ProVantage Automation of Brantford, Ontario is a turnkey industrial systems integrator and custom machine builder that designs, builds, and installs automated solutions for clients looking to enhance the efficiency, productivity, and safety of their operations.
“That word ‘turnkey’ is pretty much responsible for our success,” explains Engineering Manager Kyle Jimmink. “There are a lot of companies that have skill in one area, whether it’s electrical design, assembly, building, or mechanical design. We do all of it, from conception to installing the equipment and everything in between, so the client doesn’t need to go to a number of different vendors; they can just come to us. We do it all internally, and we don’t outsource it.”
The company’s automated solutions include automation controls, data collection and integration systems, custom machinery, and enhanced machine safety features. Motion control is a house specialty, particularly for clients in the manufacturing sector. Its main markets are food and beverage, consumer products, and paper converting, with the latter sector comprising the largest share of the business.
In terms of what has changed since we last spoke a year ago, ProVantage’s workload has increased dramatically, thanks to improved economic conditions. The nature of the company’s work has shifted too. “The size of the projects has grown,” notes Jimmink.
For example, the company recently completed a safety retrofit on a paper rewinding system in Wisconsin. This assignment involved “our largest drive system to date,” and EtherNet/IP with CIP Motion (Common Industrial Protocol—a solution for sharing and compiling data in industrial equipment).
“We were able to run that machine faster than the original machine builder could ever run it. It’s very rare that you can do a safety upgrade and claim improved production rates. Typically, when you do a safety upgrade, you’re just adding doors and procedures and interlocks that slow down production, but we were actually able to implement a safety system to keep people safe, and in the end, the machine broke production records which was absolutely fantastic,” he recalls.
ProVantage recently finished another large-scale project in its hometown of Brantford. The company put together a palletizer system for an end-of-the-line palletizing process that involved scores of product combinations. Using ABB Group robotics, the team developed a speedy solution that accommodated the client’s needs.
Meanwhile, with COVID receding, “keeping up with demand” has become the biggest challenge facing the company, according to Jimmink. “We’re doing a lot of installations. We had a lot of our equipment sitting on the floor for the last two years waiting on parts. Those parts are starting to surge in for inventory, and we’re completing a lot of panels and a lot of machines rapidly,” he states.
As a vertically integrated enterprise, ProVantage self-performs most tasks. “The only thing we contract out is fabrication and parts for the machines that we design. We assemble it ourselves. If the installation is large or across borders, then we will contract labour for installation,” Jimmink explains.
In addition to its Brantford headquarters, ProVantage maintains a branch in Asheville, North Carolina. This office is very much dedicated to sales and applications development for paper and converting systems, Jimmink says.
ProVantage currently employs 30 people, and along with skills, education, and aptitude, it helps to have passion if you want to get a job here.
“When I’m interviewing and I talk about automation, there are certain people that light up. They are the people that like to watch How It’s Made; the ones that want to understand the world; the kids that played with Lego; the people who are passionate about making things work and touching things with their hands,” states Jimmink.
Of course, there is much more to the company than just cutting-edge technology and custom-made machinery. Asked why a manufacturing or industrial client should hire ProVantage over a competitor, he says, “Assuming that we’re being put against other turnkey integrators, I would say it’s our integrity. We won’t walk away from a job. All companies struggle; we’ve had our struggles in the past. But we have never walked away from a site. We make sure the client is happy in the end. If that means we have to absorb costs, we do.”
A typical client interaction begins with account managers and the applications team, with sales staff members all having a solid understanding of the technical side of the business. “They were designers and engineers before they moved into sales. They travel, see the equipment, and understand it,” says Jimmink.
Communication with the client and understanding the nature of the project at hand are central to any customer interaction. The company determines “what the client wants and needs—not necessarily what they’re asking for,” and develops a quote from there.
Once the quote is accepted and ProVantage is hired, the company’s engineers review the concept developed by the sales team and the customer. Engineering staff add their flourishes and then begin the process of designing the necessary machinery.
“We work with the clients directly during that phase,” Jimmink says. “We have project managers who handle all the communication, but when we do design reviews, it’s not just the project managers sharing presentations; the designers will share their own ideas and work with the client. We will [accept] feedback.”
Once the design work is done and has received customer approval, the purchasing and project management staff members “go into overdrive, because they have to procure everything and keep it on track and on schedule. Luckily, COVID has subsided a little bit [in terms of causing supply chain] shortages so things are starting to get back to normal,” he continues.
As parts and products come in, the quality control department carefully inspects everything, and only then does assembly work begin. Once the solution is fully assembled, ProVantage puts the system through a factory acceptance test, a process to see if newly-made machinery works as intended. Clients are invited to observe to ensure everything meets specifications.
“We will run the machine through its paces. We will do a full system check at our site to prove that it works, and we can change anything before it’s shipped. Once it’s accepted, we tear it down and ship it. Most of our clientele is 50/50 throughout Canada and the U.S. We will send an installation team to oversee the installation, then do commissioning and start-up support,” says Jimmink.
Extensive follow-up support is also offered. Clients can contact the team at any time regarding issues, and the company endeavours to resolve these quickly.
ProVantage continues to obtain the majority of its servo systems from Rockwell Automation and industrial robotics from ABB Group. It has solidified its already close relationship with Rockwell and sends employees to invite-only drives training sessions hosted by Rockwell. It has also become a vendor for the industrial automation giant. “Rockwell is now contracting our services from time to time, which is quite the accomplishment,” Jimmink says.
In July of 2023, ProVantage was recognized as a “value provider,” with ABB Group. The “ABB Value Provider Program is a global channel partner program for a select group of systems integrators and OEMs.” The exclusive program offers many benefits to both the integrator and end user—including preferred pricing on hardware and software, access to more advanced tech support and training, and collaborative sales activities across target industries.
Public events that were shuttered at the peak of the COVID pandemic are reopening, and ProVantage looks forward to participating in trade shows again. The company’s reputation is its best marketing tool, and the team enjoys a great deal of repeat business and referrals from satisfied clients, says Jimmink.
Sponsorships are another vehicle used to highlight the ProVantage name and services. To this end, the firm recently sponsored a high school robotics team in a competition. Backing such events is “key to fostering curiosity in students,” and demonstrating the career opportunities presented by industrial robotic/mechanical systems, he says.
Going forward, ProVantage wants to enhance its data collection and system integration capabilities and build on the drives and motion elements of the business.
“Rather than expanding into more industries, we’re trying to make our core strong,” says Jimmink. “We’re seeing a very big uptick, especially this year, in retrofits. A lot of facilities are slowing down on capital purchases, and they are retrofitting machinery that is now 15 to 20 years old. We seem to be doing very well in that market.”
Five years down the road, he would like to see ProVantage as “a leader in drive solutions. When somebody wants to put in a large drive system in Ontario, we’re going to be the people they think of. We’ve already earned that reputation with some key clients.”