North Salt Lake, Utah
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Automated Agricultural Equipment
The grass is green for Steven Aposhian and Utah’s savvy turf equipment manufacturer.
You can take the farmboy off of the farm and stick him in multiple robotics classes, but can you ever take the farm completely out of the boy? When it comes to the owners of FireFly Automatix, the answer is a resounding "No!"
"I grew up on a farm. Spending my days outside in the hot summer heat definitely motivated me to go to college," laughs Steven Aposhian, Chief Technology Officer and Chairman of FireFly Automatix. Determined to stay wherever there was air conditioning – in this case college classrooms -- Aposhian earned a Bachelors of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Utah. He specialized in mechatronic software, robotics, and automation. Though Aposhian found that area of study to be his love, the farm still beckoned.
"The opportunity came to design an automatic sod harvest machine. I knew the industry. I grew up in it. I knew the people. I knew it could be done better, and so I naively jumped in. Someone asked me how I was going to build the machine after I finished designing it. And I laughed and said that I would worry about that once I got there!" Aposhian says.
The design process began in 2010 and the first prototype was done in 2012. The first harvesters were built in a family-owned shop; the location was not ideal.
"We asked ourselves, once we build this, will we be able to get it out the door?" Aposhian says. "We kept measuring it! And we built our first few machines there before we were able to move into a bigger facility. Now we're on our third location, possibly even looking for a fourth."
Constructing a harvester is an exercise in perfecting micromanaging. Each harvester consists of 2,000 parts. "1,000 are made here and 1,000 are made elsewhere," explains Andrew Limpert, Chief Executive Officer of FireFly Automatix. "We have to manage when these parts are going to come into play. Some parts we can get fast. Some parts have a lead time of months. If you don't believe in God, come look at us because the fact that we're able to make so many so quickly is a miracle!"
The company determined early-on that one way to control the manufacturing process was to invest in equipment in order to make as many parts as they could in-shop.
"That was a massive evolution for our company," says Limpert. "Taking responsibility of components internally was a big shift for us."
"We bought our own welding machine to control the welding," adds Aposhian. "We bought a plasma cutter. We saw how much money it saved us, and how much faster we could manufacture the harvesters, and that was instructive to us: when we have the ability to do it ourselves, we can do it cheaper, and we can accelerate our manufacturing process. Instead of taking 4-6 weeks to build each harvester, it now takes 3-5 days. We've built our company based around that model. Now we have the ability to move quickly on new designs. We always have our eye on the best technology and incorporate it as soon as we have the ability."
Getting the harvesters out of the shop and into the field requires patience and education. "The farming community in America is experiencing a crisis of labor," Limpert says. "Technology can be scary for farmers to embrace, but so can a variable cost of rising labor." FireFly Automatix participates in trade and demo shows. "We go straight to the farms," adds Limpert. "Farmers are not going to buy anything until they see it, watch it, and do the financial math themselves. They need to see what it can mean to them."
Challenge: Ramping up manufacturing. Putting together a harvester with 2,000 parts is like putting together a complex puzzle. "We have to coordinate all of those parts to be in play at the right time. We have to understand how to control inventory. What do we want to hold on to? What parts take too long to arrive? We cannot sit on a machine worth $250,000 because it's missing a $10 part," says Aposhian.
Opportunity: New equipment. FireFly Automatix is unveiling a mower. "We are extremely excited," says Limpert. "It's a paradigm shift forward. Mowing is a significant business expense on a turf farm. We've solved and identified a pain point, and we believe it will increase our reach 10 to 15 times."
Need: Capital – but from the right source. "More capital will get us to the next level of building which will get us to the next level of talent," says Limpert. "It's a chicken and egg thing. We don't lack for ideas. We don't lack innovation. But we do need more time, more capital, to make it happen. We've been approached by several potential investors, but they just didn’t fit with our culture. We need capital from someone with a common vision for our future, and we're getting closer to finding that right one."