“If you grow a garden and find a 125-pound Japanese bomb, who do you call? Said Rob Steiner smiling behind his beard. This happened to him three decades ago, when, as a younger man in the Navy, Steiner was stationed in Guam dismantling explosives on WWII battlefields converted to farms.
“We would move it to a truck bed stuffed with sandbags and then move it to a remote location like a quarry to make it safe.” (By “make it safe” he means detonate it.)
Now, long retired from scuba diving and dangerous munitions disposal, Steiner leads a life of construction, not destruction. He’s building just about anything he can think of from his generously-sized hi-tech manufacturing studio, conveniently located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This humble daredevil from the Midwest enlisted at 18 to see the world. Now he’s building his own world in a room full of 3D printers.
Bombs, boats and robots
Steiner’s first assignment out of training camp was to service a gas turbine engine on the USS Pegasus (PHM-1). She was the fastest ship in the fleet, the first prototype in a class of hydrofoils that could reach 48 knots (55 mph) when fully lifted from the water. He spent the next three years with a small crew of 21 sailors chasing cartel smugglers on cigarette ships off the coast of Florida. “It was in the 80s, the Miami vice era, ”Steiner says.
Executing coastal patrols at breakneck speed was not enough for the Indiana native, so he enrolled in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) training and spent the remainder of his naval career at travel the Pacific. Having survived his fair share of close-knit scrapes, Steiner shares a philosophy of safety that he carries with him, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” You hear this about relationships, but think about the fact that when you get too comfortable with a process, you start to lose respect for risks and take important steps for granted.
Fortunately, Steiner retired from the Navy with his body and ambition intact, and landed a job in the new model development group of a large automotive company. “They loved the military – the attention to detail, to procedures, to safety – everything that made the manufacturing successful. “He was successful in injection molding all of the plastic parts that make up a car’s interior,” going from a prototype idea to production, then producing a million perfect plastic radio buttons over the course of of the process, ”says Steiner.
His first exposure to 3D printing dates back to 1996, when a colleague suggested that he use a all new technology to prototype a piece of footrest. “Instead of sending it to an injection moulder and waiting for weeks, we could print it in a single week for 5% of the cost. The three-dimensional printing would change the way Steiner viewed his automotive manufacturing job, but more importantly, it would set him on the path to Roboto.NYC.
First, Steiner began designing and selling artistic Navy props in his spare time. His loot depicts muscular heroes with knives between their teeth, battling sea monsters and saving mermaids. “You see these posters and stickers,” Steiner nods to the wall. “I would hire artists to do illustrations and then sell them online. I knew I was on to something once my friends in the Navy reported that the Navy Diving Salvage and Training Center posters were mysteriously disappearing from the hallways.
In 2010, Steiner was still a technology consultant for large companies, but he had learned 3D design on his own using programs like Solidworks and was the proud owner of a huge industrial 3D printer. “It was the second polyjet 3D printer on the east coast,” he says. “Which was super rare for an individual to own.” Always on the cutting edge of technology and equipped with new artistic and industrial capabilities, he began to 3D print and sell custom sci-fi miniatures in the Japanese market.
“The premium model market is absolutely obsessed with details,” he says. “They would compare the quality of these prints to injection-molded pieces and hand-carved pieces from master sculptors. ”
Steiner tells me he picked Mr. Roboto’s nickname “from the Styx song, you know, ‘Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto’,” he explains as he chants the chorus.
Brooklyn is a 3D printing lover
Eventually, Steiner’s inner geek and his proven obsession with 3D printing led him to MakerBot, the newly founded tech darling of Brooklyn. He walked into a cramped basement with a close shave and a suit, hired to lead product development, a team of skate hipsters and bearded hackers. “They looked at me and thought, we’re supposed to build the future here, who let this guy in?” Steiner laughs.
It was here that he met the 27-year-old engineer Aljosa Kemperle, his future business partner and co-founder of Roboto.NYC. “Dude, do you make models too?” Steiner recreates the meeting with the 3D designer with whom he shares the love of quality manufacturing. Kemperle was one of the company’s main engineers, and during his tenure he built some of the industry’s most iconic 3D printers, a contribution for which he still holds five patents.
After going through one of the tech industry’s most infamous hype cycles—the rapid rise and sudden fall of 3D printing madness– Steiner and Kemperle left MakerBot in 2014 and got together. Their first venture was to buy excess inventory of the 3D printers they designed and then refurbish them in Kemperle’s father’s sculpture studio in Brooklyn. “We can repair and adjust these printers, then sell them,” Steiner recalls. “We?” Kemperle rings behind a laptop. “OK, you can fix them, I will do the rest. The partnership that powers Roboto.NYC was born.
Build it, scan it, print it
Roboto.NYC provides design and manufacturing services to a variety of clients and for a seemingly endless range of projects. They have about twenty 3D printers, a laser cutter and a powerful 3D scanner. From industrial design and prototyping to exotic architectural restoration, they have manufacturer DNA and the technical skills to build just about anything.
Their most notable project was the making of an eight-foot-tall memorial statue of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Starting with sculptor Greg Wyatt’s ¼ scale model, Kemperle and Steiner 3D scanned it, digitally “cleaned up” the 3D model, then printed the heroic scale replica for possible bronze casting. It took just under two months, and the last piece is now in the George Mason Law School named after him.
Concept artist Ashley Zelinskie uses the store as its center for prototyping and production. His work is a dazzling intersection of technology and mathematics which shows physical objects wrapped in code that computers use to define colors or shapes. Roboto.NYC laser cuts code in paintings on canvas and 3D prints his eventful sculptures. Despite their access to futuristic equipment, there is a lot of delicate manual labor involved in the process – tuning tasks for the firm hands of a former bomb technician.
“It’s about 40% design, 40% manufacture, and 20% advice on what we call the iron triangle of the product,” Steiner says after thinking. He talks about the natural tradeoffs between building something fast, high quality, and low cost. Realists like Steiner know you can only pick two out of three. The type of manufacturing technology he uses cannot exceed this limit, and he spends a good deal of his time explaining the capabilities of 3D scanning and printing to his most unrealistic customers.
Kemperle and Steiner built the entire studio around a single web platform, MakerOS, which can take a project from the initial brief and quote, through progress checkpoints and iterations, to final quality control, delivery and invoicing. Consolidating all the different communication, file sharing, and billing tasks in one place allows this duo to focus exactly where they belong – manufacturing.
We are on the same mission
After leaving the military and the corporate world, Steiner learned a lot about the kind of work and relationships that make him truly happy. The secret, he says, is to surround yourself with people who have similar goals, similar missions. “We’re on the exact same mission,” Steiner nods at Kemperle. “We are 50/50 partners and equally dependent on each other, so we may disagree but the mission never changes. They don’t go on weekends, they don’t work with fools, and they never stop learning — truly admirable assignments.
It’s a two-way mentoring relationship. Steiner even embodies some of the advice offered by Kemperle. “Don’t get stuck believing that you can only do one thing. Sure, it can be hard to find the tools or the energy to get out of that box, but that’s the way to happiness, ”Kemperle recalls. This is exactly how the sailor did it. He kept finding new areas, pushed himself into difficult skills, and crammed his nights and weekends doing things. The younger of the two, Kemperle made a much shorter journey to the same wisdom. “I’m even older, so you have to do as I say,” Steiner teases.
The future of manufacturing is like Roboto: a small team of ambitious designers pushing their limits armed with a mountain of technology. “I am the happiest I have ever been. But you have to work. Steiner smiles as he checks his watch.