Creativity part of Sonora firm

By Walt Cook, The Union Democrat April 07, 2010 08:24 am

Kinematic Automation Inc. — which deals in manufacturing technology for the medical field — seems like it would be more at home in the Bay Area than Tuolumne County.

After all, the multi-million-dollar company has clients in faraway places like Ireland, Australia and Japan — but none in Tuolumne County.

Kinematic’s Ted Meigs and Dave Carlberg readily admit that there’s not one strategic advantage that comes from the company being headquartered in Sonora, at 21085 Longeway Road.
    But there’s one thing that keeps them around.
    “This is a great place to live,” said Carlberg, Kinematic’s co-founder.
    Meigs, the company’s co-owner, agreed.
    The two have lived in Tuolumne County — Meigs in Twain Harte and Carlberg in Sonora — for nearly 30 years. Prior to that, the two had engineering gigs in the Bay Area, which they gave up to have more control over the products they designed.
    Kinematic was incorporated in 1982.  At first, it dealt with only designs for automated — essentially, assembly line — equipment. But soon thereafter, it began doing the design, engineering and assembly for such products.
    “It was tough in those years,” Carlberg said.
    “We beat the streets,” Meigs added.
    The goal, Meigs said, was “to sell our abilities and creativity.”
    The hard work and hands-on marketing eventually paid off. Today, Kinematic boasts a 31,000-square-foot shop, 70 employees and an array of sophisticated equipment.
    The company, Carlberg said, is “100 percent focused on the medical field.”
    In other words, Meigs said: “We help our customers save lives.”
    That’s because Kinematic’s machines are used by various Fortune 100 companies to process medical supplies.
    Generally, the supplies includes testing strips used to test for pregnancy, drug use and diabetes.
    The number of testing strips processed worldwide using Kinematic’s technology numbers in the billions, with the diabetes testing strips making up the majority.
    Among the company’s machines are the 1,500-pound Matrix 6200 automatic test-strip processor, which has applications to dip-coat and dry strips; the portable Matrix 2360 programmable cutter, which cuts 360 strips per minute; and the SPC 3300 Strip Processing Center, a fully integrated strip slitting and processing center that can process 100,000 strips per hour (or 1,700 per minute).
    The speedy machines’ work looks complex — at least to the layman. For engineers, though, it’s a different story.
    “For the engineering mind, it’s not difficult to perceive,” Meigs said. “It looks complicated, but each piece is simple.”
    He explained that a machine, in the end, is simply doing a bunch of different tasks.
    Slowing things down a bit, that becomes apparent.
    Enter Dave Self, a manufacturing engineer for Kinematic. During a recent tour of the company’s facility, he was piecing together the processes for a new machine designed to assemble caps for vials used in “diagnostic fluid tests.”
    Self checked the processes and parts one by one — including vacuum grippers, a hopper full of caps, a carousel, an instant welder, a slicer and a complicated-looking six-foot-tall assembly of computer parts serving as the system’s brains.
    The machine was not complete and, therefore, had not had a complete run. But once it is done, it will process 80 caps a minute.
    Self’s job calls for more than a knowledge of math and science. There’s an art to it, according to Carlberg.
    “That’s what’s so fun about this business — the creative part,” he said.
    During his three decades in the business, Meigs said he’s seen great students with a solid knowledge base get outperformed by lesser students who possessed an innate creativity.
    That’s because “we’re inventing things every day,” Meigs said.
    Of course, he added, those who possess both a solid academic background as well as creativity make the best engineers.
    Carlberg and Meigs noted that working in engineering is a lot easier today than it used to be, thanks largely to technology.
    Back when they got started in the business, “a thing called a pencil and a lot of a thing called an eraser” were used, Carlberg joked.
    Now, technology has advanced so far that when Kinematic wants to test out a new part for a machine, the engineers design it on a computer and print it out in 3-D. The resulting plastic 3-D “printout” becomes a prototype part.
    “It makes things much easier,” Carlberg said.