For industrial automation systems maker Robotiq, global expansion began eight years ago with a chance meeting on a plane. Today, the Levis, Quebec-based company is helping manufacturers in 50 countries through automated efficiency.

“I was on a flight from Detroit to Quebec City. The guy beside me worked for a large industrial system integrator in Detroit (and) was coming to Canada to sell some robotic integration to Bombardier for their trains,” explains Robotic president Samuel Bouchard. “I showed him a video of our product on my phone and that made the sale.”

Two weeks later, Bouchard was back in Detroit meeting with his chief technology officer and an engineer to advance Robotiq’s first export installation.

Both the strength and handling dexterity of Robotiq’s grippers have since helped to make the company’s product lines an industry standard on manufacturing lines worldwide.

Exporting has been part of the company’s business plan from the beginning. Sales outside of Canada consistently account for some 95 per cent of total revenue. Currently, the firm’s largest export market is the U.S., but the EU and Asia account for half of international sales. The company is continuing to expand its market reach.

As award-winning economist and senior trade consultant Jayson Myers explains, diversity is crucial today, especially given a growing protectionist sentiment in the U.S.

“This is a potential wake-up call for Canadian companies to supplement their sales in the U.S. by looking at other markets,” says Myers. “Adopting a diversification strategy, in my opinion, is no longer just a nice to do, but a must do.”

While exporting has been a mainstay of the company’s business plan since its inception, success didn’t happen overnight. It took time, namely to build industry credibility.

“As time went on, we had more sales completed,” adds Bouchard recalls. “Potential customers asked fewer questions about our credibility. We were a success.”

Initially, however, the company recorded sluggish export sales, largely because of lagging product alignment with its highly fragmented target market, and a lack of local representation and distribution channels south of the border.

“We had a second product that was a much better fit for our customers’ problems, and things really picked up. We also found a good person to help set up the sales channel in the U.S. That made a big difference as well.”

Bouchard’s advice for companies that are sitting on the proverbial export fence is to ‘just to it.’

“Once you get one sale, you can build on it,” he says. “Testimonials are good, and for us it’s been very important to produce videos showing various applications of our grippers.”

Among the firm’s U.S. wins, Robotiq product flexibility helped garner the business of Whippany Actuation Systems of Whippany, New Jersey.

“Having a product like this readily available and off-the-shelf that can be mounted to a robot, and that you can easily adapt with custom gripper plates makes it a much quicker implementation,” says Phil DeMauro, manager of manufacturing engineering at Whippany. “Overall, it helps the business from a cost standpoint, from a productivity standpoint and from a capacity standpoint.”

Targeting international customers has never been a challenge, but gaining access to them has, says Bouchard.

“We sell to factories, and you can find factories everywhere,” he says. “The biggest challenge was, and still is, to find the right local partners. The customer needs to see the product. Finding the right partners who can complete the sales is critical.”

With the company’s recent addition of a new force torque sensor, new camera, and the launch of an online community where industrial automation professionals can accelerate their projects, Robotiq is further expanding its capabilities and value it brings to foreign clients

In fact, Robotiq expects to reach its 51st export destination soon, and with it raise yet another success flag.

“We have flags from every country that we’ve sold to in our lobby,” he explains. “Some of them took longer than others, but every one of them matters.”

Get more export insights from Robotiq’s Samuel Bouchard here.