By Eric Peterson | Nov 28, 2022
Contract machining services and industrial automation
Ulrich Automation started as a side hustle for its founder. "I was a mechanic and maintenance guy, mostly in plastics factories," says Ulrich. "We started designing our own automation for the factory. That was 2004."
Cowen Manufacturing, which makes honey extraction equipment across town in Parowan, emerged as an outside client on an automation product. "They were trying to branch out into other markets," says Ulrich. "We sold a few machines, but couldn't get anything to take off."
But Ulrich had invested in some CNC equipment as part of the project, leading him down a different path. "I'm the accidental machine shop," he says. "I bought a machine just because I needed to build my own parts for things that I was designing."
Ulrich started with one Fadal in his garage in 2010 and went full-time with the business in 2015. He now has four CNC mills -- including a 5-axis Fadal acquired in 2022 -- and a lathe in a 1,300-square-foot shop. His son, Josh, is one of the machinists. Now 25, he's been a fixture in the shop since he was 13.
The shop has worked on plenty of automation projects over the years, but machining has been the bedrock of the business. "Now I'm a job shop that does some custom automation," says Ulrich. "We do all of our own fabrication and welding." He relies on Cowen Manufacturing for powder coating and sheet metal work and outside welders and programmers when necessary.
Ulrich Automation works with primarily local clients, including Cowen as well as Staheli West and plastics companies in nearby Cedar City. "When I'm slow and need stuff to run, there's always Xometry," says Ulrich. "One thing I'm not very good at is bidding, and they already have a price. . . . You either take the job or you don't."
Sales have steadily increased over the years. "We've been growing, probably a little slower than I want," says Ulrich.
Challenges: "A lot of the challenge is personnel," says Ulrich. "I think I can get customers easier than I can get people to run jobs." Automation jobs have gotten bigger, he adds, so taking them on is also a challenge for a small shop.
"As a small shop, my benefit package isn't the best and I have to try to develop my own talent. That takes so much time, and the talent is limited to what I can develop. My ceiling is the ceiling of the shop, where if I could find a way to bring people in here who are smarter than I am in certain areas, then you can raise the ceiling of what your capabilities are."
Opportunities: "Any manufacturing drives growth for me, so the reshoring of manufacturing [is an opportunity]," says Ulrich. "Not being able to get employees brings the need for automation in, and so that also drives sales."
The shop's new 5-axis mill also provides an opportunity in the form of increased capacity: "I ran a big steel job on this new Fadal, and it ran it half the time and my tools lasted twice as long."
One possibility is to use the capacity on a yet-to-be-determined product line. "For years, I've been trying to find something I can get that passionate about," says Ulrich.
Needs: More room. Ulrich is targeting an expansion to a footprint of about 2,500 square feet. "The last machine I built, I had to build it outside," he laughs. "That's on the list this year to try to expand the building."
Ulrich says more equipment upgrades are next on the list: "I see transitioning into some bigger 5-axis machines."