its focus on building relations with staff and clients alike. The basic formula has been to “hire quality staff that you can trust and do business with clients you can collaborate with,” Graham notes.

Graham and Shalamov also make it a point to take an active role in day-to-day operations. “We don’t have absent management; we’ve got a really hands-on management team. Our clients trust that, and our staff respect it,” he affirms.

Technical skill is a prerequisite for new hires, but other traits including positivity, self-motivation, honesty, and taking initiative, are valued as well. If you want a job here, it also helps to have an even temperament; “you learn pretty quickly you don’t want to take on drama,” says Graham.

While he wants to increase personnel numbers, he cites “staffing shortages,” and “availability of technical staff,” as the biggest non-COVID-related challenges facing the firm. To overcome these difficulties, ProVantage actively participates in online job fairs and advertises for new staff on social media platforms.

Graham is looking to enhance the company’s proficiency in data collection and data system integration. This might entail more emphasis on automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). AGVs and AMRs are used to retrieve and handle materials in warehouses and other settings.

As for the future, he is optimistic, but also realistic. “We want to continue to grow with our clients, continue to grow the team. There’s no real aspirations that says we have to be at fifty people in five years. That’s not how we operate. It’s, ‘Let’s work on sustainable growth, let’s work on equipment and solutions that help grow our brand.’ That’s one of the things that are going to be more of a focus over the next five years. Now that we’re at the ten-year mark, let’s start focusing more on what’s important to the ProVantage brand and [promote] that messaging to clients,” he states.

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