R.A. Rodriguez and RARUK Automation: A Life in Motion
R.A. Rodriguez began life in New York, USA in 1929, when the company’s founder, Mr. Rodriguez, arrived from Puerto Rico to ‘make his fortune’. He started out with a modest trade in the export of small tools to customers in Puerto Rico, before diversifying into rolling bearings.
“Mr Rodriguez enjoyed particular success representing American bearing manufacturers who didn’t have the facility to provide export services,” says John Williamson, who retired as Managing Director of R.A. Rodriguez (U.K.) Limited in 2007. “At the time, these bearings found their way into sectors such as automotive, agriculture and heavy industry.”
During World War II, the business served the US in its time of need and earned an ‘E’ Award. The US Army-Navy ‘E’ Award was an honour presented to wartime companies whose capabilities achieved ‘Excellence’ in the production of military equipment.
“In the ensuing decades, the bearing market underwent dramatic change and growth,” recalls John. “As a result, R.A Rodriguez began to expand overseas, opening its first international office in Antwerp, Belgium in 1962. Further offices followed in Germany, the UK and Italy.
The UK company, R.A. Rodriguez (U.K.) Limited, started in 1968. However, the business soon fell dormant, with orders instead passing through local distributors. Unfortunately, many of the distributors at that time did not serve the business or its products well and, by 1980, the parent company decided to re-start the mothballed UK operation.
“The business officially relaunched 40 years ago, in January 1981, which is when I was recruited by the Managing Director Derrick Elliott,” says John.
The company took offices above a shop in Letchworth, from where it achieved a turnover of £100,000 in its first year of trading, 98-99% of which derived from thin-section precision bearings manufactured by US-based Kaydon.
Diversify to multiply
“Significant efforts were made in the 1980s to expand our portfolio to other products,” explains John. “Among the most successful additions were NGB, an Israeli manufacturer of thermoplastic bearing housings and KHK Gears of Japan. The appointment of Rodriguez as the UK agent for Germany-based IEF-Werner marked our first step into automation, at component level. These product introductions were driven by strongly performing sectors such as defence, aerospace, food and general engineering.”
By 1992, both turnover and headcount had grown notably, at which point John left the company to become the European Manager of Kaydon. However, as Kaydon still represented around 80% of business at R.A. Rodriguez (U.K.) Limited, the move served to nurture an even closer business partnership.
“In the time I was away, Rodriguez relocated to a leased industrial unit in Letchworth and had grown its headcount to eight,” says John. “When Derrick Elliott announced his retirement, I took the opportunity to replace him in the role, re-joining the company in January 2000 and bringing my son Peter into the business a year later.”
Changing of the guard
John retired in December 2007, at which point the business had 14 people and a multi-million pound turnover. Peter took over the reins as Managing Director and takes up the story.
“Further diversification was a priority, beginning with the introduction in 2009 of the Universal Robots series of collaborative robot (cobot) solutions,” recalls Peter. “The market was very intrigued by the potential for humans and robots to work in proximity, removing the need to guard conventional industrial robots. We were the first in the UK to offer the UR range, and among the first in the world outside Denmark.”
Prompted by the growing need for automation to overcome skill shortages, boost production and assure quality, the company soon introduced complementary products to its repertoire, including (in 2011) Robotiq, a global leader in end effectors for cobots.
In the same year, R.A. Rodriguez (U.K.) Limited also took on the role as ‘European Master Distributor’ for KHK Gears, further establishing the company as one of the leading gear suppliers in the UK.
“By 2015, the success of our automation products, in line with continued growth in the distribution of bearings, gears and associated transmission components, prompted the creation of a new business,” explains Peter. “RARUK Automation would operate separately, but under the same holding company, as R.A. Rodriguez (U.K.) Limited.”
Soon after, a new partnership with MiR (Mobile Industrial Robots) marked the company’s entry into the autonomous mobile robot market. The move reflected demand for a revolution in the future of continuous flow manufacturing and logistics with more efficient materials handling. RARUK Automation also established a collaboration with TM Robotics, now Shibaura, a market leader in SCARA robots and Cartesian systems, driven largely by the growing need for ever higher speed and accuracy in pick-and-place and assembly operations.
“In 2019, the growth of both companies spurred our relocation to a 1-acre site that we acquired in nearby Shefford,” says Peter.
The move coincided with the appointment of R.A. Rodriguez (U.K.) Limited as the exclusive European distributor for McGill® aerospace bearings.
“On the RARUK Automation side, we now offer a whole host of plug and play automation solutions from prominent OEMs around the world, with these relationships going from strength to strength,” says Peter. “For instance, since 2018 we’ve been an official ‘Expert Partner’ of Robotiq, who in 2020 named RARUK Automation as its leading distributor in Europe for sales. In addition, for the past three years we’ve been an MiR ‘Excellent Partner’ and are consistently in MiR’s top five distributors globally, while Universal Robots has recently announced us as a ‘Platinum Partner’. We’re also an authorised Universal Robots Training Centre – the first in the UK. All of these accolades and awards are a reflection of the trust shown in us by our principals and the value we add. It further demonstrates why we have always referred to ourselves as a ‘factory representative’ rather than a distributor.”
Q1 2020 proved to be a record trading period for the company. Indeed, despite the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, last year as a whole showed record levels of incoming orders.
“Turnover has now grown to a substantial level, split almost exactly 50:50 between RARUK Automation and R.A. Rodriguez (U.K.) Limited,” concludes Peter. “Since 2008, the business of the latter has doubled based on a programme of ongoing product diversification, while RARUK Automation has grown to its current position of strength from a standing start just six years ago. We now employ a total of 30 people across the two businesses. Judging by the way 2021 has progressed, we anticipate a record turnover this year supported by a further 10-15% growth in headcount.”