Trantek sees big growth, expands

TRAVERSE CITY – The state's manufacturing economy may be sputtering along, but a local company that supports the industry is soaring.

Trantek Automation Corp., located in Traverse City's Industrial Park, is producing some serious profit margins in a industry that has seen its share of troubled times over the last few years.

Trantek Automation designs and builds automation machinery for manufacturing customers big and small, the majority located in Michigan and many right here.

"There are good progressive companies in Traverse City," says Trantek president and CEO John Wenden. "That's why they are doing well and that's why we're doing well." Last year, a third of Trantek's revenue was local dollars.

Trantek was founded in 1986, but Wenden didn't come along until 1998, when he took over what he described as a company struggling to be successful. In a few short years, he appears to have drastically turned things around.

"There has been a year-to-year progressive growth factor of 30 to 70 percent over the last three years," says Wenden.

This year, the company was named one of the top 10 small businesses of the year by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.

The company was founded on its design of a screw drive system for linear transfer (moving heavy loads quickly and quietly over long distances), one of eight patents overall. "It was the impetus for moving the company into true automation in the mid-'90s," explains Wenden.

Trantek's number one customer is General Motors, but it also does plenty of work for small shops. "We do varied automation," says Wenden. "That is the reason for our growth."

Wenden is quick to credit his employees for making it all happen. "Their skill level is very high, they are very dedicated, and they work within a self-managed culture," says Wenden. With the majority of the company's 50-plus employees professionally educated, namely electrical and mechanical engineers, it's not surprising that Wenden sees education as the way to pull out of the state's manufacturing doldrums.

Wenden, who originally hails from southern England, is a soft-spoken man, yet is outspoken about an industry he feels is ripe for success, but reluctant to change.

"In my opinion, manufacturing in Michigan operates somewhat inefficiently," says Wenden. "My solution to improve production is to use automation to the highest extent using technology."

And with that technology comes education. Wenden's background is in the electronics industry where he says automation rules. He believes if Gov. Jennifer Granholm could excite the manufacturing industry to think about and use automation the way the electronics industry does, then things would start to turn around. Essentially, it means that people would stop doing the manual labor and instead be the technical brainpower behind it all. "That means education," says Wenden.

A quick tour of the Traverse City work floor shows an automated transfer system that utilizes robotics. In fact, if you've ever seen a Hyundai television advertisement that shows a manufacturing plant using robots to move items along a track, that is the work of Trantek. The robots move back and forth in the transfer units and can carry very heavy loads, move very fast, and do a multitude of jobs. Elsewhere on the floor, there are welding and assembly systems, and special machine projects.

Trantek also does some research and development work and recently snagged an interesting project. Wenden described a $150,000 job Trantek just completed for a British company, the design of an automated assembly process for military gas masks. As a result of that design, the British company won a government contract of $40 million.

It makes sense that a high-tech firm would invest heavily in technology itself. Clearly, it has paid off, as Trantek is demonstrating impressive sales growth and expanding the business.

"Technology is a big investment of the business," says Wenden, adding that 15 percent of its profits are a result of technology improvements.

Moreover, the physical size of the main location doubled last year and the company just completed a new 30,000 square-foot facility in Grand Rapids to meet the demands of a growing market there. Trantek's customer base is also extending into foreign markets, as Wenden is planning to move into Asia later this year. Wenden sees a real market opportunity in China as it becomes one of the world's biggest consumer of goods, including automobiles.

"I think I can sell a decent amount of automation in China because of the growth there," Wenden says. "There's a market there, just like in Grand Rapids. We want to have growth operations in markets that make sense."

On any given day, Wenden says his sales engineers are working with customers on solutions that if developed into revenue would be between $12 and $15 million. "That's huge activity for sales engineers," he says, and it substantiates the optimism he holds for the company's future. "We have vitalized people working in a vitalized environment."

Perhaps Trantek's successes will help re-vitalize the state's struggling manufacturing industry, or at least give it a shot of automation in the arm. BN