Precision automation firm mirrors changing economy
BY EMMA HALL
Above: Sixteen-foot ceilings are part of the modern design in DWFritz's new headquarters.
Below: DWFritz Automation's new 70,000-square-foot world headquarters in Wilsonvile.
// Photos courtesy Peter Eckert
From Stumptown to silicon forest. DWFritz could be a poster child for Oregon’s industrial evolution. In 1973 Dennis W. Fritz started a one-man engineering consultancy in the West Hills of Portland focused on the booming lumber industry. By 1989 his company was doing precision automation work with Hewlett-Packard, pushing revenues in excess of $1 million for the first time. In 2010 the company now known as DWFritz Automation, Inc. shifted its entire focus to consumer electronics, landing a major contract with a large brand to provide assembly and inspection of precision automation systems. “With all the cell phone and tablet construction that’s happening in Asia, it’s important to automate these processes to eliminate labor,” says Jake VanderZanden, vice president of corporate development. “This demand for miniaturization, where human hands can’t do some of the operations has driven a demand for our services.”
The skills gap. DWFritz grew from 30 employees in 2010 to more than 100 employees today and is still hiring. Because DWFritz’s clients do a lot of Asian manufacturing, the company has a 30-person support staff dispersed in cities across Asia. But all of the basic design and principal manufacturing is done in Oregon to ensure high quality. “It’s an Oregon-founded company. Our roots are here, so we will always run our headquarters from here,” VanderZanden says. “And also, we’re just committed to jobs in Oregon, period.” Like other tech companies, however, DWFritz has struggled to find experienced software-engineering talent locally. “There tends to be a lot of talent in the Bay Area,” VanderZanden says. The company does plan to hire more junior engineers as it grows, and expects to have more luck filling that demand in Oregon. It sees promise in its partnership with the OSU robotics program, which has the third-largest robotics faculty in the nation.
Building green. Since 2010 DWFritz has quadrupled revenues. In order to accommodate such rapid growth, the company moved to a new Wilsonville headquarters featuring 20,000 square feet of office space and 50,000 square feet dedicated to manufacturing. Designed by Portland architecture firm Mackenzie to focus on sustainability and modern design, the building includes automated light switching and a kitchen with only reusable dishes. “The new headquarters is a part of attracting big-time talent, and sending a message to our clients that we’re really serious and have much more capacity now, from both a manufacturing and engineering point of view,” VanderZanden says.
Template for success. Driven by backlog from new clients, DWFritz’s growth rate is expected to continue. “We have good things to come and more people to hire,” VanderZanden says. His optimism is grounded in reality. Launched 40 years ago to accommodate the state’s homegrown timber industry, DWFritz has since evolved to meet the needs of a global, tech-based, sustainable economy. If that trajectory sounds familiar, it should. As goes DWFritz, so goes Oregon.