At first glance, Shingle Springs seems an unlikely location for a company that manufactures undersea robotic systems. Shingle Springs is at least two hours away from the Pacific Ocean. The products manufactured by Schilling Robotics operate 6,000 meters, or 19,685 feet, undersea, said Schilling Senior Vice President of Operations Paul Whalen in an interview at the Shingle Springs facility. “So deep, no one comes remotely close,” is a company slogan.
Starting a high-tech manufacturing business in northern California
Company headquarters is in Davis, also not a seaport. It is, however, the hometown of founders Tyler Schilling and Wes Gerriets. “Anyone who does a start-up now will want to have it close to where they live,” said Whalen.
Schilling and Gerriets founded Schilling Robotics in 1985. Schilling had worked for Hydroscan in San Diego as technical director. He believed that the market for undersea equipment was expanding and that the equipment could be improved. His approach was to set design goals, find companies manufacturing existing components that fit the design, and invent any required components that did not exist. That philosophy is infused throughout the company today. “We obsess on making great products in great ways,” said Whalen.
Gerriets, with a fresh degree in economics from UC Davis, agreed to join Schilling. He wanted to start a company that would concentrate on making customers successful, thinking that would be the best way to make their own company successful. That linkage continues to be part of the company culture.
The two men started with $30,000 in parent loans. They rented a 400-square-foot space and went to work on developing an improved design and operation of hydraulically operated subsea manipulator arms. These are electromechanical devices that grasp and manipulate objects and tools to perform tasks under water. In 1986 they tested their first underwater hydraulic power unit in a friend’s backyard pool.
Expanding internationally and making history
As the company continued to improve the manipulator arms and expand its line of products to include actuators (the motors used for controlling a system), remotely-controlled vehicles (ROVs), and tethered remote operating devices (TRODs), its market expanded in scientific research, marine salvage functions, military purposes, and underwater oil and gas operations.
The dramatic story of the growth of Schilling Robotics over the past 27 years involved many historic events.
• Schilling designed a dual-manipulator system for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s three-man submersible Alvin. In 1985 Alvin researchers located the wreck of the Titanic and conducted several dives to the site.
• In 1990-91, Schilling equipment was used in a deepwater archaeological excavation that had never been attempted before. The crew from Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered artifacts from a Spanish galleon that sunk in the early 1600s near the Dry Tortugas Islands southwest of Key West, Fla.
• Hydraulic linear actuators developed by Schilling allowed astronauts in Houston to perform training and preflight simulations of mission tasks to be done in orbit.
• Schilling equipment is used to clean up nuclear waste and clean and reseal fuel tanks, preventing radiation exposure to humans.
• The aircraft flight data recorder and a piece of critical evidence were recovered from the wreckage of Alaskan Airlines Flight 61 off Santa Barbara in 2000, using a Schilling high-capacity manipulator.
• In 2000, Schilling did an open-water test of its Quest a remotely-operated vehicle, at Lake Tahoe. During the test, the crew discovered a sunken boat that turned out to be an 1890s steam-driven pleasure craft, the Shanghai. The boat is now in the Tahoe Maritime Museum collection.
• In 2001 a Schilling Quest ROV was used to raise the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru that had accidentally been sunk by a U.S. submarine.
• An Orion manipulator arm was used by Hawai’i Undersea Research Laboratory in 2002 to locate the wreckage of a Japanese mini submarine that was the first vessel sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
• In 2006 the Quest ROV was used to take samples and chart an area in the Atlantic Ocean where the African and South American tectonic plates diverge about four centimeters.
The highest temperature ever recorded in the oceans was taken there, 765 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Following the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in 2010, four of Schillling’s Ultra Heavy Duty ROVs assisted in the seafloor mapping, damage assessment and well-capping efforts.
Fabricating parts in Shingle Springs
As Schilling grew, it expanded its operations in Davis several times. Administration and engineering functions are now housed in a new 50,000-square-foot building at 210 Cousteau Place.
Whalen said that the accepted ratio of jobs created in the industry is 1:6 or 1:7. For every job created in the industry, six or seven additional jobs are added.
