By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Oct 20, 2015
In the 2000s, Schweikhardt got his Ph.D. at the robotics mecca of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a thesis project that evolved into Cubelets.
After postdoc work at Cornell University, he moved back to Boulder -- where he studied architecture at CU -- in 2010 to commercialize the robot-building kits and launch a manufacturing operation in Colorado.
Cubelets hit the market the following year. Kits include blocks with motors, sensors, batteries, lights, and other functions, allowing aspiring roboticists to build hundreds of different droids. Best of all, no previous programming knowledge is required.
The company's second robot construction kit, dubbed MOSS, debuted in early 2015 after raising more than $100,000 in its first 12 hours on Kickstarter in 2013. While Cubelets are "block-based kits," MOSS kits feature spherical joints and offer a different paradigm on building tiny robots, Schweikardt explains.
Why the two different lines? "I remember playing with Legos and Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs and K'NEX," he answers. "We built MOSS as a thought experiment to build a different type of robotic construction kit."
The markets are different as well. Cubelets have proven a huge hit with schools, while MOSS is "primarily consumer-focused," Schweikardt says. "They have complementary seasonality."
And that means Modular Robotics has been on a torrid pace for all of 2015 and often has a hard time filling orders. "We're building them as fast as we can," he says. "We've been constrained by the amount of tiny robots we can produce."
It's obviously a good problem to have, but it makes for some tough decisions. "We had to turn down Target," notes Schweikardt. "Since we're a U.S. factory, we're only able to produce so much so quickly. . . . Manufacturing in Boulder is way more expensive than manufacturing in China."
However, he says his experience over the past five years has dispelled a few manufacturing myths. "Very few people are willing to pay more for a U.S.-made product. It's a hard pill to swallow financially when you're looking at spreadsheets."
Regardless, Modular Robotics has made huge strides in productivity as sales have boomed. The company has doubled its hourly robot-making pace in 2015 with a Lean approach. It's also doubled the production staff -- team members are nicknamed "elves" -- and manufacturability is a bigger consideration with new product design than it was in Modular Robotics' early days.
There's a reason for that. "The bulk of our employees are hourly assembly workers," says Schweikardt. "We don't want to lay off people seasonally."
Four years of manufacturing experience "has showed us exactly what we can do, what is hard and what is difficult, and what we should build next," he adds. He says he's looked at the possibility of offshoring some production "a lot," but has decided against it. "It's not always an easy answer, but we're pretty psyched about our approach."
The approach involves what Schweikardt calls the "elf tier system" that involves games that track everything from manufacturing speed to attendance. The elves who score the most points can earn everything from T-shirts to promotions to paid time off.
Challenges: Navigating the company's hockey-stick growth curve: Modular Robotics is experiencing a 300 percent year-over-year bump in 2015. "It's been tremendous growth and sometimes kind of scary growth."
Schweikardt says he has enjoyed leading a company that emphasizes the joy of making tiny robots above all else. "As we've grown, we've changed a lot," he says, and laments the prospects of getting too big. "As we've grown, I can see how companies compromise on culture … and become awful places to work."
Opportunities: New products and innovating on existing ones. Schweikardt sees "much better design for automation and manufacturing" as key to Modular Robotics' future, noting, "Cubelets weren't designed to be a product at all."
OS4, an operating system update for Cubelets, is in the works that will speed the blocks' communication by a factor of 10. "It's a foundational update that's going to allow us to do a lot more in 2016," says Schweikardt. "It raises the ceiling."
Needs: Experienced C-level types. "It's been more challenging than we thought to hire for specific positions," says Schweikardt, citing a need for people who have helped grow companies from about $5 million in annual sales to $50 million.