Coils and Connectors: When Quality Pays Off

Whether the issue is manufacturing commodities such as connectors, or more complex coils, with a high level of customization, what remains constant for ATAM is the pursuit of quality, which also entails investments aimed at automating and making objective production processes. With the aim of satisfying the demands, in terms of performance and reliability, expressed especially, but not only, by the manufacturers of solenoid valves, in a challenging and fast-moving sector like the off-highway segment. We visited the ATAM headquarters, just outside Milan.

by Fabrizio Dalle Nogare

Is it possible to be young and smart even just before turning 50? No, we did not suddenly convert into a lifestyle and wellness magazine. We just visited a family business which is about to celebrate its first half century of activity by placing its bets on young personnel, ongoing training and such evergreen concepts as research innovation and automation.
Giancarlo Lonati, Managing Director, and Andrea Ciceri, Chief Operating Officer at ATAM, whom we met at the company’s headquarters in Agrate Brianza, not only showed us an absolutely cutting-edge plant, but they also told us about the origins of the strategic choices behind the life and growth of ATAM.
“Coils, on one hand, and sensors and connectors on the other, are the main families of products manufactured by our company”, Lonati explains. “Connectors are standard products – commodities, basically – which involve a management of large volumes, ready availability and very fast delivery times. On the other hand, coils require a different, more technical approach, because this is a product with a high level of customization, manufactured with the contribution of several prople within the company, with a rather complex management in the production phase. From a supply standpoint, coils are managed mainly as customized orders, while it is important for connectors to be readily available in the warehouse. Producing both components give us the great advantage of being able to carry out research work, starting from the test phase, to ensure their compatibility, considering that on the filed they are used together.”
“They are, indeed, two different families – COO Andrea Ciceri added – but as far as we are concerned the production philosophy does not change: our quality-oriented approach starts from research concerning materials and carries on with the automation of the production process, based on cutting-edge machines and on an increasingly accurate control, even thanks to the vision systems present on our tools”.

Machines interact with one another
ATAM’s investments in automation – it only takes a walk around the workshop to realize how much they influence the overall production – have remote origins, dating back to even before the Industry4.0 outburst. “All of this stems from our continuous quest for improvement, which in a way is our banner”, Ciceri explained. “We went along with progress, not just in terms of machines, but also as regards production and communication systems, especially concerning the enormous amount of data which we already had to manage, even before there was any talk of big data. In this respect, a few years ago we made a bold choice, that is, we created the management software internally. Today the machines can communicate with one another and synchronize their activity a result which enables us to be flexible when organizing our production and, above all, to manage in the best way the creation of customized products, with volumes ranging from medium-low to medium-high”.
In ATAM’s production department we can find both automated islands and manual stations, all with stringent process controls. Even the slightly more dated machines have been duly turned into 4.0 system, which can communicate with one another and with the management system.

Not just products: the importance of service and technical support
A farsighted organization of the production process is the foundation of ATAM’s other production site, which is not quite just around the corner: it is located in Taiwan, a crucial country to serve the Far East markets. The Lombardy-based company opened in 2014 a site conceived to satisfy the requirements of local manufacturers and European clients with plants in the area. “From the start we decided to export even in Asia our production method – Lonati related – strongly oriented towards automation, quality and the attainment of cost objectives by means of investments in automation, not by means of cheap labour. This allowed us to guarantee total quality on production: suffice it to say that in Taiwan some of the most advanced automated lines in the world are at work to produce coils for pneumatics, which will be shortly joined by lines for the production of larger coils meant for the hydraulics world. This was an unconventional choice which we are proud of and which is proving fruitful”.
Even though the Far East is a relevant market for ATAM, Europe remains the main market for valve manufacturers aimed at pneumatic or hydraulic environments and process valves. A segment – managers confirm – which is growing, even though it is influenced by uncertainties due to global factors, such as the tariffs issue, for instance, which causes considerable fluctuations in orders.
Changes, however, are on the agenda. “What the market requires, today, is not just the supply of a quality product, but of a complete package, which should also include service ad a certain type of technical and qualitative support. Even though it is a relatively simple product, the coil is an essential part of the electrovalve and must respect stringent requirements in terms of quality”, CEO, Giancarlo Lonati, stated.

Customization and co-design
Customization is a crucial concept, not so much for connectors as for coils: suffice it to say that 60-70% of sales derive from customized projects. This means that those supplying coils must have a structure capable of cooperating, in some cases, with clients, from the very start of design phase, in what could aptly be termed a co-design project.
“Our ambition – Andrea Ciceri explained – is to become a leading reference point in this industry. Our technical office is made up of persons with difference skills and specializations, which enables us to find the best solutions even considering the application which the component is meant for. Experience shows that when we work on shared projects, successful solutions emerge which could actually find a place on the market. In this respect, I would like to underline how ATAM, over time, refined its capability of working by its clients’ side even from the normative standpoint, where it accrued considerable experience. We also obtained several certifications (ATEX for coils is just one example – editor’s note) which goes to show our attention to quality”.

Commitment to the off-highway segment
Indirectly, ATAM works with the main global manufacturers of tractors, farming machines and the off-highway segment in general. This segment, which will be celebrated during its peak event, the biennial show in Hannover, Agritechnica, is a fundamental sector for the Agrate-based company, as Ciceri confirms. “The world of technology applied to agriculture is today one of the most innovative ones: let us just think of the projects for the remote driving of vehicles or to optimize their performances. Our products adapt perfectly to applications for the management of hydraulic movements, especially where the work environment is characterized by dirt, dust and debris. In order to mention just a few of these examples, solenoid valves which have within them the products which we manufacture in our workshops are found on such machines as combine harvesters, tractors or spraying systems for weed killers, fertilizers or irrigation. In short, we pay great attention to the technological evolution of this segment”.