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bryan-thompson-editA One on One Conversation with Bryan Thompson

In search of new business opportunities, some people look for the hottest trends and jump right in.

Bryan Thompson makes up trends as he goes along.

He started out, inauspiciously enough, in the cabinet manufacturing business. Then he fell in love with robots—not making or selling them, but investing in them to widen the possibilities of what he could create. The first one, purchased from the Mercedes plant, automated the painting of their cabinets. The second is a five-axis CNC machine—sort of a 3D printer on steroids that can cut, carve, and create one-of-a-kind signs, furnishings, and plenty of things that fit into no category at all.

“Once we got the CNC machine, all of the sudden a lot of things are possible,” Thompson says. It was around then that the company—now Mode Fabrication—became much more than a cabinet company.

So when Big Communications was looking for someone to help execute some of the mechanics for the city’s “BringAtoB” campaign—designed to convince Amazon to locate its second headquarters in Birmingham—they turned to Thompson and Mode. And Mode made their ideas happen.

So if you’ve ever looked at one those giant 3D Amazon delivery box facsimiles outside The Pizitz, Railroad Park and Legion Field, and wondered, who made that?, the answer is Mode. Here’s what Thompson told B-Metro about his story and what else is in the works.

B-Metro: How did Mode Fabrication start?

Thompson: We started out in the cabinet business doing residential cabinets. And we moved from that to doing cabinets for all the locations of Steel City Pops, and then making bar stools for them and steel windows. We figured out that we loved doing commercial spaces, because that’s where the leading-edge stuff gets made.

That’s the way it usually works. We’ll be doing cabinets for someone—basic, commercial cabinets—and I always try to get them to come in and see our shop. I show them the robots, and then once they see what we can do they’ll come up with ideas and say, ‘Can you make this?’ Once they see the technology that’s available, then they start thinking differently. We can inset concrete letters into wood. We can inset steel into wood, wood into steel. We use a lot of materials, and that’s what we have fun doing.

B-Metro: Tell me more about the CNC machine.

Thompson: It’s basically a robot on a 20-foot bed that can carve three-dimensional objects out of space. We’re able to take things that used to take a really long time to manufacture and be very labor intensive and automate them. I could carve an exact replica of your face, all the way down to your eyelashes, out of a piece of wood or aluminum or whatever else you wanted to carve it out of. Of course we started by making cabinets, but then we found out what we really liked doing were the accent pieces that make a space really amazing.

B-Metro: How did the Amazon boxes come about?

Thompson: We’re kind of known for doing just crazy stuff, and my friend who works for Big said, ‘Hey, we’ve been trying to get these Amazon boxes built, and we can’t even get anyone to call us back. So we spent a long three days coming up with an engineering design that could be propped up against the side of a building and that was safe enough to withstand rain and Railroad Park and skateboarders jumping on it.

B-Metro: What other work did you do on the Amazon project?

Thompson: In the middle of building the boxes, Ford Miles at Big said, ‘My mind is blown, because I never even knew you all existed here. But I’ve been wanting to build this button.’ And he hands me a Dash button. He said, ‘Can we make a giant one of these Dash buttons?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So we drew some things up on the computer and carved out the giant Amazon Dash button and made a convex button you pushed, with a computer inside that sent a Tweet to Jeff Bezos.

We delivered those I think a day later. But it’s not because I’m talented—it’s really not—it’s because you get somebody creative like Ford and you pair it with technology and what is available, and you can get a life-sized Amazon Dash button. (Mode also helped design iPad-style cases in which to deliver copies of Birmingham’s RFP to Amazon.)

I think the Amazon thing is great for Birmingham because it showed Birmingham that this is how we’re going to market to new companies. It laid down the standard of, ‘Hey, let’s not just send them an RFP in a paper copy. Let’s show them what we want.’ And how do we show them? We do some really crazy marketing piece to get their attention.

B-Metro: What else is in the works for Mode?

Thompson: Crestline Bagel is a really good example. We’re doing their cabinets—that’s how we got in the door—and then we’re building a four-foot-tall, spinning, three-dimensional bagel sign, like the old retro signs in front of ice cream shops and barber shops from way back in the day when signs had to be the thing that got you in the door. So we’re basically carving a bagel that is as tall as my daughter. We’re also doing the new Leaf and Petal project right now in Cahaba Heights.

B-Metro: So what category do you put Mode Fabrication in now?

Thompson: I don’t know what to call ourselves, because we’re not a cabinet shop. It’s 3D art. If you think about it, what is Birmingham? You think of Vulcan, you think of the Alabama Theatre, and those things have depth. They exist in space. Somebody built those. And that’s what we’re doing on a small scale, and it’s not just limited to restaurants. Cities can do it, too. And you start adding technology into it, and the door’s open wide.

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