As Schilling’s machining needs grew, the company buyers located shops in northern California to supply parts. Two of them were Snowline Engineering and Dillon Precision in the Barnett Business Park in Shingle Springs. Brad Dillon started as an apprentice machinist/welder in Sacramento and eventually became general manager of Snowline Engineering in Shingle Springs. He opened his own shop in 1996.
Dillon Precision grew, with most of its production done for Schilling. In 2007 Schilling acquired Dillon Precision. Dillon’s space soon became inadequate and Schilling entered into a five-year lease of 20,000 square feet in a 50,000 square-foot new building in the business park. Whalen said Schilling invested over $2 million in improvements and planned to lease the additional space.
In 2010 the owner went into foreclosure and lost the building to the creditor. At that time, El Dorado County was looking at different locations for its animal shelter. Schilling was advised that Butte Community Bank had entered into negotiations to sell the entire building to the county for the animal shelter when the lease expired.
“We didn’t feel welcome,” said Whalen. “The reason we fought to stay was for the employees. We could have gotten a much better deal down the hill. But we have good folks working here. We found that 80 percent of our employees live up the hill. They didn’t want to commute out of El Dorado County.”
Whalen said he spent two months and thousands of dollars in legal fees to resolve the issue. “The neighbors were supportive and the shelter people were nice. “Eventually, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors voted to pursue other locations for the animal shelter, and the bank sold the building to an investment group that leased the entire building to Schilling.
FMC Technologies buys Schilling
Schilling worked with FMC Technologies on various engineering projects for three years. FMC Technologies designs, manufactures and services technologically sophisticated systems and products for the oil and gas industry.
When Schilling sought a strategic partner, it selected FMC Technologies. FMC bought a 45 percent share in 2008 and the remaining 55 percent in January 2012. At that time, Schilling had over 350 employees in 188,000 square feet in six facilities in four countries.
FMC had approximately 13,500 employees and operated 27 production facilities in 16 countries. Its annual revenue was over $5 billion. FMC is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol FTI.
Besides its headquarters in Davis, Schilling does the finishing assembly at its plant there. The Shingle Springs plant manufactures precision parts that are shipped to Davis.
In line with their customer service philosophy, the Schilling people locate offices near their customers.
In 2000, a regional office was opened in Aberdeen, Scotland, to serve customers in the North Sea area. The Aberdeen office provides sales support, product repair and maintenance, spare parts and large equipment storage.
The Houston, Tex. office was opened in 2005 to provide sales support for the Gulf of Mexico region. It expanded to offer spare parts, repair and technical support services, as well as training.
In January 2011, Schilling opened a service and support center in Singapore. In February 2012, the company opened a service and support center in Macaé, Brazil. In partnership with FMC, the regional center is staffed with locally trained and certified personnel.
Working in Shingle Springs
Whalen said that Schilling has grown to 65 employees in Shingle Springs and is still hiring. “These are not just good jobs, they are great jobs. They are high-skilled, high-paying jobs,” he said.
Whalen came to Schilling from Toyota, where he worked on the manufacturing side. At Schilling, he is in charge of quality, health, safety, environment, manufacturing and purchasing for the whole company.
He said he looks for people with the mindset of trying to make a difference, people who are creative, good problem-solvers. “Even though a machinist is doing technical work, there are creative ways to cut something.”
He encourages employees to advance within the company and build careers. Because of the lack of trade schools, Schilling is providing online training through Tooling U. One man, now a shop assistant, is studying to be a load test coordinator. A woman who works as an Operator 1 is learning the machinist trade. “I wish the high schools would teach Trigonometry. It’s essential in our work,” he said.
Some of the new employees are from the local area and some are from a distance. Freddy Salgado, the Fabrication Manager, is a typical new resident. Seven months ago, he came with his wife, who was raised on Alabama, two teenage boys and a 6-year-old daughter. They are all happy to be here.
“It’s not cheap to do business here, but it is a place where talented people like to live,” said Whalen.
On May 30, the Shingle Springs/Cameron Park and El Dorado County Chambers of Commerce coordinated an open house for FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics at 4461 Business Drive. The company dedicated the building to John Kehoe, who was Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. Kehoe, a resident of El Dorado Hills, died Sept. 10, 2011.
Several hundred people came to tour the facility. “It was wonderful. We really felt welcome,” said Whalen. “It’s important that businesses feel valued in the community. We are happy and pleased to be settled in El Dorado County.”