Thursday, June 30, 2011
Essemtec Takes TowMate to Next Level of Wireless Lights
By Andy Shaughnessy, I-Connect007
There’s a lot of truth in the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Just ask TowMate founder Bryan Anderson. He began making wireless lights for towed vehicles out of frustration – his old light cords quit working while he was towing a car in 1985. Now he’s running a $3 million-a-year wireless light manufacturing company, and assembling his own circuit boards.
TowMate LLC founder Bryan Anderson didn’t plan to own a wireless light-making company. Or a pick-and-place machine, for that matter.
In 1980, armed with a business management degree, Anderson acquired a firm that disposed of wrecked vehicles for insurance companies.
“That was from 1980 to 1986,” said Anderson. “We moved a lot of disabled cars all over the country.”
One cold Arkansas night in 1985, Anderson answered a call and headed out to tow a vehicle himself. Out on the highway, while trying to hook up a set of lights to the car being towed, he faced a problem that has plagued tow truck operators for decades.
“I discovered that the cord didn’t work,” Anderson explained. “I said, ‘We can put a man on the moon, so there must be wireless lights out there somewhere.’”
But he was mistaken. Wireless lights for a vehicle under tow did not exist in 1985.
So Anderson decided to change that. He got out of the vehicle disposal industry, acquired a building on Beaver Lake in Rogers, Arkansas, and by 1989 TowMate was manufacturing wireless lights for the towing industry. (Waterfront homeowners joked that Anderson could never afford to buy a house there, but he did, and he’s now president of the homeowners association.)
For years, TowMate depended on a company in Michigan to build its circuit boards, which had SMT parts on one side and through-hole technology on the other. SMT technology was still fairly new at the time and TowMate was somewhat locked in with this supplier. Anderson estimates that TowMate spent over $600,000 with that company over a two-year period.
“I always had the desire to control our own destiny and build our own circuit boards,” said Anderson. He invested in screen printers to spread paste and vapor phase equipment, and TowMate began populating its own boards with magnifying glasses and tweezers.
Anderson soon realized that controlling his company’s destiny would mean investing in assembly equipment. He began researching pick-and-place equipment, and in December 2009, the company bought an Essemtec Pantera-X. He hired Mike Fortin, a former anesthesiology assistant, to operate it. (Essemtec, based in Switzerland, manufactures equipment for the entire SMT production process: printers, dispensers, pick-and-place machines, handling and storage systems and soldering equipment.)
“We couldn’t have done it without Essemtec. They came in and helped us through the learning curve,” explains Anderson. “And Mike Fortin is well suited for the pick-and-place machine. He’s a perfectionist; he’s persnickety.”
Anderson also hired design engineer Lee Young, who came to TowMate from the LED lighting industry. That background comes in handy – many of TowMate’s lights feature high-intensity LEDs.
At first, Anderson was worried that the company might not have enough work to keep Young busy, so he agreed to take on outside design jobs if necessary. But the firm is creating so many new products that they have not had to take on any outside design work. Anderson says his company makes at least 30 different PCBs, and that number is certain to increase as more lighting configurations are introduced.
TowMate does much of its business through catalogs; the giant catalog company Grainger is the company’s biggest distributor. With distribution already established, Anderson finds it easy to roll out new product.
TowMate continues to evolve its product lineup, even moving into markets outside the towing industry.
“The tow truck industry has been our niche, what we call the ‘amber market.’ But we’re also dabbling in the ‘red and blue’ market, lighting for law enforcement vehicles,” Anderson says. “Plus, we just won our first government contract, and that’s exciting. These new lights will wind up on tow trucks in Afghanistan. We’re going to begin dabbling in the consumer market in the next six months. Soon we’ll need a multihead pick-and-place machine.”
Anderson grows excited discussing his newest lights, which can be converted to strobes at the flick of a switch – a big selling point for law enforcement. “The strobes can be ‘educated’ with a magnet. The operator trains the strobe and sets the switch he wants to use to make it come on, just by using a magnet,” says Anderson. “No one on the planet does this, and we are so proud of it.”
Such innovation has led TowMate to continue hiring throughout the recession. The company now employs 17 full-time staffers, and they pride themselves on being flexible. It’s a 24-hour turnaround JIT shop.
“Normally, we bring in the materials in the morning and by noon they’re on the boards ready to get tested,” says Anderson. “We don’t have a large inventory of finished goods.”
Anderson believes TowMate’s management has the perfect place to flesh out new product ideas.
“We have our own airplane,” Anderson chuckles. “If you give us an hour at 25,000 feet and nothing else to talk about, we’ll have a plan when we land.”
He thinks TowMate is going to continue its growth, and he plans more investment in technology and people.
“We have $3 million in sales per year, and we expect to double in volume in the next 2-3 years,” says Anderson. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a down economy. We just keep hiring new people. I believe in bringing jobs back to America.”
“As I like to say, ‘Watch out! Towmate is coming!’”