Automation Innovation

TRAVERSE CITY – TranTek is on track to bring in $11 million in revenue this year – nearly four times more than two years ago.

Two years ago? "We were going bankrupt, just like everyone else," says company president John Wenden. "We were intent on the auto industry and banks were unwilling to support us."

Instead, this year TranTek is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Pre-recession, 80 to 90 percent of TranTek's revenue stream was from the auto industry.

TranTek builds, designs and installs automated manufacturing systems. In other words, "We don't make widgets," Wenden says. "We make the machines that make the widgets."

In 2008, TranTek had 50 employees between its Traverse City facility and one in Grand Rapids. As the economy soured, the company closed the Grand Rapids location in late '08. Then it laid off half of its workforce. The remaining 25 employees? They all took a 20-percent wage cut.

"2009 was a wake-up call," Wenden says. "It was a bad thing, but we were smart enough to wake up."

And wake up it did – to new and healthier markets. "We decided to be very flexible, and the banks supported that," he adds. "We started going to aerospace and defense conferences and networking. Slowly and surely we got into the ammunition production field."

The company lists aerospace companies DSE, Inc. and ATR as new clients. It is also one of the suppliers to American Ordnance, manufacturer of ammunition to the United States military.

"We've seen a real shift to automation in the last two years," says Wenden. "People are very keen on the automation manufacturing process."

Why? It's efficient, reliable and requires less labor.

Wenden cites a Grand Rapids-based customer that has a totally automated process for the manufacture of water tanks. Another customer hired TranTek to design and build a system that allows it to produce 1,500 blenders a day. A customer in Utah brought back home work it had outsourced to China because it was unhappy with the supply. Trantek designed an automated manufacturing system for them.

The company stretches far beyond U.S. borders, though. "We manufactured an assembly line for a British company making catalytic converters that was installed in Macedonia," says Wenden. "Now that's global."

As the dark economic cloud began to clear, it was obvious that some of Trantek's competitors had not heeded that '09 wake-up call. "Customers started demanding that we take their orders," Wenden says. Today, Trantek has work backlogged through 2013 and beyond – a backlog like it has never experienced before.

"Industry is very busy. We should be judging the health of the economy on revenue produced, not on labor reports," he adds.

TranTek did not abandon the auto industry by any means – in fact, much of its backlog is GM projects. TranTek is a first tier (direct) supplier to General Motors and has Tier 2 relationships with other companies supplying the auto industry.

"We formed a different relationship with GM," says Wenden. "One where we get paid."

The Tier 2 relationships are strong, too. "That is going very well because those companies have established different relationships with the auto industry and that trickles down. There's lots of investing in the auto industry right now," he says. "We get a spin off of that."

One of the projects currently on the shop floor: plans for a piece of equipment that will manufacture and test the lift struts for a Mercedes SUV tail lift. It's for a Tier 1 supplier in Germany.

With a full plate and projects lined up down the pike, where is the challenge to TranTek's growth these days? Ironically enough, it's the labor pool – specifically, mechanical and electrical engineers.

"We're combing North America for talent," says Wenden. "We need highly skilled engineers because we're inventing, inventing, inventing."

There are no plans to build another facility elsewhere. Wenden wants to stay in Traverse City and continue to grow his staff of 37 here. So what's his idea for getting the workforce he needs?

"We've got to make Traverse City a tech center. We need a technology conference here. We need to sell Traverse City as a tech center for tech conferences. Imagine if Boeing opened an office here?" BN