Interview with Robert Schad, ATHENA AUTOMATION

NIIGON - For the Future

Vaughan, Canada

At Athena, based in the Canadian city of Vaughan, we have found a new facility built for long term goals. During the factory tour, it became clear that the focus is on efficiency, technology and the strategy to provide the industry with a state-of-the-art facility and top-class equipment. We also learned about the importance of building up the people base first, and met a motivated and enthusiastic core team with their chairman on site: Ready for take-off.

Piovan April

Maybe this has been asked of you many times: After retiring from Husky in 2005 you sold your shares in 2007. Known as a truly dedicated inventor and private entrepreneur, why continue to develop a new line of injection moulding machines after your tremendous success as owner of Husky?

Schad:  Initially I was hoping to remain with Husky, but I could not adjust to the short-term strategy. In 2008, Athena was established to build an injection moulding machine customizable with pre-engineered options. We chose a two-platen machine with servo-driven pumps. Based on this technology the programme now covers the 150 to 550 metric ton range and addresses 50% of the global injection moulding machine market. We have no accumulator, no servo valves – everything is on demand. Now the machine is basically the same, covered by about 50 patents. We have developed pre-engineered options such as:
  • PET
  • Robotics
  • Cube
  • Unscrewing
  • Stack
  • Integrated 3rd party 
  • Rotary platen hot-runner controllers
  • Two-Material

Very often you hear from sportsmen “When it is at its best, you should finish your career.”  Is there any truth in that sentence?

Schad:  For me there is only one answer – you should stop when you have reached your goal. I am enjoying my work.

What is your goal?

Schad:  The best technology and the best injection moulding machine.

Congratulations on your new facility. You have in-floor heating and cooling in addition to air conditioning, customer areas, fitness areas, and high tech everywhere – Tell us about your investments and long term goals?

Schad:  Our long term goal is to be a family-owned company with employee shareholders; that’s why we invested in 3 areas:
  • The new plant for just–in–time manufacturing
  • An integrated team for engineering, procurement, manufacturing and IT
  • Developing proprietary technology.
Everything is set up like in the automotive industry – for just-in-time manufacturing. Everything is computerized; we know where every part is. The whole secret of Athena is the core team that we have created – internal and external. We have no sales department – our whole business is based on building good relationships with our customers and helping them be successful.

What is new at Athena? 

Schad:  This year we are introducing the next machine generation – the “NIIGON Series” – which incorporates all our accumulated experience. “Niigon” is an aboriginal Ojibwa word meaning “for the future”. This year we will be coming out with a 500 ton machine; scaling up our cube machine; introducing a new HMI; and releasing new customizations. In PET, we’ve set up a demonstration site for unattended preform production in our facility.

Where is your focus today – packaging / PET / closures or other special projects?

Schad:  First of all, Athena’s focus is on the technology, not on the market. Secondly, we decided to build machines only and let customers choose suppliers for moulds, hot runners, downstream automation, and auxiliary equipment. Mould makers are some of our most important customers. By combining their mould expertise with our machine, the mould maker can offer their customers innovative solutions. This approach increases both mould and machine business. Some customers for example are using our machines for in-mould labelling. Initially, we spent a lot of effort tailoring the ideal machine for them and the repeat orders speak for themselves.

Tell us a little bit about the market and customer feedback to Athena and the injection machine. Did you hear “Yes, it’s more than just another injection machine?”

Schad:  We always have to be prepared to listen to customers; feedback is vital to success. After having machines in the field for a few years – and with our new plant – we are now ready for business. Think about it, when the operators on the floor love our machines, management will like it. And so far the feedback has been very positive and it tells us – we are on the right track.

Where do you see the most challenging aspects within the next 5 years for packaging / PET / caps & closures? 

Schad:  There are continuous developments in our business. For example thermoforming has had excellent developments and innovations. Or for example, Sacmi in Italy with the development of compression moulding closures. But today, injection moulding equipment has a lot to offer and is very competitive.  We at Athena look for innovative products and projects, where our machine program provides an alternative and is competitive. We look for superior product designs. It is a challenge for being competitive today. Regarding the PET preform market we will work together with experienced mould makers. However, our focus will be on our machine and the post-mould cooling. We have a number of machines in the market and are continuously improving the product for improved cycle time and energy efficiency.  Together with our partners we provide a viable and solid alternative to products that are in the market today.

