|William Toles,CEO, Tol-O-Matic, Inc., Hamel, MN
A sales and engineering specialist, Toles became president and CEO of Tol-O-Matic in 1980. He has developed and marketed innovative modular automation components throughout his business career. Before joiningTol-O-Matic, Toles owned and operated an industrial distribution company. He studied marketing and engineeringat the University of Minnesota inMinneapolis.
Design and build superior products, remember that people are the heart of any business, and you've got the formula for a winner, according to Bill Toles.
Design News: What role has design engineering played in the success of Tol-O-Matic?
Toles: Clearly, as good as our relationships are with our distributors and with our customers, none of our efforts would work without great products. The design engineer is the cornerstone of a successful company. if you don't have a great product, you are vulnerable at all times to be knocked out of the door technically. Our goal is to have everything in place so that nobody can upstage us, then the rest of it is the soft stuff. You have to deliver it, price it, and provide the education and all the support that makes the customer feel better. Yet if the product doesn't work well, the customer will never feel good about it.
Q: How has ISO 9001 certification affected Tol-O-Matic?
A: Part of the success of this organization arises from a lack of organization. And I like it that way. People are empowered to go do whatever they think is right at the spur of the moment. Clearly, ISO 9001 set an architecture in place that encouraged organizational controls. My heads of engineering and quality control as-sured me when we started out that when we were done conforming to ISO, our product development process would be improved. And in fact it's done a lot for us. Our business is operating faster, less expensively, more efficiently, more respectfully. We have instant credibility with potential customers who understand ISO.
Q: How does a relatively small company like Tol-O-Matic succeed?
A:You've got to have great products. You've got to be able to deliver. Anybody who's in business today has to have quality or they're going to be out of business. The next step is to create an environment with potential customers that they like and are comfortable with. From that stage forward, it's what kind of value-added can you bring. You don't have to offer the lowest price, though you've got to be competitive. It really boils down to bringing the customer the extra services and features that they want.
Q: What has your company done to make your design engineers more productive?
A: We've added the engineering tools, computers, CAD, and FEA, yet other things matter more. For example, we encourage them to travel a lot. We encourage our sales people to take the engineers along on sales calls. We also encourage engineers to make mistakes. Once we commit to major tooling and production, then we must be confident that we're right. But in the design phase, in the planning stage, make your mistakes.
In brief, you build an environment in which engineers can be proud of their work and get recognized for what they're doing.
Q: What is modular automation and what does it do for users?
A: Modular automation happens at one tool or one piece of machinery. Modular automation is taking products that work on an xyz axis and being able to easily specialize them for each and every application. Everybody is trying to find a way to maintain a reasonable margin, and therefore everybody has to be flexible. Modular automation has been around for a long time, and it's now being recognized as the most cost-effective way of doing things.
Q: You're saying large-scale automation is not the right way to go?
A: In some applications, it is. But modular automation allows you to take a look at doing something, and for a reasonable cost put together an automated assembly for a fixture, or an automated whatever you want it to be. And you don't have to be a Ph.D. to do it. Years ago you used to hear about automation and robotics. Essentially, managements were seduced by the aura of all the fancy devices and were trying to eliminate people. People are not going to be eliminated. People will be intimately involved in what we do. Will those applications that you can highly automate and walk away from be done? Sure. Are there a lot of them? No.
Q: What special skill does modular automation require of engineers?
A: Imagination. The most challenging task facing manufacturers of automation components is to help the engineer hold onto and nurture his creativity.