VAUGHAN, ONTARIO — When Robert Schad and his team began Athena Automation Ltd., they wanted to start with a clean sheet of paper. Taking everything the industry now knows about injection molding and lean manufacturing, they asked themselves, how could they build the ideal molding system?
The question extends beyond the Athena machines themselves, which are just starting to go into production, and to the company. Schad, who launched Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. 1953 and ran it until retiring in 2005, sold his shares in 2007. Bolton, Ontario-based Husky is now owned by private equity company Berkshire Partners LLC.
The ideal press would also be owned by an ideal company with flexibility to respond to changes in the market.
"We're not planning to make a public company out of this," Schad said during a May 15 open house to introduce Athena to a wider audience. "I was very disenchanted with the system."
Private equity is no better, he said, because it means having to justify every expenditure with a short-term payoff in profits. Schad said his and Athena's outlook is long term. The company is owned by the Schad family and its employees.
"My outlook is 20 years," he said. "I can't think short term. If I could, I would have had a machine on the market two years ago, but I wanted to take my time and do it right."
Athena officially began in 2008 and moved into its 40,000-square-foot site in the northern Toronto suburbs in 2010 and began building prototypes for an injection molding machine with a modular design, created for simple and clean modification.
"The field is overcrowded with machinery, so we have to differentiate ourselves," Schad said. "What we have done is to build a platform that you can automate and customize. It's all in one system."
An Athena machine begins with a base specifically designed for an improved manufacturing flow within the molding facility. All of the connections — including the water lines — are positioned on one end of the machine to simplify production layouts. The base sits 6 inches off the ground to make it easier to clean around and beneath the press, a move Athena says will make it easier for the company to supply medical industry suppliers working in clean room environments.
The hybrid system of hydraulic and electric power also lead to cleaner and more economic production and Schad maintains Athena machines can compete with all-electric machines in energy consumption, accuracy and floor space.
The larger opening available in the hybrid press system makes the machines a better fit for spin stack and rotational molds, said Jim Overbeeke, vice president of sales. The modular design accommodates molds from any tooling supplier and a hot runner system picked by the molder – all of which are easy to run from a central, easy-to-understand operating system.
Athena is also out to be competitive with other presses in the mid to high-end market, so it can focus on supplying multiple industries, and not just packaging and other high volume markets.
Packaging will be a key market, however. The company has teamed with Italy's Sipa SpA to produce presses for PET preforms, and during its open house showed off both preform and closure production as well as ongoing production of presses for a variety of other customers.
Currently, the company is making presses with 150 and 300 metric tons of clamping force, with more sizes to hit the market soon.
Athena expects to ramp up to selling 40 to 50 presses by 2014 and has already planned out a 150,000-square-foot expansion in Vaughan to meet expected demand for its machines. The company also owns more land adjacent to its existing facility, which will provide space for even more growth as it expects its sales grow.
"We expect that we will have substantial growth after the first year," Schad said.
While Schad is reluctant to compare Athena to Husky, the new company retains many touchstones to his previous business from an on-site chef to large skylights for natural lights and a solar energy system that allows the company to sell back enough power to the government to cover its own utility bills.
Now that Athena is beginning to flow out onto the manufacturing floors, Schad said he expects quick growth, but the company is ready to take the time needed to establish itself.
"We're going to take time and do it right and look at the long term," he said.