Celebrating over 50 years as a leader in motion control, Aerotech has grown from a three-man start-up to a high-tech company with over 500 employees. We speak to Aerotech CEO Mark Botos and president Bob Novotnak about the company’s development.
Aerotech’s history dates back to 1970, when Stephen Botos and two fellow engineers started prototyping a positioning system for industrial use in a garage. The first positioning system manufactured was a simple two-axis electromechanical application.
What were some of the key milestones in Aerotech’s history that brought the company to the leading motion control solutions provider that it is today?
BN: Decisive milestones were certainly the development of coordinated multi-axis control in the 1980s and our own servo motor production in the mid-1990s. This enabled us to ensure that our positioning solutions positioned with high precision down to the nanometre range. We have also been able to open up new markets with innovative and low-maintenance air-bearing rotary axes.
One example of this is our new ABRX series for surface measurements in the nanometre range. With large air bearing surfaces, we achieve significantly better running accuracy than mechanical or other air-bearing rotary stages available on the market, which benefits not least applications that require exceptional flatness of movement. In terms of angular accuracy, load capacity and off-axis error movements, ABRX also outperforms all other rotary stages on the market to date.
MB: For me, an important milestone was the introduction of customised solutions into our portfolio. This enabled us to convince numerous new customers in all industries of our positioning know-how and win them over. In addition, we have established and successively expanded our global presence. Today, we are represented in all important key markets, partly with our own subsidiaries. Another important step in 2017 was the implementation of an integrated ERP system to control our manufacturing processes. This paved the way to transform our previously predominant single-item production into an effective small-series production.
What were the biggest challenges in Aerotech’s history that the company was able to overcome?
BN: Basically, these were mainly economic crises that we had to deal with. One was the collapse of the US machine tool industry in the early 1980s and then around the turn of the year 2000 the big telecom crash, ie the dotcom bubble.
MB: We were able to come through these crises relatively unscathed because we had made a good name for ourselves in the market for positioning systems from the very beginning and had gained a foothold in all industries, so that we were and are not dependent on just one industry.
How has the growth and increasing customer demand worldwide affected your business?
BN: It continues to drive us to develop new products and business initiatives. Even though this permanently brings challenges, our products and services are in demand. We help our customers solve some of their toughest automation challenges.
MB: The biggest problems were caused more by the uneven demand. The global aspect has been less of a problem. So it is not always easy to react to the rapid ups and downs of the high-tech industry. But we continue to drive progress by using our core competencies in technology.
What have you done to build capacity to keep up with the increased demand for your products and services?
MB: We have been working on building a diverse supply chain to expand our existing production capacity. The focus has been on expanding our production capacity by doubling our clean room space. However, some things we do cannot be outsourced. Therefore, we have developed internal training and sustainable recruitment programmes to build, attract and retain the talent we need.
Can you explain how technology is driving your business forward – both for your internal operations and for your products and services?
MB: The constant change in technologies creates new opportunities. As many devices, such as smartphones, become smaller and more ubiquitous, the demand for manufacturing these products is constantly increasing. At the same time, these developments also influence our manufacturing processes, with lasers and additive processes being the best examples. To put it in a nutshell, the smaller applications and devices become, the more precise the positioning has to be in manufacturing.
BN: I would add that our customers are increasingly automating their products because of the higher precision, smaller size and lack of available labour. This is where we see ourselves as a reliable partner for micro-production in the future as well.
What are the key features that make Aerotech unique both as an employer and as a provider of precision automation systems?
MB: Respect for our employees and their families creates an environment where people like to stay because they know they share in the company’s success through profit sharing and an employee share ownership programme. And our customers can rely on us for both product performance and our global service. Our products perform as stated, backed by data, and are supported by us for as long as possible.
BN: Aerotech is unique in the industry in that we have the expertise in-house on many of the core technologies needed for our business. This gives us the opportunity to permanently adapt these technologies to the current and future needs of our customers. A good example of this is our new Automation1 control platform, which is developed based on customer requirements and is constantly being expanded functionally to meet customer needs.
Where do you want to take Aerotech in the future?
MB: We naturally want to continue our growth story so that we can enable our employees and customers to achieve their own life goals. Our current starting position as well as the market opportunities are optimal to sustainably drive future growth. We have hired around 100 new employees in the last six months alone.
BN: Of course we want to keep growing, but in a smart way. We see a bright future for precision automation systems. And so we will continue to do what we do best: build the best precision motion control and automation equipment for our customers. One of the latest examples is the further development of our popular ANT nanopositioning stages. Building on the proven predecessor model, the 2nd generation ANT95 and ANT130 high-precision nanopositioners are designed to support users even better in terms of dynamics and precision.
We see a wide range of possible applications for this, for example in assembly and inspection in photonics, in fibre alignment and optimisation, in the manufacture, testing and inspection of optics, in sensor testing and qualification, but also in semiconductor manufacture and inspection as well as in research and laboratory applications.