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More than just robots
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GREENVILLE — On the outskirts of Greenville, along Interstate 30, sits a group of buildings housing a company with a firm grip on the future.
Most people may hear the name Innovation First and think of it as a manufacturer of kits used by high school students in national robotics competitions.
But owners Tony Norman and Bob Mimlitch say the world is beginning to realize the firm is far more than that.
“Most people think of us as a robotics company, but that is really only about 10 percent of our business,” Norman said.
Innovation First is involved in a variety of other high technology enterprises, from designing racks, slide mount brackets and related items for Yahoo, which hold the Dell computers which provide its Internet services, to creating circuit boards which help run the ride-in cars and trucks sold by Fisher Price.
“Basically, we’re innovators,” Norman said. “We develop technology and license it to other companies.”
“We typically develop things they can’t figure out on their own, or they can’t figure out how to make it portable on their own,” Mimlitch said.
In short, Mimlitch explained, “We make the products Dell wants.”
The company did begin with robots.
Norman and Mimlitch graduated from Greenville High School and went to work for Raytheon, where they became involved in the For Inspiration of Robotics, Science and Technology (FIRST) competition, which challenges students from around the world to solve engineering problems using robotics technology.
The pair were able to point out some defects in the system used by the competition and became the default technical support staff.
Three years ago, the pair received the Founder’s Award, the highest honor bestowed by the First organization, in recognition for their efforts and contributions to the program.
Innovation First designed the technology powering the Vex Robotics Design System and partnered with RadioShack in 2005 to develop the product platform. Earlier this month, Innovation First acquired ownership of the technology outright.
The FIRST competition is utilizing Vex for a new level of competition called the FIRST Vex Challenge which culminates in a national championship Thursday and Friday of this week at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The Greenville High School Robowranglers VEX 1148 team, using its “Clean Sweep” robot, won the southwest regional round of the FIRST Vex Challenge at the University of Texas at Arlington in February and will be competing in Atlanta.
Innovation First became a privately held corporation in 1996. The RackSolutions division, which designs the brackets and mounting hardware which have become the company’s bread and butter, was formed in 1999.
Joel Carter, vice president of marketing, said the company is spreading its RackSolutions wings into new territory.
“Like mounts for LCD monitors and televisions,” Carter said. “They’ve really just scratched the surface on that.”
A tour of the headquarters reveals Norman’s and Mimlitch’s pride and joy, a giant device which, once a design for a rack is developed in-house, can punch out all the holes and spaces required in minutes. The metal sheet is transferred to a worker who, with the help of another machine, completes whatever details are needed. The finished product is then sent to be packed for shipping, also from the same location.
“Very few people know we have this state of the art manufacturing facility here in Greenville,” Mimlitch said.
The environment is certainly casual inside the building. There are no suits and ties, with jeans and sport shirts being the preferred mode of dress.
“We buy lunch for everybody each day,” Norman said.
Employee thirst is also not a problem. The soft drink machine costs a nickel and, if a worker cannot afford it, there is a box in the break room with change available.
The company is rapidly expanding and is on its third headquarters since its inception. Plans call for additional warehouse and manufacturing space to be added at the current site at the corner of Interstate 30 and Farm-To-Market Road 1570.
“We have 55,000 square feet now and I bet we have 100,000 square feet in a year,” Norman said.
Already doing business in the United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere, Innovation First is entering a phase where it intends to more actively market its services all over the world.
“We truly are a global company sitting right here in Greenville, Texas,” Carter said.