Much Ventured, Much More Gained

Black Controls Company Inc.
Written by Pauline Müller

Known for its industrial and robotic control systems, Black Controls Company Inc. is a young and dynamic company that provides clients, often those with highly complex demands, with custom automation. Celebrating its fourth year in business this month, Black Controls Company Inc.’s team of 24 could not be any prouder.

And so they should be. Launching the business on the sharp edge of COVID-19 in July 2019, they themselves, no matter how optimistic, could hardly have predicted the success they’d achieve in this short time. Today, a range of the company’s quality products are CSA-certified and contribute to the local economy.

Custom solutions
In the broadest sense, Black Controls automates industrial processes—everything from material handling conveyor systems to automotive assembly lines. Alongside its automation skills, the company provides its customers with custom design, manufacturing, and programming offerings.

“The services and processes that we implement are custom. What we do is very broad; we don’t typically have a standard offering. And that’s why our customers are seeking us out,” says Rick Black, founder and owner.

Based in a 13,000-square-foot facility in Barrie, Ontario, the company services clients’ facilities as far afield as Malaysia, Thailand, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as the whole of North America. Its skills have been well-honed in automation technologies like programmable logic controllers (PLCs), industrial robot systems, and advanced human-machine interface devices (HMIs), which form the backbone of communication and interaction of humans with machine controls and vice versa.

Black Controls also specializes in developing and implementing the latest autonomous mobile robot (AMR) technology, best known for material handling in large- to mega-facilities. These machines are popular as they are strong enough to lift factory skids and move bins around storage facilities for shipping, replacing the need for forklifts in warehouses.

Leading with quality
In this field, quality is imperative. To help drive consistent quality throughout its facility and product selection, Black Controls holds numerous industry certifications. These include its Electrical Safety Authority and a CSA and Special Industrial Control Panel (SICP) certification. The team is preparing for its ISO 9001:2015 certification audit governing quality management systems, and is also a member of the Canadian Tooling & Machining Association (CTMA).

“CTMA has been a good organization for us,” says Black. There’s different funding that they can connect us with for hiring our new graduates and then training them. So that’s helped us with some of those initial costs in getting people up to speed.” The company was also highly gratified when one of its team members received the 2022 CTMA Apprentice Award.

The company also participates in the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) Excellence Program and the A3 Association for Advancing Automation.

With demand rising, ensuring responsible resourcing is crucial. To this end, Black Controls strictly upholds the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. The company goes to great lengths to deal only with reputable firms that uphold the same standards and values. Black Controls regularly collaborates with other firms referred to as integrators that serve the automotive industry with automation projects. Here, the team serves as an extension of the integrators’ businesses, offering support and overflow services such as design, programming, wiring, and the like.

A new need for automation
Beginning with a single partnership with a leader in medical and food sterilization enabled the company to grow and stabilize before it began expanding its reach. While hard evidence on reshoring manufacturing to North America remains hard to find, Black Controls reports that its growth has certainly been fanned in part by customers bringing their fabrication outfits back. Ongoing labour shortages are also driving the uptake of automation across the continent.

Black also notes the growing presence of novel technology such as that used in autonomous mobile robots. “We’re currently installing a project for a large automotive supplier in Ontario which is automating the movement of materials around their facility. Our customers are investing in AMR technology because it allows them to automate the movement of materials throughout their facilities. This helps them to combat the ongoing labour shortages, and also makes their facility safer by reducing forklift traffic,” he says.

In addition, the company serves a host of specialized fields in many other industries like construction and warehousing.

The core secret
Part of Black Controls’ superpower is the experience and commitment of its five-person leadership team.. “We have a really strong foundation, and we work well together,” Black says of the management team. “Our leadership team has done a fantastic job creating an environment where we can push and support each other to continually grow as individuals and as a team.”

Beginning life as a core group, expansion naturally followed as the demand for the company’s services grew. Building its team with a selection of graduates and co-op students from a nearby college, the company places significant importance on providing its staff and apprentices with continuous, quality training.

“If someone is coming out of school and is looking to join a company, I think there’s an extra appeal here because of our initial success as a young company,” Black says, referring to the company’s great record of signing on quality staff. Today, the company has electrical designers, licensed electricians, electrical apprentices, automation programmers, and an accounting and administration team.

To be sure, Black Controls’ approach to business is working. The company won the City of Barrie Mayor’s Innovation Award in the Pivot Point category for 2021 and in addition, Black was named in Manufacturing Automation’s Top 10 Under 40 for his achievement in building this flourishing company while still in his early thirties.

