The recession pierced the niche custom-manufactured robotics machinery industry in Florida.
One notable example: Three of the five largest companies in the sector statewide filed bankruptcy during the downturn.
One of two companies to avoid that fate is Manatee County-based RND Automation & Engineering, where company President Sean Dotson believes his survival instincts are about to pay off. “I firmly believe a lot of manufacturing is coming back in the United States,” says Dotson. “We are seeing it really pick up. It seems like people are finally spending money again.”
RND, which designs and assembles custom-made automation and robotic machines used by other manufacturers, plans to take advantage of the surge. One way is with the guidance of a new executive, Tim Twitty, who was a corporate officer at Sarasota-based Sun Hydraulics Corp. for a decade. Twitty had been with the hydraulic valve manufacturer since 1993.
With RND's recent growth, to nearly $4 million in annual revenue and 18 employees, plus three open positions, Dotson knew he needed a new layer of executive management. But he thought Twitty, who ran Sun's Asia unit and also oversaw a $19 million expansion at the company's Sarasota facility, was out of his league. Sun had $196.9 million in revenue in 2016. “A lot of people around here know him,” says Dotson. “We are getting a real seasoned executive.”
Twitty, who launched a factory automation and robotics unit at Sun, says RND is a perfect fit for a career shift. “I was looking to get back to my roots,” Twitty says. “This is a great opportunity for me.”
Twitty joins a company in transition. In 2005, Dotson and his co-founders, Doug Robertson and Bruce Naylor, launched RND out of what was the custom automation division of Bradenton-based Gebo USA and Aidlin Automation. Global packaging equipment manufacturer Sidel shuttered the Bradenton facility after it acquired those companies.
Dotson and his colleagues focused on custom-made projects, from fully automatic high-speed robotic machines to operator-assisted semi-automatic workstations. It now sells its machines to companies that make a host of products, including hydraulic valves, automotive sensors and contact lenses. Current and past clients include Sun Hydraulics and Venice-based drinkware manufacturer Tervis.
In addition to Twitty's hiring, RND recently made another big move: it added a standard line of machines it will manufacture for clients. Those machines will complement its custom line.
RND's first noncustom line of machines is called Kanga — aptly named because it's a pouching system that forms four-sided pouches. Industries RND targets with the Kanga include medical device, pharmaceutical and electronics. Clients can use the machines, says Dotson, to package sensitive medical tools and equipment and electronic switchboards, among other products.
Research and development into Kanga ran into the mid-six figures, says Dotson. The company introduced the line last year, and embarked on a marketing tour, including trade shows, earlier this year.
RND is going after the middle market with Kanga, says Dotson, seeking clients high-end and low-end competitors miss. “We see a real nice market in the middle,” Dotson says.
Some of the challenges RND faces are common to fast-growing businesses, primarily the constant need for more space and people. On people, Dotson says the company is actively looking. On space, it might move soon — even though it's already moved four times in 12 years and has only its south Manatee County industrial park home since 2014. The space is 12,000 square feet. Dotson says he might look for up to 30,000 square feet in the next home for RND.
Any new space for RND, says Dotson, will have to match the company's penchant for sleek and sophisticated projects. Those machines tend to cost more, and RND sometimes losses customers on price. That's OK with Dotson. “You can always find people who will do it for less money,” Dotson says he sometimes tells clients. “We aren't making Hondas and Toyotas. We are making Cadillacs and Corvettes.”