27 minutes | Jul 18th 2020

Tompkins Robotics: Mike Futch

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Mike Futch of Tompkins Robotics discusses how COVID-19 has affected warehouse automation and microfulfillment for good– and perhaps even for the better!Danny:Well hello and welcome to today’s Executive Series. Today I have Mr. Mike Futch, who is the president of Tompkins Robotics. Mike, thank you so much for joining me today on IndustrialSage Executive Series.Mike:Thank you so much for having me, I’m glad to be here.Danny:I’m excited to hear your story. We were having some great chatter before we were recording here, so I’m excited to kind of jump into all of that good stuff. But before we dive into the story a little bit, just for those who are not familiar with Tompkins Robotics, just give me a quick little high-level: what you guys do.Mike:So we’re a company that makes AMRs that do sortation and so we use these small robotic vehicles, and we sort items, such as a calculator here or a pair of reading glasses, a pair of shoes, and we sort the items for an order to replenish store shelves, fill your ecommerce order coming to your home, the grocery items at the grocery store that you would pick up on your way home from the office. We use them to sort all these different types of items to include outbound shipping, returns, and other channels as well. And so we’ve come up with a way to use these small autonomous robots, and use a fleet of them to do what big, heavy, long lead time, more expensive, less flexible types of sortation systems of the past did. And it is a very unique take. As a matter of fact, we have some really interesting ways that we can use our system. Everything in our system is on wheels, including the surfaces the robots run on, the charge stations, everything is portable and modular and configurable. And it’s an entirely different take on how to do those processes that are required to be done up and down the supply chain, in every tier of the supply chain.Danny:Awesome, well, I’m excited to kind of get into that a little bit more. I’m sure there’s going to be some great topics that we’re going to uncover as we have a conversation around that but before we jump on I want to get to know Mike. I want to get to know you a little bit more. So tell me, how did you get into… Well take me before Tompkins, take me before… how did you get into this crazy business?Mike:For a poor kid that grew up in North Carolina out in the country and worked on farms from the time that he was 11 years old, this is a far cry from what I was doing when I was growing up. I went to college, I was in the Air Force, I got out. A guy by the name of Jim Tompkins, same guy whose name is Tompkins in Tompkins Robotics, gave me a shot and I was a consultant for decades. I worked at Tompkins, I worked at Guard Consulting back in the day, Deloitte Consulting, I came back to Tompkins eventually. And then in 2017, I was sitting around and I was looking at these whole AMRs, autonomous mobile robots doing things like moving a trade across the floor of a warehouse. And it dawned on I and the two guys I was talking with that wow, if we could make that robot run a little faster, and we could put a little tilt tray on top of it, we could put individual items on it, go to a destination and tilt it into a container or receptacle. And as soon as we thought about sorting items for an Amazon order, and then we’ve realized we could use it for returns, and we could use it for store replenishment, we could use it for outbound shipping of small packages, that type of stuff is sent to your mailbox every day. It was almost like our heads exploded like a jet.com commercial and I was hooked. And so we went immediately and started working on this as hard as we could. And we’ve had some success. We’ve got over 10,000 robots in operation today.Danny:That’s awesome. That is awesome. So alright, when your consulting days before coming back as Tompkins but under Tompkins Robotics, were you in material handling space or the same space or something completely different?Mike:It was mostly supply chain consulting. So back in the 90s, it was a lot about how many warehouses you had and what inventory you put in them and how you process the goods, the orders through the distribution center. Later, when you got to the .com period and into the 2000s, it became more about ecommerce fulfillment. And then for a few years prior to getting into Tompkins Robotics, and the AMR, it was about the entire supply chain reimagining the whole thing and how you blend the customer experience. The different tiers of the supply chain, and how you blend the different channels, retail ecommerce, returns, all of that together to try to make it into the best network that you can from a physical perspective, but also the best information and