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One of autoXLR8R start-ups based in Etowah

autoXLR8RBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

This year’s autoXLR8R is not Bob Watts’ first rodeo as an entrepreneur in the manufacturing space, but one of the characteristics that sets him apart is the fact that his base of operations is not in an urban community where technology start-ups are normally located.

APLAIR Manufacturing Solutions, Inc., Watts’ new enterprise, is based in Etowah, TN, clearly a more rural community. It just happens to be his hometown and the base of his other activities that include Advanced Measurement Systems, Inc. (AMS) and Bob Watts Financial Services, Inc.

“We do things quite Advanced with Photogrammetry, Laser, Adhesives, and Infra-Red technology,” Watts says in describing the start-up’s name. “The company is a spinoff from AMS.” The latter was founded in 2010 to serve the collision repair industry with a multi-point laser electronic measuring system.

“We analyze damaged automobiles and provide the techs and insurance companies with color graphics that show the magnitude of the damage,” Watts explained. “This helps design a repair plan for the techs and validates both the initial damage and correct repair to OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) specifications for the insurance companies and the vehicle owner. This proof greatly mitigates repair shop liability.”

With this background, it was only natural that he jumped at an opportunity to take his knowledge and see if he could help address a problem that Jack Sisk, Program Manager for the autoXLR8R, presented to him.

Sisk, a long-time automotive industry executive, was aware of an automotive OEM experiencing a quality control problem in which a part was not consistently being produced according to the CAD drawings.

“It was a bunch of smaller parts welded together to form a six-foot long part,” Watts said. Since AMS was already using similar technology in its collision service, solving the problem fit its sweet spot.

“We kicked it around with our engineers, came-up with a solution, tested it, and went back to the OEM,” Watts added. It was at this time that he learned of a more pressing problem the OEM had. In the newer situation involving substandard or missing spot welds, the OEM was experiencing a rejection rate of 10 percent after each part had been visually inspected.

“I think I know a way to solve that, too,” Watts told the OEM, and the result is the new company. He is currently negotiating a license for additional technology to enhance the inspection solution his company has developed.

For the 1974 Tennessee Technological University graduate, LAS-IR Solutions is a continuation of a career in manufacturing and technology.

While he has occasionally worked in places other than Etowah, his heart is always close to this McMinn County community.

Watts joined Bowater Paper Corporation soon after graduation, working as a Maintenance Engineer at a “massive sawmill” the company was building in North Alabama. He returned to Etowah in 1979, joining Johns Manville at a plant under construction. Watts climbed the corporate ranks, eventually running several plants before he left Johns Manville after declining to relocate.

For a period of time, he commuted between Etowah and Grand Island, NE where he worked initially as Vice President of Manufacturing and later as Vice President of Operations for Chief Automotive Technologies, an international automotive supplier.

“I really wanted to get back home,” Watts said, describing the decision to join Heil Trailer International in neighboring Athens. Some 18 months later, he left Heil and turned a hobby – investing his own monies – into the financial services firm.

As far as APLAIR Manufacturing Solutions, Watts says, “I enjoy the start-up phase of things . . . solving problems.”

It also helps that he has a resource that he calls his mind file.

“I’ve seen a lot of different technologies,” Watts says, adding that he “just files them away in my mind file.” After all, entrepreneurially-inclined individuals never know when a problem might require a solution that’s stored in the “mind file.”

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