“If you’re tilling a garden and you find a 125-lb Japanese bomb, who do you call?” Rob Steiner says, smirking behind his beard. It happened to him three decades ago, when, as a younger man in the Navy, Steiner was stationed in Guam dismantling live explosives on World War II battlefields reclaimed as farms.
“We would move it to a truck bed padded with sandbags, then relocate it somewhere remote like a quarry to render it safe.” (By “render it safe,” he means blow it up.)
Today, long since retired from deep sea diving and disposing of dangerous ordnance, Steiner has a life that’s about construction, not destruction. He’s in the business of building just about anything he can think of from within his generously sized high-tech fabrication studio—fittingly located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This humble Midwestern daredevil had enlisted at 18 to see the world. Now he builds a world of his own in a room full of 3D printers.
Bombs, Boats, and Robots
Steiner’s first assignment out of boot camp was maintaining a gas turbine engine on the USS Pegasus (PHM-1). It was the fastest ship in the fleet, the first prototype of a class of hydrofoil watercraft that could hit 48 knots (55 mph) when fully lifted off the water. He spent the next three years with a small crew of 21 sailors chasing down cartel smugglers on cigarette boats off the coast of Florida. “It was the 1980s, the Miami Vice era,” Steiner says.
Running coastal patrols at breakneck speeds wasn’t enough for the Indiana native, so he signed up for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) training and spent the rest of his naval career hopping around the Pacific. Having survived his fair share of close scrapes, Steiner shares a safety philosophy he carries with him, “Familiarity breeds contempt. You hear that about relationships, but think about when you get too comfortable with a process, you start to lose respect for the risks and take important steps for granted.”
Thankfully, Steiner retired from the Navy with his body and ambition intact, and landed a job at a big automotive company’s new model-development group. “They loved military people—the attention to detail, procedure, safety—all things that make manufacturing successful.” He managed manufacturing injection molding for all the plastic parts that make up a car’s interior, “taking an idea from prototype to production, then cranking out a million perfect plastic radio knobs in the process” Steiner says.
His first exposure to 3D printing came in 1996, when a coworker suggested they use a brand-new technology to prototype a footrest piece. “Instead of sending it off to an injection molder and waiting weeks, we could print it in a single week for 5 percent the cost.” Three-dimensional printing would change the way Steiner thought about his auto manufacturing job, but more importantly, it would set him on a course toward Roboto.NYC.
First, Steiner began designing and selling artistic Navy paraphernalia in his free time. His swag depicts muscle-bound heroes with knives between their teeth, wrestling sea monsters and saving mermaids. “You see these posters and stickers,” Steiner gestures to the wall. “I would commission artists to make illustrations and then sell them online. I knew I was onto something once my Navy buddies reported back that the posters at the Navy Diving Salvage and Training Center kept mysteriously disappearing from the hallways.”
By 2010, Steiner was still consulting on tech for big corporations, but he had taught himself 3D design using programs like Solidworks and was the proud owner of a massive industrial 3D printer. “It was the second polyjet 3D printer on the East Coast,” he says. “Which was super rare for a private individual to own.” Always close to the cutting edge, and with new artistic and industrial capabilities, he started 3D printing and selling custom sci-fi miniatures to the Japanese market.
“The high-end model market is absolutely obsessed with detail,” he says. “They would compare the quality of these prints to injection-molded parts and hand-carved pieces from master sculptors.”
Steiner tells me he picked up the moniker Mr. Roboto “from the Styx song—you know, ‘Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,’” he explains, while singing the chorus.
Brooklyn Is 3D Printing Lovers
Eventually, Steiner’s inner geek and proven obsession with 3D printing brought him to Brooklyn’s freshly founded tech darling, MakerBot. He stepped into a cramped basement with a clean shave and a suit, hired to lead product development a team made up of skateboarding hipsters and bearded hardware hackers. “They looked at me and thought, we’re supposed to be building the future here, who let this guy in?” Steiner laughs.
It was here that he met 27-year-old engineer Aljosa Kemperle, his future business partner and Roboto.NYC cofounder. “Dude, you make models too?” Steiner reenacts meeting the 3D designer with whom he shares a love of quality fabrication. Kemperle was one of the company’s key 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 riding one of the tech industry’s most infamous hype cycles—the swift rise and sudden fall of 3D-printing mania—Steiner and Kemperle made their exit from MakerBot in 2014 and teamed up. Their first venture was buying excess stock of the very 3D printers they designed, then refurbishing them in Kemperle’s father’s sculpture studio in Brooklyn. “We can fix and tune these printers, then sell them,” Steiner recalls. “We?” Kemperle chimes in from behind a laptop. “Ok, you can fix them, I’ll do the rest.” The partnership that powers Roboto.NYC was born.
Build It, Scan It, Print It
Roboto.NYC delivers design and fabrication services to a variety of clients and for a seemingly endless range of projects. They have close to twenty 3D printers, a laser cutter, and a powerful 3D scanner. From industrial design and prototyping to exotic architectural restoration, they have the maker DNA and technical skills to build just about anything.
Their most notable project was fabricating 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 eventual bronze casting. It took just under two months, and the final piece now stands in the George Mason law school that bears his name.
Conceptual artist Ashley Zelinskie uses the shop as her prototyping and fulfillment center. Her work is a dazzling intersection of technology and mathematics that shows physical objects wrapped in the code that computers use to define colors or shapes. Roboto.NYC laser cuts code into canvas paintings and 3D prints her hectic sculptures. Despite their access to futuristic gear, there’s a lot of delicate manual labor in the process—fitting tasks for the steady hands of a former bomb technician.
“It’s about 40 percent design, 40 percent fabrication, and 20 percent consulting on what we call the product iron triangle,” Steiner says after some thought. He’s talking about the natural trade-offs between building something fast, high quality, and low cost. Realists like Steiner know you can only pick two of the three. The sort of fabrication tech he wields can’t break through that limit, and he spends a good amount of his time explaining the capabilities of 3D scanning and printing to his more unrealistic clients.
Kemperle and Steiner built the entire studio around a single web platform, MakerOS, that can take a project from the initial brief and price quote, through progress checkpoints and iterations, all the way to final quality control, delivery, and billing. Consolidating all the different communications, file sharing, and billing tasks in one place keeps this duo focused exactly where they belong: making.
We’re on the Same Mission
After leaving the military and the corporate world, Steiner has learned a lot about what kind of work and relationships truly make him happy. The secret, he says, is surrounding yourself with people who hold similar goals, similar missions. “We’re on the same exact mission,” Steiner nods at Kemperle. “We’re 50/50 partners and equally dependent on each other, so we may disagree but the mission never changes.” They don’t take off weekends, they don’t work with jerks, and they never stop learning—seriously admirable missions.
It’s a mentor relationship that runs both ways. Steiner even embodies some of the advice Kemperle offers. “Don’t get stuck believing you can only do one thing. Sure it can be hard to find the tools or the energy to push out of that box, but that’s the path to happiness,” Kemperle muses. That’s exactly how the sailor did it. He kept finding new fields, pushed himself to learn difficult skills, and crammed his nights and weekends making things. The younger of the two, Kemperle took a much shorter journey to the same wisdom. “I’m still older, so you have to do what I say,” Steiner teases.
The future of fabrication looks like Roboto: a small team of ambitious creators pushing their limits armed with a mountain of technology. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. But we have to hustle.” Steiner smiles, checking his watch.