material flows.Danny:Yeah, no, that’s very cool. So one of the other things that I want to ask throughout your journey, in your career and in your life, is there something that stands out that really helped you? I don’t know, maybe it’s a good piece of advice or a mentor, somebody that really sticks out from your career standpoint?Mike:It’s hard to put a finger on a single individual or event but if I had to summarize at a high level, I would say my parents because my first summer job I was 11 years old, they taught me how to work hard, how to go after whatever I wanted. They taught me to never give up. And I still look to them for inspiration. And dad’s gone now, but I’ll call mom up and just talk to her sometimes. And so, if I had to pinpoint a single individual group of people would be my parents.Danny:That’s awesome, that’s awesome. So in your downtime, when we’re not solving the world’s challenges or the world’s supply chain challenges, what are your go to hobbies?Mike:Well, to tell you right now, I live in Cocoa, Florida. And with all the social distancing, I was a big fisherman and all that stuff before, but now that you can’t go to bars and restaurants and other places like that ’cause we’re doing social distancing. My wife and I have spent a lot more time pulling out of the boat, Indian River, Banana river et cetera, around Cocoa Beach, Florida and it’s really been fun and that’s been our social outlet. I literally went this weekend and I bought five new fishing rods and reels so yeah, fishing and those things are big for me. I also like college athletics and anytime I can get together with friends around the pool or on the boat or on the water or whatever, it’s a good time and with the kids as well.Danny:Oh, that’s awesome. Alright, so the two follow up questions with that, number one, what’s your favorite fish that you like to fish? What do you like to go after?Mike:Tuna, dolphin, wahoo. And when I say dolphin I mean dolphin the fish. It’s mahi-mahi, a lot of people call it, but yeah: mahi, wahoo and tuna.Danny:So, the tasty fish.Mike:Love to eat all three of them and love to catch them as well.Danny:That’s awesome, alright. And then college sports who your team’s?Mike:Well, my team is my Alma Mater, NC State. I was an engineer from NC State and I still have lifetime football tickets. I don’t make it but to a couple of games a year because I live in Florida now, but I follow every game I can and I’m hopeful that there’ll be sports this fall but I’m starting to have my doubts that they’re going to actually have a game.Danny:I think we all are. But we’ll see. But okay, well… so you said you were doing consulting work, so then you said, “Hey, I want to… “Let’s go start a Robotics company”?Mike:Well, yes, so we, I worked with some colleagues and we figured out a business plan, and we started putting things together. We found an AMR manufacturer that was actually Using an AMR to sort packages, and we started doing modifications of that to be able to sort with cross belts, tilt trays, different types of devices to sort anything from the size of a penny. And now we can do things up to as large as 66 pounds and a meter long. So we now have grown from an idea to three different models doing different sizes and shapes of items, and a wide variety of applications for those different models, and it’s been a rollercoaster of a ride. And in that short amount of time that we’re talking about here, from 17 until today, over 10,000 of our robots have been deployed. So we’ve had a lot of success, and we’re really excited about where our future’s going. We’ve had a little bit of a setback in 2020 as a lot of people have, people postponed some projects, a little apprehension about what Covid-19 is going to do to their business, but it’s already turned a corner and the last half of 2020 and 21 and beyond, it’s just going to be phenomenal.Danny:So when you say that you think it’s turned the corner, what do you mean by that?Mike:Well, so there was a lot of apprehension of firms. And we weren’t getting the same quantity from each. We had a couple of projects. I’ll give you an example. We have an ongoing project right now in New Zealand. I think everyone that heard New Zealand shut the country down, so no one who’s not from New Zealand can even come in unless you’re part of the America’s Cup because they gave them a waiver, right? So we’re not the America’s Cup, so we can’t go over there. All the equipment has been delivered, but we can’t go to New Zealand to install it right now because they won’t let us in the country. And so we have some setbacks like that. But now the phone is ringing off the hook. RFPs are coming in. It’s all we could do to keep up with the tide of people asking for concepts, pricing, contract negotiation… And when I
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