Where do you see the biggest challenges within the next 5 years for Athena?  

Schad (laughs):  Our focus is to reverse our cash flow. We are proud today to say, Athena is a debt-free company after all these investments, but at some point we have to arrive at a positive cash flow.

Where do you see Athena in 2020, what are your long-term plans for Athena?

Schad:  Things will change with time. We will have new competitors, customers will have new challenges and they will come to us for support. Athena will be there to help these customers. Looking ahead we have enough work to do and are positive as to what the future of Athena looks like. We focus on offering our customers a superior product in our niche. And we focus on doing the right thing. 

Last time we spoke at the K-Show in Düsseldorf you talked about your expansions in Germany and Europe. How is the situation today?

Schad:  Starting this spring one of our longstanding engineers will head European Customer Support from the Frankfurt area. The technicians are customers’ main point of contact, providing technical and commercial support. They build relationships in their respective territories and manage communication. For example, they forward customer inquiries to engineering, who provide feasibility analyses, cost of ownership studies and quotations.

Talking about competition - is Asian equipment a long term threat?

Schad:  The trend of Asian companies investing in Western companies and technologies such as KraussMaffei or Kuka in Germany is something we see. There have been similar projects in the USA, but more so where Asian manufacturers enter the North American market. In many cases these Asian operations look for technologies. Athena only manufactures machines and we do not see this as a long term threat for us today. I don’t see any competitive programme that can offer what we have. We can ship competitively to China. On the other hand the cooperation between YUDO and Otto Hofstetter is a new development. They have joined forces to participate in the PET market segment.  If they are interested in a machine partner, we are open to be part of a complete system.

You have been part of the success of PET packaging, has the industry reached its limits?

Schad:  There are some basic limits in the industry but you are never at the end. I feel that it’s most important to look ahead 10-20 years to arrive at a good strategy.

How do you as a Canadian manufacturer see the “Trump” effect and possible tax issues?

Schad:  The new political climate in the USA will not affect us, at least not as we see it today. We have an excellent relationship between Canada and the USA and the same goes for our customers on both sides of the border. Building machines just-in-time and outsourcing components globally – like the automotive industry – puts us in a good position. 

What is your opinion about PET recycling and the effect on marine littering? 

Schad:  There is no question that the world has environmental issues. What we are doing about it may be not enough, but we are doing something. For example the industry is involved with a number of programmes to promote “green” projects like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé and other large conglomerates. What do we do about it? We do all that is possible with efforts to support environmental issues by being more efficient, using less energy and continuing to improve our equipment. We try to do our best.  

At the Drinktec 2013, Athena showed the XFORM 150 PET machine. Will you be actively exhibiting at the upcoming Drinktec exhibition in Munich this September ?

Schad:  We have decided not to exhibit on our own. We will work with customers and they will exhibit their and our products. This a similar approach that we have effectively used at the last NPE in Orlando, Florida in 2015.

In closing we would like to thank you and your team for an interesting day at Athena. Your new plant is truly a state of the art manufacturing facility and an excellent blueprint for a modern manufacturing facility. Impressive, how Athena handles the pre-assembly techniques in bringing a ready and tested product to the machine assembly line. Your open concept, to handle customer support while in the Athena facility is exemplary and not to forget the friendly and bright working environment for the staff. 

Schad:  In the last 50 years, the PET industry has changed dramatically. Many opportunities, coupled with the right strategy, have resulted in major technological leaps. I see as many opportunities now as I saw when I built the first machine in 1961. The basics for success have not changed – providing customers with innovative products, reliable service and a long-term relationship based on honesty and trust.

We look forward to hear more about Athena at the PETnology Conference being held in Munich on September 11th and 12th in conjunction with the Drinktec Exhibition.

Mr. Schad, thank you again.

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