Tim Fulton in his “happy place”: His home workshop. TISABAS did not spring into being overnight; Fulton has been prototyping for decades, with a variety of rollers and belts to move heavy items like fish boxes in the bellies of airplanes. His first two TISABAS are headed to an equipment supplier for Malaysian Airlines — for $35,000 a piece. (KCAW/Woolsey)

An airplane equipment manufacturer is setting up shop in Sitka – in the garage where he invented his first device.

Tim Fulton is a “ramper” who spent nearly four decades loading luggage and cargo on Alaska Airlines jets. After weathering the pandemic and several years of demonstrating his product around the world and obtaining various safety certifications, he’ll be shipping his first two orders this month.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey dropped by to see how business is shaping up at Ramper Innovations.

CNC cutter starting up…

If you’re experiencing déjà vu right now, don’t be concerned. I’ve reported on Ramper Innovations on two previous occasions, first with Tim Fulton the innovator, a second time with Tim Fulton the product developer. This third trip is to meet with Tim Fulton the manufacturer, and to see his operation.

Fulton’s machinist, Danon Vest, is operating a computer-controlled router.

KCAW – What’s this part that’s being made?

Vest – It’s a cover plate for the chassis. So right now it’s using a chamfer mill to cut some chamfers to accept hardware.

Machinist Danon Vest operates a computer-controlled router. While Ramper Innovations has outsourced the fabrication of some precision parts to other firms, the final product is assembled in Sitka. Eventually, CEO Fulton hopes to move into a larger facility with better storage for materials. (KCAW/Woolsey)

Fulton’s shop is still located in his home in a Sitka neighborhood, but it’s evolved far beyond your typical garage workshop. The computer-controlled router and color monitors by the door are a dead giveaway, but so is the device taking shape on the bench: A clean assembly of precision-made aluminum framing, motors, and belts that is less the Rube Goldberg of my last visit, and a bit more Henry Ford. Fulton calls his product TISABAS, which is an acronym for Tim Saves Backs.

“We’re wiring this one up, and it should be assembled by the end of the week,” said Fulton. “Then we’ll start on the second one, and plans are to send it to Malaysia by the end of the month.”

 The machine is a folding belt designed to operate in the belly of an aircraft like a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320. Unfolded, it’s 20 feet long, with eight independent conveyor belts that move your luggage from the loading door toward the center of the plane, where a “ramper” piles it up and secures it with a cargo net. In current practice, your luggage doesn’t move down a belt inside a plane: A ramper working on their knees throws, shoves, or rolls it, and the consequences can be painful – and often chronic – back injuries.

TISABAS is not exactly flying out the door. Fulton had to advocate for his product in a commercial environment where taking care of the people who load planes is a harder sell than passenger amenities, like streaming wi-fi. Still, there are believers, and Fulton has traveled the world to put TISABAS in front of them, and now it’s paying off.

“These are sold to an equipment supplier to airlines,” he said. “So we actually met this guy when we were at the expo in Paris last year. And he was with the purchaser for Malaysian Air, and the purchaser was very impressed and pushed  this guy to purchase for them to send it over.”

Fulton has three beta-versions in circulation in various countries. As we spoke, one was being shipped from Brazil to Miami. Another had just been delivered in Sweden.

Surprisingly, the North American market – even his former employer, Alaska Airlines – hasn’t shown much interest. There’s little reason to doubt Fulton, who was a ramper for 38 years, when he says the US airline industry is slow to adopt. If TISABAS succeeds, it will be the international market that makes it happen. 

“We were on a call yesterday with Argentina; the day before with Brazil,” Fulton said. “We have IAA, the Israeli Airport Authority is interested. From Sweden, the (beta) unit is going to Spain, England, Thailand, and India. So the international market is where we are close to closing deals on a daily basis.”

Ramper Innovations’ first year of revenue was 2022. Each of these TISABAS sells for $35,000, so they’re putting up numbers for this year too. But it’s still a scrappy operation.

“I do have a corner office, but it’s in my spare bedroom,” said Maury Hackett, laughing. 

Hackett is one of four employees in the company, and Ramper’s chief operating officer, tracking everything from the company’s three-to-five year strategy, to how it manages time on the production floor. When I was last here, Hackett was in a jacket and slacks. Today, she’s in work clothes, helping to assemble the product. Her background is in recreational therapy and ergonomics. She wants to position Fulton as a thought leader in ramp safety, and she believes that safety will ultimately sell TISABAS. 

“In the receptivity that Tim had in Paris by all these European companies,” Hackett said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this is incredible.’ And not just like, ‘This is an interesting thing, let me see if I can convince the decision-maker of purchasing this thing.’ Rather, they have the authority as the safety person. And safety is shaping things.”

A crowd-funding campaign for Ramper Innovations raised over $325,000 last year, but now that he’s actually putting TISABAS into production, Fulton believes his company is turning over a new chapter.  He envisions his folding belt technology used in trucking, warehousing, and even cruise ships. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he did not think it would be this hard, but he’s in it for the duration.

“It does get stressful,” Fulton said, laughing. “But it’s still enjoyable. And I think believing in what we’re doing makes a big difference.”

In the meantime, Fulton will  continue cultivating international sales, and stay focused. “What’s in front of us right now is getting these units built, getting more sold,” he said.