Spark Back in Local Man’s Electrical Business

(This article appreared on the front page in the March 19, 2012 edition of the Greenfield Recorder!)

By RICHIE DAVIS, Recorder Staff

DEERFIELD -- Randy Ames' eyes light up like those of a small boy as he recounts working on Santa's toy-making machine at Yankee Candle Co. 20 years ago.

Wooden toys moved on different tiers of conveyor belts, in either direction and in seemingly different stages of being fabricated, as wheels turned, bells rang and video displays attached to the perpetual motion show revealed behind-the scenes whiz-bang production.

Never mind that Ames is part of a six-member panel at Yankee Candle's Chandler's Restaurant as he's addressing a chamber of commerce gathering titled, "Why I love my job."

The 48-year-old head of Ames Electrical Consulting seems to light up just thinking about that first Willy Wonka-ish "toy-making machine" and every machine he's helped make work since.

Before that dream project, Ames had felt like his career was on a conveyor belt, working evenings and weekends as a line cook at Famous Bill's in Greenfield, Plumley's in Amherst, Ponderosa Steak House and elsewhere.

He grew up in Goshen next door to the man who ran a television repair shop, and he recalls, "I was always fascinated going into Mr. Dresser's repair shop, with TVs and wires and stuff, and gizmos all over the place -- really cool stuff."

Ames, who had earned an associate's degree from Greenfield Community College in leisure studies, found his way to designing and building controls for automated industries by first going back to school -- Springfield Technical Community College -- for electrical engineering. He went to work for Elm Electrical in Westfield, where he learned about programmable logic controllers, and then to do engineering for Kellogg Brush Co. for five years.

While there, working on machines that grip tiny bristles and carefully attach them to handles, he earned an electrical engineering bachelor's degree over three years from Wentworth Institute of Technology. And then, in 1993, he was laid off.

"I found myself unemployed due to corporate downsizing, so I immediately decided to start my own company, designing and building control systems for machines," Ames said. "That was absolutely the whole lemons to lemonade thing."

What helped big time was that before the layoff, he was given "the most amazing business opportunity of a lifetime." He was told about Santa's toy-making contraption, for which he developed the controls to theatrically make the machine's doors open and close, the videotape to rewind, belts to move toys back and forth, the "clappers and whizzers" to operate.

"It was amazing," Ames said of the Rube Goldberg-like gizmo -- and the experience. "Really, how cool is that to say I got Santa's toy machine to work?" He decided there must be other businesses that needed equipment programmed.

Hillside Plastics Co. was among the first area businesses that responded to his inquiries from the fledgling operation out of his Montague house, calling on him to work with Amherst Machine Co. Together, they, with Hillside workers, collaborated on more than 35 pieces of automation equipment, much of which is still working.

Hillside founder Richard Haas, who died in late 2010, "would stand there looking at a piece of equipment, pull out his calculator, say, I've got a question: If we did A,B,C and D and you automated it, what would that cost us? He was running numbers in his head -- how many pieces an hour he could save by automating one of his lines."

Ames, wearing a black "Mitsubishi Electric" cap, describes his work of "making the brains to tell the air cylinders and motors what to do and when to do it, so at the end it spits out a pen, for example. That's it, in a nutshell. It's a pretty big nutshell."

The specific code written by Ames and his two full-time employees, now working out of a former beauty parlor space on Routes 5 and 10, tell which air cylinders on a piece of equipment to drive a piece of machinery in linear or rotary motion, and spells out the sequence and hierarchy for one part or another of the machine to make whatever it's making.

"Basically, a piece of equipment sits there and does nothing 'til we show up," he says. "We put the brains in it. We do the automation. We make it work."

In a cigar box, Ames keeps an array of that stuff his controls have helped make -- a paint scraper, syringes, a tourniquet, the tiny foil cover for a tube of paste as well as a larger foil cover for a yogurt container, a mascara brush, cotton for the bleachery in Colrain , and packaging for a New England Natural Bakers granola bar made in Greenfield.

Ames also shows off some larger products, like the four-fold game board his programming helped produce for Hasbro in East Longmeadow. And there's plenty of other stuff, too, like the Play-Doh made by a Hasbro mixing machine, candy bags churned out by a Chicopee manufacturer's machine, as well as explosive charges for auto-industry airbags and compressor motors for air conditioners, both of which he worked on when he took a second job at Kingsbury Corp. in Keene, N.H.

"I am the automator," Ames says with a laugh, describing the work he's done for Heat Fab, Australis and Lightlife Foods in Turners Falls, for Callaway Golf in Chicopee and other businesses up and down the Interstate 91 corridor and beyond.

If there's a dark irony there to Ames' own layoff experience leading him to help automate machines, it's not one he dwells on. By "teaching" machines at the automated businesses to step up production without having to drive up costs, Ames figures, it helps those businesses grow.

"Probably the most rewarding aspect I get out of my job, which is why I love it so much  We go into a company, they say, Gee, we've got this problem, we want to increase our productivity level, how do we do that?"

And every day, every job, is completely different.

"You get to see all these different things, you get to play with different machines all the time, and you see what other people have done and get to put your superhero cape on and solve the problem," says Ames, who also got called in to help build 60 safety control systems for the Superman rides at three Six Flags amusement parks after a 2004 fatal accident in which a man fell off the ride.

"It was very tedious, very time consuming, and a very short time schedule," said Ames of the wired controls to assure that all latches were secure before the ride could start. "They said, we need these in two weeks,' because it was springtime and the park was rolling."

Ames points to machines around the country and around the world they worked on, including a compression system for Arco Oil in Bali, Indonesia to separate out and bottle hydrogen, a conveyor system that's now in Brazil, as well as other equipment in Ireland and South Korea.

After watching his business take off around 1999 and then plunge dramatically with the 2008 recession, so that it was kept afloat by subcontracting on a military job at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey on explosive-manufacturing equipment, Ames says he's seen a complete turnaround.

"As that project was winding down, I remember telling my wife in May (2010), that if we get through May, we're golden," says Ames. "Then June hit, and it was like a tidal wave, there were so many calls to fix this and set up that. And We need you now.' Everything I quoted fell in my lap."

He hired two employees, took on a tech school student as an intern and moved into the Deerfield space, from which he's watched manufacturing around the region gear up again.

"Things are still booming," he said. "The phones were ringing off the hook in 2011. It was the best year I've had in 10 years. And '12 looks like it will beat 2011."

On the Web:

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.comor 413-772-0261 Ext. 269

Posted: to General News on Mon, Mar 19, 2012
Updated: Tue, Jul 26, 2016