CEC Controls Company Inc.

Industrial assembly line controls protect production, reduce costly downtime
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Lance Pelletier

In the deadline-driven manufacturing world — particularly in the automotive industry on the final assembly end — downtime equates to a loss of thousands of dollars per minute and missed deadlines, which in turn means unhappy customers. Major automotive manufacturers such as Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Chrysler, Nissan and Toyota have come to trust CEC Controls Company Inc. to help avoid costly downtime. CEC calls Warren, Michigan, home, but has 13 satellite offices across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and now Europe. The company specializes in designing, building, running and maintaining multimillion-dollar industrial and process control systems.

“The difference between a final assembly plant and say a transmission or some type of part plant is everything is order critical,” explains Bob Scheper, president of CEC, who’s been with the company in nearly every capacity since 1980. “In the case of final assembly, customers have placed an order and there’s a backlog of two to three months. If something on the production line breaks down, it’s extremely critical because you can’t extend that wait time to six months. Customers will go somewhere else. Downtime in this environment means a loss of close to $10,000 per minute.”

CEC Controls Company Inc.

CEC has helped its high-profile customer base avoid disastrous downtime for decades. The company was originally founded in Michigan in 1966 by the Silver family and started out in conveyor systems. “We started in the ‘60s as part of Conveyor Engineering Corporation and in the ‘80s we separated from that company and became an independent CEC Controls Company Inc. so we could focus on conveyor controls for not just conveyor engineering, but numerous other mechanical prime contractors,” says Scheper. “We began to expand into monitoring systems, error-proofing [EP] systems and more.”

Expert coordination and controls

Ford has been a longtime customer of CEC. “My partner, Mike Palo, and his team developed the EP system that Ford has used for years all over North America and now they’ve gone global with it, taking it to plants in Asia and Europe,” says Scheper. “This system helps manage all of the scheduling. We don’t build the components the car is made from, but we build the controls and scheduling to coordinate how it’s built.”

The scale of these systems can range from simple controls to a multifaceted $10-million system — all types and sizes are well within CEC’s wheelhouse. “There’s a lot of pressure on these systems to perform and our excellent control engineers have to troubleshoot and react quickly, even if it’s not something we designed and built that’s failing,” says Scheper. “Our systems engineering and controls manage everything from floor level control, mistake proofing, parts sequencing and kitting systems (SKS), right up to the monitoring system that tells upper management where the bottlenecks are.”

While most of CEC’s business has been largely automakers, the company is diversifying and growing on a global scale. “We’re finding applications for our systems in water and wastewater treatment facilities for municipalities and large-scale tooling companies, as well as the biogas industry,” notes Scheper. “We’ve expanded quite a bit over the last decade, nearly doubling in size from $29 million in annual revenue to approximately $60 million.”

Global gains

CEC’s employee base has grown to more than 220 as the company makes a huge comeback from lean recession years. CEC now has 13 offices from Atlanta to Tampa, greater Chicago to Nashville, Burlington, Ontario, Mexico and more. “We just opened a new office in Romania,” says Scheper. “This will allow us to be closer to customers. Ford has a few joint ventures in Europe and China and we needed to be closely connected to offer EP, SKS and control monitoring for these Ford-tied customers.”

At home in Michigan, CEC self-performs the bulk of manufacturing and fabrication. “We’re highly sought after for our control panel manufacturing capabilities for conveyance systems and we build the assembly information systems [AIS] here in Warren and ship globally,” says Scheper.

The AIS is capable of automatically indicating specific tasks required for an operator workstation. The system acts as a two-way communication gateway between the mistake-proofing components such as torque tools, pick lights or operator input and MES servers. The AIS sends and receives information between plant floor operations and plant databases, to acquire information specific to the operation(s) in a workstation. Information gathered is used to indicate specific processes expected of operators, and upon completion of these processes the AIS sends pass/ fail information back to the servers, electronically tagging the process with information about open issues.

With a touch-screen interface the AIS communicates with many devices over Ethernet, series and discrete I/O. Other devices include: barcode readers, RF tag readers, part verification pick lights, process equipment and more. CEC’s AIS system can be used as a standalone unit or part of a zone of workstations.

Water, water everywhere

Outside of the automotive market, CEC is expanding its services to customers in the water and wastewater treatment facility sector. The company offers plant-wide control systems, reverse osmosis controls, master lift pump stations, sludge controls, facility management, temperature controls, batch process systems and other services aimed at keeping water and wastewater treatment facilities running at all times.

“Our office in Norfolk, Virginia, concentrates heavily on this market,” says Scheper. “Right now this makes up less than 10 percent of our business, but we plan to double that. We have a current ongoing project in this market where we are installing 140 new lift station control panels. This market is an ideal way to diversify because there will never be a down economy in water needs and so much of our nation’s water infrastructure is outdated and in need of upgrades and replacement.”

While expansion has come naturally for CEC, Scheper says the challenge is having the right people in place to make it happen. “We’re making an effort to do a lot of young engineer recruiting through colleges and internships because there’s a huge demand for control engineers right now,” he explains. Now that the auto industry has recovered, demand for systems engineers is skyrocketing. “We need to find people with the right experience or people out of school and train them in our way,” adds Scheper.

Scheper says he doesn’t see CEC’s backlog slowing anytime soon; in fact he expects strong growth in the next couple of years. “I think what makes people call on us is our top-level control engineers, along with we’ve always been very involved with customers and their hardware and software standards,” he says. “Our focus has been to make systems robust enough to stand for the long term and reduce maintenance and warrantee issues. The attitude here is you’re only as good as your last job.”

“Without the help from my partners, Mike Palo and Ken Just, along with the outstanding employees we have here at CEC Controls, none of this would be possible,” adds Scheper. As assembly line systems become increasingly complex, manufacturers and facility owners need an expert like CEC Controls Company Inc. by their side to avoid costly downtime and ensure systems run smoothly in the fast-paced environment.

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