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Randy Ames

Randy Ames says robotics will be the main focus of the next chapter in the intriguing Ames story.

 

As he talked with BusinessWest, Randy Ames gestured out the window of his tiny office to the traffic on Greenfield Street just a few dozen feet away.

He guessed that several thousand cars pass that spot every day, and further speculated that few, if any, of those travelers would have any idea at all what goes on inside the small, nondescript building that has been home to his business for the past 15 years.

That’s a pretty safe bet, actually. In fact, it’s easy to drive right by Ames Electrical Consulting without knowing it’s there. And soon, it won’t be there.

Indeed, as he talked, Ames noted that he was in the very early stages of packing up for a move to much larger quarters in Greenfield Industrial Park, just a few miles away. That move is a big part of an exciting next chapter in one of the more intriguing, and still evolving, business stories in Franklin County.

The first chapter saw Ames abandon a career, if it could be called that, as a chef — because he needed something more financially rewarding as he started a family — and enroll in an electrical engineering technology program at Springfield Technical Community College.

“Manufacturers can’t find people to work — and it’s not just manufacturers, it’s everyone.”

The next chapters would see him put that degree to work in jobs for several different companies in the region — from Elm Electrical in Westfield to Kellogg Brush in Easthampton — while also earning a degree in electrical engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston on weekends (“three years of Saturdays,” as he called it), and also doing a little of what he described as “moonlighting.”

Specifically, he was developing and installing systems to help businesses automate various operations and processes.

Eventually, and with some real incentive after he was pink-slipped by a downsizing Kellogg Brush, his work with automation evolved from moonlighting into a risk-laden entrepreneurial venture, one that somehow managed to survive the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, when OEMs that made the equipment he installs all but shut down.

Today, Ames boasts clients in a wide range of sectors, from breweries to plastics; food and beverage to paper; recreation (think ski lifts) to municipal water and wastewater facilities. Indeed, the company designs electrical hardware and software control systems for companies that make everything from golf balls to Play-Doh to ketchup bottles.

“We’re the automation guys,” Ames said simply, adding that, over the years, the company has enjoyed steady growth while expanding and diversifying its portfolio of customers, which it provides with turnkey operations.

The next chapter for Ames, and a big reason behind its move to larger quarters, involves the growing, ever-changing world of robotics.

The company has become New England’s only authorized distributor and integrator of NACHI Robotics Systems, said Ames, adding that, as manufacturers and machine shops across the region and throughout the Northeast continue to struggle to attract and retain employees, more of these companies are increasingly looking to robots and cobots (‘collaborative robots’ that work together with people) as a solution.

NACHI Robot Roundup

Randy Ames, center, and a large delegation of local, state, and business leaders gathered at the company’s facility in Deerfield last summer for the NACHI Robot Roundup.

“Manufacturers can’t find people to work — and it’s not just manufacturers, it’s everyone,” said Ames, adding that his company is now primed and well-positioned to take full advantage of this technology and what it can do for companies.

It was this next chapter and what it might it might mean for the company and the region that drew business leaders and elected officials — more people than had come to his door in decades — to the office on Greenfield Street last summer for what was dubbed the NACHI Robot Roundup.

At that gathering, attendees got a good look into the future — of manufacturing, Ames Electrical, and, in many respects, the region.

For this issue and its focus on Franklin County, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Ames and what comes next for a company where success hasn’t come automatically, but through entrepreneurial energy and a willingness to keep current — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

Watt’s Happening?

Ames joked early and often about the acronyms that dominate his business.

There are many of them — from PLCs (programmable logic controls), which are small devices, “the heart of automation,” as Ames called them, that can be programmed to turn things on and off; to HMIs (human-machine interfaces), the operators’ touchscreens; and even RAT (remote access technology), which provides a secure, cloud-based IT network that allows Ames to access remote locations and control machines with just a few clicks.

These acronyms come together in an industry, and a business, that has emerged, grown, and evolved over the past four decades, and continues to do so.

As noted earlier, Ames was a chef before enrolling at STCC and then working at Elm Electrical and then Kellogg Brush and eventually starting that moonlighting with automated systems.

