Custom Engineering Solutions for Manufacturers

Back when they were students at the University of Alabama’s School of Engineering, Arnar Thors says he and Matt Fitzgerald often collaborated on class assignments and even built race cars together in design competitions.

After graduation, the two worked for several years in Birmingham as engineers before joining forces again in 2007 to start their own firm. For more than a year, they worked late nights and weekends to build their fledgling company before quitting their day jobs to run their business full time, Thors says.

Today, Fitz-Thors Engineering Inc. operates out of a 10, 000-square-foot facility in Bessemer with 20 employees, including several co-op students and 10 full-time engineers, Thors says. The company specializes in building custom equipment for companies seeking to improve or speed up their manufacturing processes. When off-the-shelf solutions do not work, Fitz-Thors’ team, which includes electrical and mechanical engineers, machinists and fabricators, can customize machines and design new technologies that will do exactly what a client wants.

“We range anywhere from product development and research development to electrical testing for automotive manufacturers to research and development, prototyping and machining for the military, ” Thors says.

Fitz-Thors has its own fabrication and machine shop on the premises rather than outsourcing the work. And with their 3-D modeling software, they can simulate real-world conditions to catch flaws in any product before it’s installed.

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“It makes us unique, because we can take any project from concept or idea all the way to installation and testing at the customer’s facility, ” he says, “or we’ll come if they need help with project management.”

Keeping all the work in-house, Thors says, allows them to save on production time and manage quality control.

“The issue we’ve had in the past was getting people who did what they said they would do, ” Thors says. “We ran into issues with delivery time and costs. Early on, we got jobs that were time sensitive, and we would call on others for machining and fabrication for a deadline, but we got burned once or twice.”

A robot-mounted camera can search for defects in materials and products.

Fitz-Thors’ clients have included companies such as Barber’s Dairy, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, the automotive supplier Eissmann Automotive Group in Pell City, and technology and biotechnology companies like Johnson Outdoors Marine Electronics in Eufaula and iExpress Genes in Huntsville.

For auto parts supplier Eissmann Automotive, a company that makes leather-covered interior components for vehicles, Fitz-Thors developed a dryer that uses a vertical rather than a horizontal conveyor. The oven evaporates moisture so the leather will adhere to the components.

“By using a vertical structure, ” says Matt Moody, Fitz-Thors’ engineering manager of mechanical systems, “we’re able to achieve the same function as a 65-foot conveyor in a 15- to 20-foot length. Therefore, they can process more parts with less floor space.”

Fitz-Thors also is a preferred solution provider for ABB Robotics and KUKA, industrial robotics manufacturers that hire Fitz-Thors on contract to customize and install their robots.

In one case, Fitz-Thors helped Eissmann develop a more efficient way to use robots to flame treat vehicle parts.

Under more traditional flame-treatment methods, plastic pieces used for vehicle interiors are coated with an adhesive before they are covered with leather. The parts are flame treated to improve the adhesion of the glue to the plastic. This procedure often takes place inside a cell containing several individual stations, each with its own flame-treating robot. The vehicle parts in each station are flame treated as they rotate on a turntable controlled remotely by an operator.

Fitz-Thors engineers, in partnership with ABB Robotics, have found a way to use just one robot that can move around an entire cell from station to station. The robot will verify that the automotive part is in position, Thors says, flame treat it and then move to the next station placed by the operator. This new solution frees up other robots for other tasks, he says.

The magazine Control Engineering featured Fitz-Thors’ robotic solution in May 2014.

Another Fitz-Thors client is Johnson Outdoors Marine Electronics, which makes Humminbird fish finders and other navigational electronics for avid anglers. Peter Walker, Johnson Outdoors’ electrical process and test engineering manager, says Fitz-Thors engineers are helping the company develop a turnkey system, including software, which will enable a robot with a mounted camera to inspect some of the company’s navigational products for missing screws, buttons, knobs or any other omissions.

“We want to make sure our customers get unblemished units, ” says Walker, “and this is an extra way to do it, and it’s much faster. It not only saves on labor, but it’s actually improving the quality of the product and the testing that we’re doing.”

Thors says that with every job their engineers examine and assess the client’s resources and processes to come up with the most workable and efficient solution to a problem.

“A lot of people ask about robotics, ” Thors says, “and robotics is a big push now, but it may not be the best way to accomplish that task for them, especially if they don’t have the technical resources at their facility to help maintain those robots.”

Stephen Jones, president of Stephen Jones & Associates in Birmingham, recalls a job two years ago when his Atlanta-based customer needed specialized equipment. The customer produced expensive components used in fiber optic cables and needed an overhead crane or lift-assist device made of structural aluminum. The airborne chemicals in the room that housed the components could corrode steel, so a steel crane was not an option, Jones says.

The dilemma, he says, was figuring out how to create an aluminum lift-assist device that was strong but also compact enough to fit inside the environment room. Because of the complexity involved, Jones says he had difficulty finding an engineering firm willing to take the job.

“I had known Matthew and Arnar for several years and knew their capability, ” says Jones, “so we worked with them and sat down and defined what the problem was.”

Jones says the Fitz-Thors engineering team designed and fabricated the components for an aluminum crane that met his customer’s specifications.

“They [Fitz-Thors] came up with a package and the drawings and got everything approved by the customer, and it all just went together marvelously, ” Jones says. “And to me, that’s why people like Fitz-Thors are there. They’re there to take on tasks that are one-of-a-kind or one off. We went in and put the system in, and it really helped bind me as a small business to that customer. They helped me to build a long-lasting customer.”

To gain their own clients, Fitz-Thors relies mostly on word of mouth and referrals from ABB Robotics and KUKA, Thors says. The company also hosts an annual open house event in October.

“The more we work with other people, ” he says, “the more they recommend us to someone they know.”

Thors says he and Fitzgerald plan to eventually add 5, 000 square feet to their facility and build up the robotics, product development and research and development side of the business. They also want to apply for more government contract work, he says.

“It’s fun to watch it grow and to develop solutions that not many people will approach, ” Thors says. “It’s that constant coming up with something new and solving people’s problems that’s very rewarding.”

Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

text by Gail Allyn Short • photos by Cary Norton

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