WHEN TWO MANAGERS at Eaton Kenway and a Brigham Young University computer science professor decided to leave their jobs and set up shop above a Bountiful bank, they weren't quite sure which direction their small business was going.
Six years later, after adding 50 employees, reaching $6 million in annual sales and building a clientele that includes the "big-three" U.S. automakers, AutoSimulations Inc. President Van Norman says the company has found its direction - up.Like its name implies, the company simulates manufacturing operations with high-tech engineering and computer wizardry. Norman's employees can model an automobile assembly plant, complete with three-dimensional robots, and then put it through its paces with a computer keyboard.
"With the advances of computing to test all of the alternatives and come up with a recommended schedule, it saves the work of large numbers of people," said marketing director Michael Thompson.
AutoSimulations was founded in 1982 by Norman and Edward Quinn, both then managers at automated warehouse system manufacturer Eaton Kenway Corp., and Tad Norman, a Brigham Young University computer science professor.
Van Norman, 42, who has been president of the company for three months, said the three men began their business as manufacturing simulation consultants. During the first 30 months, the consulting business paid for the development of their dream - an advanced three-dimensional software system, Norman said.
"It was a bootstrap business. We bet the farm, no doubt about it.".
But the gamble paid off, and the company has doubled its sales and employees every year since 1982.
AutoSimulations later moved from the bank building to a facililty on Bountiful's west side and then, two years ago, moved its research and development arm into another building. In November, the company will again be under one roof in a new building near Lakeview Hospital. A local developer wants to make AutoSimulations the draw for a 10-acre high-tech research park.
While the company has been expanding, it has also been pushing back the frontiers of computerized factory simulation. The three original partners realized their initial dream when they developed the 3-D AutoMod and AutoGram software.
"It was a technology leap in the simulation industry," Thompson explained, "There were general simulation languages that you could model barber shops or grocery stores, but AutoMod for manufacturing allowed someone to move to the next level of complexity."
That leap included moving simulation from a list of numbers on computer printouts that only a computer scientist could understand to full-color graphic images that computer scientists, engineers and managers could relate to. Today the firm uses the system in consulting services and sells the software and computers capable of generating the detailed graphic images. The cost of the system starts at $75,000.
Typically it takes AutoSimulations engineers and computer scientists between two and five weeks to build a computer model of a plant. Business people who are initially skeptical are impressed by the detail and power of the models.
"In three dimensions we can pan and zoom. Other companies have graphics, but they don't have the full 3-D graphic animation," Thompson said.
AutoSimulations' newest software package, AutoMod II, is scheduled to be released in September. The makers say it is even more "user friendly" for engineers. The software will sell for $48,000.
"We are at the top end of the market," Thompson said. "Our software is typically more expensive, yet more powerful. The graphics are what has really differentiated ASI from the rest of the world.".
Although virtually unheard of in Utah, AutoSimulations is well-known among manufacturers in the Midwest, particularly among the auto and aerospace industries. Most of AutoSimulations' business is generated through the company's Detroit and Chicago offices. Outside of the Bountiful headquarters, where about 40 people work, the company also maintains an office in Los Angeles.
Among the manufacturers on AutoSimulations' client list are General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, General Foods, Intel, Boeing, Northrop and McDonnell Douglas.
What his firm sells, said Thompson, is insurance against factory inefficiency. That insurance comes in trouble-shooting costly manufacturing bottlenecks, inefficient use of space and time-wasting operations even before a company begins plant construction.
Existing plants also use AutoSimulations' computer systems and consultants to improve their operations.
AutoSimulations' service resulted in one plant using one-third less space and 20 percent less equipment, Thompson said.
With buzz words like "competitiveness" and "just-in-time" being bantered around corporate America, AutoSimulations has found clients ready for its products and services. One of its newer software systems, InterFaSE or Interactive Factory Scheduling Enhancer, helps companies schedule factories more efficiently.
"More and more companies are attracted to this `just-in-time' concept, the Japanese method of inventory control," said Thompson.
"You don't build a product just to put it in inventory. You tie up too many dollars that way." He said the computerized system can help factories meet demands without huge inventories
The system also allows companies to project how new factory orders might affect production and employee schedules.
"It allows the ability to do these `what if' scenarios. It gives a window into the future - predictive capability," Thompson said.
The work of AutoSimulations has attracted the attention of European and Japanese manufacturers. Representatives of Japanese trading firm, Chiyoda Corp., saw AutoSimulations software at a trade show and quickly bought the rights to distribute the software and computer system in Japan.
Already Nissan's corporate engineering department is using AutoSim-ulations' software to streamline their automotive plants. Pohang Steel Co. in South Korea has also purchased a system.
In Europe, a leading French tire manufacturer uses the firm's consulting services to improve efficiency.
Even with its worldwide market expansion, Thompson said the company's focus remains in the U.S., particularly as the prices go down for computers that run the software systems.
"The kind of client ASI is targeting is getting to be the smaller and smaller manufacturing company," said Thompson. "In 1984 we went out selling to the Fortune 50 manufacturing companies. We are now starting to target companies that are not even on the Fortune 500 list because technology has become more affordable."