He started in 1992 at Yankee Candle as it was opening its village in South Deerfield, specifically with developing, building, and programming ‘Santa’s toy machine,’ which made it appear that toys were going into a huge box in pieces and coming out as finished products.

“Part of it was to make it sort of this Willy Wonka/Rube Goldberg machine-looking mechanical contraption,” he recalled, adding that he worked with Yankee Candle founder Michael Kittredge on the project. “He said, ‘I want it to do this … I want this valve to make this thing spin, and all these lights to blink, the conveyer to run, to turn the snow on and off in the windows outside, etc.’ I’ll bet there were 25-foot-diameter gears on the wall with little motors that I had to make run.”

From there, Ames worked with several other moonlighting customers offering their own versions of ‘I want it to do this.’ Those experiences provided him with the confidence to go into business for himself in the spring of 1992 when he was laid off from Kellogg Brush as it was downsizing.

“I made four phone calls that day, and three people called me back,” he said, adding that one of them was Hillside Plastics in nearby Turners Falls, which would go on to be a steady customer.

He initially operated out of his house in Montague, working there during the day and then for OEM Kingsbury Corp. in New Hampshire at night, before focusing exclusively on his own work.

Over the past 30 years, the company has survived disruptive forces ranging from the Great Recession, when the phone stopped ringing and he started thinking about returning to work as a chef, to the pandemic, and thrived mostly by growing and diversifying its portfolio of customers while developing strong partnerships with both those clients and the makers of the equipment it installs.

Elaborating, Ames said the company takes a collaborative approach to what amounts to finding solutions for a client, whether it’s a manufacturer looking to automate a production process or a municipality operating its wastewater treatment plant.

He said the phone started ringing again in 2011, and with few exceptions, it hasn’t stopped ringing since, with customers finding Ames mostly through its vendors and all-important word-of-mouth from existing clients. Along the way, it has developed a niche — mostly smaller systems — and a reputation for being able to move quickly and nimbly, separating it from its much larger competitors.

Most of its customers are along the I-91 corridor in Western Mass., but it has also expanded into the North Shore, the Worcester area, and other parts of New England.

This expansion process may be accelerated by the partnership with NACHI Robotic Systems, Ames said, noting that a growing number of companies, including machine shops, are looking to robots as their workforce challenges mount.

“Manufacturers are tired of the revolving door,” he explained. “They bring someone in, they train them for a week, and then they’re gone. So, increasingly, they’re looking at robots.”

Indeed, he said he’s taking calls from potential customers ranging from bakeries to machine shops exploring the possibility of using robots to handle some of the work currently carried out by people.

Elaborating, Ames said he’s given two quotes to machine shops for robots that can handle what’s known as ‘machine tending,’ yielding yet another acronym (MT). And as he talked, he played a video of a NACHI robot picking and placing parts and putting them into a chuck on a computer numerical control system.

“This machine costs $92,000 — it comes with a cart and a robot,” he told BusinessWest. “If you can keep loading that, it will work all day and all night long; we just quoted one company where the ROI on one of these was three months.”

The company hasn’t installed any robotic systems yet, but Ames said the pace of phone calls inquiring about the equipment and what it can do has certainly picked up over the past several months. And he expects that call volume to only increase as workforce issues across all sectors continue.

 

Wired for Growth

Returning to the matter of that Willy Wonka/Rube Goldberg contraption he developed for Yankee Candle, Ames said that Michael Kittredge, who passed away in 2019, told him years ago that someone from the Smithsonian Institution called, saying they would be very interested in putting it on display once Yankee Candle was done with it.

Unfortunately, the toy machine had been taken down and dismantled by that time, Ames went on, adding that he never thought about his work winding up in the Smithsonian one day.

Instead, he’d gladly settle for satisfied customers and continued growth of the business he started from scratch and developed into something that has remained on the cutting edge of an emerging sector.

You certainly can’t see any of that driving past the company’s soon-to-be-former home on Greenfield Street, and that’s part of this engaging story — one with some intriguing chapters still to come.