After completing his studies, Black began his professional life as an apprentice and eventually became a programming team manager at a large automated systems integrator. He worked as a professional integrator for over a decade, but his dream was always to establish his own firm. In 2019, he took the plunge. At first, the company operated from his home but very quickly outgrew that. Even its first 2,500-square-foot facility only sufficed for about 12 months.

Black and his team believe in sharing this good fortune with organizations and community projects that do good for local businesses and those in need. As such, the company is part of the Barrie Chamber of Commerce and The Sandbox, an innovation and entrepreneurship centre.

Black also serves on the Georgian College Electrical Technology Program committee. Every Year during the summer season, Black Controls makes it possible for a child to take part in a Barrie Baycats camp. The company also supports the Barrie Food Bank and a Hospital Activity Book for Children. Through Barrie & Area Christmas Cheer, the team sponsors a local family which benefits from its generosity during the festive season. Several other worthy causes benefit, too.

Optimism for the future
Contemplating the future, Black casts his glance back to 2008 as he recalls a lot of automation being outsourced to companies in Mexico at the expense of North American outfits in the industry.

“I think that after COVID, companies are realizing that labour is hard to keep. So companies are looking to any processes that can be automated,” he says. Black adds that the current mood around automating processes in manufacturing, from basic to complex, can only be called optimism.

Concerning a predicted recession, he notes that he hasn’t seen any changes in the company’s bottom line yet. Either way, the company continues to upgrade its internal processes to stay at the leading edge, with a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software package that will improve efficiency and standardization. It looks very much like this automation leader will continue to expand and develop its capabilities and employee base with the speed and deftness it has shown so far.

Sidebar:

Key projects

AMR (Autonomous Mobile Robot) Integration, March – May 2023
Five AMRs were used in this project for an automotive manufacturing company in Southern Ontario. The AMRs are used to complete part handling between the factory warehouse and the production lines. The AMRs move both bins full of completed parts from production back to the warehouse for shipping as well as empty bins from the warehouse to the production line. Bins are loaded and unloaded from four staging locations in the warehouse, which has a TV display to direct the forklift operator as to which bins to load based on colour of bin (12 colours total) and which full bins are required to be unloaded. From the warehouse, robots will pick up the correct colour of bin and bring it to the desired location on the production floor. The robots move throughout the production floor traveling to 14 different lines and 34 total locations, running 24 hours a day completing the finished goods material handling for all 14 production lines. The robots used in this application can carry bins weighing up to 600 kg in a safe and controlled manner.

Clip Cell Vision Upgrade, Summer 2023
A reliable automatic method is required to inspect the automated clip installation at a Southern Ontario automotive plastic injection moulding supplier. Black Controls recommends integrating a camera into the existing cell above the automated clip installation escapement cylinder and having the robot present the part to the camera before releasing the part on unload conveyor. The camera will verify the presence of the two clips, as well as check that each clip has both tabs on the correct side of the part. If the camera inspection passes, the robot will place the part onto the unload conveyor. If the camera inspection fails, the robot will place the part into the existing reject chute / bin.

Conveyor Controls Systems for Sterilization
The customer for this project is a world leader in the sterilization industry. They are Black Controls’ first and continuous customers, an electron beam accelerator manufacturer with various systems throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. “We have designed, built control panels, wired and programmed over a dozen conveyor systems for them over the past four years. We have successfully implemented a number of improvements iteratively over each project to assist with troubleshooting, system cost, and shortened installation timeframes.”

Vision – Black Rail Vision Inspection, January 2022
For an automotive sunroof manufacturer in Southwestern Ontario, a new inspection system was needed to provide a reliable method to inspect black Velcro on black sunroof rail, as the existing inspection equipment could not detect the black Velcro pieces situated on the black rails due to the lack of contrast. Black Controls’ solution required minimal line changes and modification, with the result being a high-contrast image that produced a reliable inspection.

Vision – STN80 Inspection Booth Vision, February 2022
For this existing customer’s assembly line, a new inspection method was required to check if the clip feature was properly engaged in a larger frame assembly. The region of inspection was small, but the camera could not be mounted close to the part as it would obscure other inspections. With these parameters in mind, Black Controls installed a high-resolution camera to reliably check for clip install without impacting the existing inspections. Programming also had to incorporate existing inspection sequencing as flashes from each inspection would impact the results of the other cameras.

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