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Lightbulbs and Robots: An American Success Story

We’ve all dropped a cell phone at some point or another. Often it breaks—shatters, cracks, splits, splinters—and we curse our misfortune. Sometimes, though, it survives unscathed, and we thank our stars for our good luck.

But we shouldn’t really be thanking our stars: We should be thanking Altair. The Detroit-area company designs software that helps manufacturers predict a product’s performance—and adjust accordingly. In the old days, companies had to design a prototype, manufacture it, and test it until it worked properly. Nowadays, all they have to do is hire Altair. Altair’s engineering software uses math engines and algorithms to anticipate the physical effect of various traumas on an object. Need to know whether a phone can survive a 5-foot drop, an accidental dip in the pool, or a particularly frigid day? Altair has an algorithm for you.

The business extends beyond smartphones, of course. Altair works with the auto and aerospace industries, saving manufacturers the costly stages of prototyping and laboratory testing for complex machines like planes, cars, and motorcycles. If it’s engineered, there’s a good chance Altair played a role in its development.

But the company’s work doesn’t end at software. Their subsidiary TOGGLED takes Altair’s innovative approach to design and applies it to manufacturing LED lights. In the 1990s, Altair embarked on a quest to reduce cost ownership on city transit buses and noticed that lighting accounted for a surprisingly sizable amount of wasted energy. (Many buses’ fluorescent lights also broke after vibration or exposure to cold air.) So the company developed a line of LED lights, a then-nascent technology that seemed to hold potential but was still far from perfected.

“In the ’90s,” says Mike Kidder, Altair’s senior vice president of corporate marketing, “LEDs were more efficient than an open flame—but not much else.”

The cost was high and the quality of the light low, so Altair put the idea on the back burner while retaining the patents it had developed in the process. Over the next decade, however, LED technology exploded in efficiency, and so Altair spun off TOGGLED (originally called Ilumysis) to produce high-quality, low-cost LEDs for personal and industrial uses. The company already held the patents. Now, it decided, it was time to put them to use.

But TOGGLED wasn’t content to manufacture in the traditional way. It is, after all, a subsidiary of Altair, a company built on maximizing productivity with minimal overhead. So David Simon, president of TOGGLED, decided to take a gamble and embark on a risky endeavor. Hiring “an army of workers,” he says, would have been costly and time-consuming—but investing in automation could reduce labor costs, increase efficiency, and secure more reliable production. The decision was made. TOGGLED brought in the robots.

Within months, the bet paid off. A middle market company, TOGGLED had enough capital to make such a bold investment—and enough flexibility to institute it swiftly. Its robots could make lighting rapidly and accurately, manufacturing custom parts to meet clients’ needs. TOGGLED’s automation success also allowed the company to keep manufacturing in the United States rather than outsourcing to a country like China.

“If you manufacture overseas,” says Simon, “your product will be sitting in customs for weeks, on a boat, then back in customs. By the time you sell it, it won’t be a fresh product.” TOGGLED decided early on that it wouldn’t “just run overseas and rent bodies.” Instead, the company would invest in America—and in robots.

Simon credits TOGGLED’s success in large part to its location in the Detroit region. The car industry, he notes, has become a leader in advanced manufacturing, capitalizing upon automation and high-tech production to better compete on the global market. Detroit, says Simon, is “an ideal hub nationally and internationally” for manufacturing innovation, an environment ideal for a company like TOGGLED. With a large talent pool to draw from and a reserve of resources already in place, the company found itself prospering from the city’s creative, forward-thinking mindset.

Today, Altair and TOGGLED continue to excel in their fields, constantly upgrading their technology to ensure that their products attain the highest possible degree of perfection. The combination of complex software, innovative production, and advanced automation provides a textbook example of how an American manufacturer can find success in the present while investing in the future. TOGGLED didn’t need an “army of workers” to flourish. It just needed an army of ideas.

Image: ThinkStock