SPM Automation has laser focus on innovation

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell




Lasers, the Space Shuttle, Apache helicopters and infrared welding hot plates that sizzle at 550 degrees centigrade but won’t burn your finger even as close as one millimetre away.

All of these high-tech devices have a common Windsor connection in SPM Automation, a 12-year-old company rapidly tearing down the myth that this area is home to just a bunch of automotive metal bashers.

“We reinvest 10 per cent of our turnover in research and development activities,” said SPM founder Chris Holtkamp.

“We like to have several new patents each year. It seems to motivate our team — a constant focus that we can do things better.

“If you’re always doing the mundane and not challenging yourselves, you won’t improve.”

The company, which specializes in polymer fusion, is the only one of its kind in Canada and one of four or five in North America.

The firm’s latest breakthrough is a laser welding process.

It recently completed final testing at Boston’s Cambridge Technology, which specializes in lasers, and expects to have the product ready for sale within three months.

SPM chief of engineering Boris Novakovic said creating intellectual property and producing finished products is the diverse, stable future of the region’s automation, mould and tool and die companies.

“The final test went 100 per cent perfect,” said Novakovic, who personally holds 10 patents.

“It creates a superior quality weld and a better look on this light for the Lincoln Navigator we used in the test.”

Novakovic said lasers have been around for use for 20 years, but had been too expensive and were difficult to control in the multi-angled work required for the automotive industry.

SPM’s 17 engineers spent 18 months trying to find the right laser and the right Galvanometer for the application. SPM created a setup device for mounting.

“It’s like going to the supermarket,” Novakovic said. “We don’t make lasers or Galvanometers, so we had to shop around for the right ingredients for our application.

“We integrated the two to deliver the setup you need.”

By using the two mirrors in the Galvanometer, the company can re-direct the laser in a controlled way at a variety of angles. The laser beam can be altered for the appropriate strength and wavelength.

The beam can pass through the clear lens of a headlight cover without impacting that layer of plastic, but will melt and bond the black plastic backing underneath to form a hermetically sealed light.

Novakovic said the laser welding process can be used in the automotive, medical and semi-conductor industries.

“It’s a chance to diversify the company further,” he said. “There’s lots of interest from our Tier I customers in this.”

Though SPM has been around since 2008, the company in its current form really began to emerge in 2014.

Holtkamp bought out his co-founding partner and moved to diversify the 49-employee firm away from being solely a fuel-tank manufacturer.

Since then SPM has produced plastic trim, exterior lights and interior components for automakers ranging from the traditional Detroit Big 3 to Toyota to Tesla.

“We decided to concentrate more on style and facia products because companies refresh those more frequently,” said Holtkamp, who now refers to SPM as a technology company.

In addition to the auto industry, SPM supplies consumer goods’ makers, the oil and gas industry and the military.

A turning point for the company came in 2014 when SPM landed a contract to create a machine to manufacturer a snap-together plastic road. The 14-foot by six-foot sheets of recycled plastic fit together like Lego pieces and can be laid over swamps, sand and in the muddy back woods where there are no roads.

They’re capable of bearing the weight of large trucks used in the oil and hydro industries. The road can also be disassembled and packed up for re-use elsewhere.

NASA has used the plastic road pieces to move the Space Shuttle while the U.S. military uses them as landing pads for its Apache helicopters in the Middle East.

Holtkamp said innovation for the company often means finding new uses for existing technology.

The latest infrared, non-contact welding hot plate SPM is now testing can reach unmatched temperatures while minimizing risk of burning employees and overheating the plant or products.

“It’s a specialized, coated metal alloy that doesn’t conduct heat,” Holtkamp said. “The Europeans have been using the alloy for something else.

“We’ve found a lot of nuggets like that, which we’ve adopted for our own use at trade shows like that.”

Holtkamp feels the company’s innovative culture positions it well to an industrial era of complete transformation. That culture doesn’t come cheaply.

The company now has an in-house software designer and recently spent $100,000 on adding virtual machine software to enhance efficiency and flexibility.

SPM’s ratio of one engineer for every three shop floor employees is also well below the industry average of 1:5.

“It’s a great opportunity to diversify our customer and segment mix,” Holtkamp said of the current uncertainty.

“We’re taking on new projects, like Rivian (trucks), through our Tier I partners. The start-ups are more eager to push the envelope and embrace new technology that companies like ours are developing.

“They’re tech companies themselves.”