If you don’t think anything’s still made in America, drop in on RMI in Blountville and ask for Shane Roberts.
Don’t be surprised when he emerges from the group of lathes and milling machines that are rocking the nondescript metal building just off Muddy Creek Road, a stone’s throw from the Northeast State Community College campus. Looking younger than his 29 years and dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, he’s often mistaken for an employee, but once he starts talking, you’ll know he’s the man.
Shane currently has four employees and he said expects to add more when he can find time to expand RMI’s currently facility.
Shane, a former Northeast State student, fixes you with a focused gaze and launches into a rapid history of his machining/manufacturing business that is gaining a reputation for innovative CAD design and quality parts. RMI’s list of clients includes Eastman Chemical Co., Wysong Enterprises, End Point Industries, and Google. Yes, Google.
“We’ve been really lucky,” Shane said. “Most of our business comes from word of mouth. I usually just go in to companies and introduce myself and tell them what RMI has to offer. Invariably, someone will think of some work that need to be done or problem that needs to be solved and show it to me. Usually that results in work.”
Shane said RMI’s genesis came about eight years ago when he was racing cars and working as a server at Cheddar’s. He was looking for a way to subsidize his racing interest, which was experiencing fits and starts.
“You win some races and you have money. Then you lose some and you’re broke or you crash your car and you’re really broke,” Shane said.
Previously, he had worked part-time at a machine shop after racking up some CAD classes at Northeast State. Remembering the equipment he’d worked on at Northeast State, Shane decided to buy a similar machine to make car parts that he could sell to other racers and use himself.
“I got on eBay – everything’s on eBay – and there was a machine just like Northeast State’s,” Shane said. “I knew if I bought the machine I could get solid training on it at Northeast State. So with some help from my father and mother I bought it I and signed up for a class.”
Shane worked for a while producing parts for cars, motorcycles, and go-karts, eventually moving on the commercial jobs for local companies such as Allied Metals in Johnson City, ADpma in Piney Flats, and Wysong Enterprises in Blountille. ADpma, for example, produces parts for commercial airliners.
He also found that is CAD design skills were gaining demand.
“When we were doing car parts, people would have ideas and I would complete the design for the real part,” Shane said. “That’s just continued as we’ve gained new customers. Everyone has ideas of what they want, but it is wide open as to how it gets solved – so we make that happen.”
By now, the business was expanding, adding employees, and doing pretty well, according to Shane. And then, RMI caught a huge break.
“I was playing music in a band with this guy and his brother was a software engineer for End Point, a New York company doing contract work for Google,” Shane said. “Google hired them to start doing system installations of something called a Liquid Galaxy (a complex HD video display). They needed a supplier for all the mechanical parts to these systems that they were going to install for Google.”
At the time, it was too complex for RMI, so Shane outsourced the work and then hitched a trailer to his mother’s car and hauled the project to Google’s Manhattan offices.
Shane said he felt the initial system had some design flaws and that it could be consolidated into a much more compact system. He told this to Google and the company was open to his suggestions. He designed one for free and Google liked the work an ordered one system. Since then, RMI has built more than a dozen of the systems for Google.
“They ship straight to Germany or to other places in Europe and get installed in offices over there,” Shane said. “We continue to redesign them as well.”
About a year ago, RMI became an official Google vendor when the company was hired to work on a research and development project. While Shane can’t talk about the project because of its proprietary nature, RMI initially developed one prototype and then produced seven of the mechanical systems. Shane said RMI then redesigned the system and has 17 more in production.
Shane currently has four employees and he said expects to add more when he can find time to expand RMI’s currently facility. He might even put a sign on the building, which is now anonymous except for the steady hum of people making things in the U.S.A.