Karl W. Schmidt & Assoc., Inc.
Mike Buckli • 303-287-7400
Karl Schmidt came from Germany where he worked in the coal industry, according to Mike Buckli, the engineering manager for Karl W. Schmidt & Associates (KWS), the company that Schmidt founded about 35 years ago in Colorado. The company specializes in manufacturing conveyor systems.
A relative newcomer to KWS, Buckli came to the firm less than a year ago, after working with a group that sold engineering software. His expertise with new software and new engineering methods has helped modernize the engineering department at KWS, which is now using 3D modeling software to design products for customers.
Bukli said that revamping the engineering department had “a lot of unique challenges” but that implementing new strategies for engineering has made the department much more efficient. Now, designs are more modular than before, and the company is more flexible in what it can build.
While still focusing on conveyor systems, the company has built products for industries as varied as agriculture to aerospace, and has even built conveyor systems for carnival rides.
Much of its customer base is in the recycling industry, where KWS builds everything from small systems to large ones for hauling cars into shredders, and conveyors with either rubber belts or steel belts. Buckli said that the choice of belt material wasn’t about what is better, but it’s about what’s better for handling a particular material. While steel belts make sense for moving cars to a shredder, a rubber belt would make more sense when handling wet materials.
With the improved efficiency, the company is looking at adding new types of products to its line in the next year or so. “We can design and build anything,” Buckli said. “We do job shop work.”
Besides building conveyor systems, the company has been working locally to build products designed for local businesses, including working with water treatment facilities. “If somebody has an idea or a concept, that’s what we do.”
Another change is that engineers are no longer tied to their desks and are taking on more of a project management role. “We try to get people onto sites to see how things work and how they fit.” Buckli said that seeing the products being installed and working helps the engineering team improve what they do.
“The engineers are not working in a box,” Buckli said.
That constant improvement is important, since KWS offers a satisfaction guarantee to its customers. “We will always make it 100 percent right,” Buckli said, “at our expense.”
At any one time, the company might be managing a dozen different projects at once, and an engineer might be working on three different projects at the same time. Buckli said this also improves efficiency and produces a better product, because what an engineer learns on one project could apply to others he is working on at the same time – or for future projects.
Buckli said that KWS offers him unique opportunities “in a cool industry.” He said that the team is always coming up with new ideas and there is a lot of innovation and “lots of things you can try” right in the shop using technology rather than expensive parts and materials.
By working with virtual models, he said that a few engineers can do the same work that would take whole teams to accomplish in another facility.
“We have a really great atmosphere,” Buckli said, “where people aren’t afraid to explore their options and ideas.” He said that he’s found that even a small change in a system “can change the whole outcome.”
Every one of the conveyor systems KWS sends to its customers is a custom build in some way. Some parts are modules, but “we do custom hard-to-fit stuff” for many customers.
“We hardly ever put equipment into a new building with a flat floor,” Buckli said. Systems have to be built to fit the customers’ material-handling needs as well as their available space. “It’s a niche market,” he said of the company’s willingness to design products for individual customers.
Most of KWS’s products are trucked to customers, but the company has customers worldwide, “as far as anybody wants to send it,” Buckli said.
He said that the overseas market is very different than in the U.S. where automation makes obvious sense when labor costs are high. In areas where labor rates are low, it’s harder for the customer to see the ROI for putting in a machine, even when it’s obviously more efficient.
Buckli said that it can be a challenge to explain to customers how automation will save them money in the long run – but it’s a challenge he enjoys. And at the same time, he sees that KWS’s products are helping to keep materials out of landfills and turned back into useful products.
While the conveyor industry has been around for a long time, Buckli says they’re going to be around for a lot longer, and he feels that for him, the industry is “what’s exiting, what’s cool – it’s the right place to be.”