Stratom President and CEO Mark Gordon is pivoting the historically defense-focused robotics manufacturer into the commercial market with autonomous cargo-moving and refueling technology.
A veteran of the Marine Corps, Gordon saw an opportunity in robotics while working in Colorado’s data storage industry with Exabyte and McData in the 1990s and early 2000s.
At the time, Exabyte’s enterprise storage solutions involved “a lot of robotic handling of tape cartridges for data storage,” says Gordon. “That’s where I got really interested in robotics.”
He subsequently founded Stratom as a one-man consulting and engineering shop as the industry looked to outsource manufacturing. “I launched Stratom at that point with the focus area of helping do product transfers — taking products being made by companies like that and transferring it to a contract manufacturer,” says Gordon. “There was a big gap that contract manufacturers had in terms of skill set. They were used to making PCBAs [printed circuit board assemblies] only. At the time, they didn’t know how to make full-on end products and configure and ship them, so that was my real focus area for the first few years.”
Gordon’s robotics expertise led to military projects developing solutions in robotic refueling, material handling, and automatic tool changing for counter-improvised explosive device (IED) technology in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pursued Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) programs “where I could start to grow my own technology, which is really what my passion was, so from there I started honing in on the robotics projects that were being offered through the government for research, and that’s led us to where we are today.”
He started building out an engineering team in 2006, and the operation grew from there. As of 2022, Stratom’s business is about 80 percent government and military, but Gordon is strategizing to boost commercial work to about half of the business in the near future.
“The work we’ve been doing the last couple years has really opened up the opportunity for us to move to commercial, so we’re making a big effort to move into the commercial market,” he says.
Gordon sees opportunities in three areas: robotic refueling systems for ground vehicles and aircraft; autonomous cargo movement for industrial yards; and software for autonomous vehicles in the form of the Summit Off-Road Autonomy Platform.
“Our initial interest seems to have large retail distribution yards that are going to be moving their truck fleet to autonomous trucks, so they have a natural fit for wanting to refuel those using robotic systems,” he says.
The company’s autonomous cargo movement will handle loads of 2,000 to 20,000 pounds, says Gordon. “We call it ‘Beyond the Warehouse.’ There are people doing work in the warehouse space, and we’re outside the warehouse — think about yards that need to move heavy cargo around outside.”
Stratom designs, assembles, and integrates its products at its 11,000-square-foot facility in Boulder, leveraging machine shops in Colorado and suppliers of off-the-shelf components in other areas.
“We do all the design from the ground up, all the chassis design, all the vehicle design, and then we work with partners up and down the Front Range,” says Gordon. “Anything that’s sheet metal, machining, cabling, we try to do as much of it as possible in Colorado.”
Stratom’s trajectory has remained positive in recent years. “We actually grew through the pandemic,” says Gordon, forecasting more growth as the company moves into the commercial market in 2022 and 2023. “We’re likely growing pretty significantly in the next six months.”
Challenges: Supply chain and hiring. Gordon says rising prices are cutting into margins, especially on government contracts that were bid a year or two ago. Lead times have jumped from 10 to 12 weeks to 24 to 28 weeks for many items, he adds. “We literally just received a part that we had given up on that we had ordered 15 months ago.”
On the workforce front, Stratom is looking for specialized engineering talent with experience in autonomous systems, and there’s a limited supply in Boulder — and pretty much everywhere else. “Hiring good, quality folks is a challenge, because we’re in a unique industry with unique skill sets,” says Gordon.
Opportunities: Moving into the commercial market. “About seven, eight years ago, we made the move from counter-IED tools — because we knew that was a limited market set in a unique time period — to using autonomous systems for logistics. We’ve been really driven by that for quite a number of years now, always with the goal of getting government contracts to fund the initial development work to develop that into a technology and capability that we could sell into the commercial world. We’re now getting to the point where all those pieces and components are coming together from a maturity perspective and technology perspective to start offering them into the commercial market. That’s always been the plan and the strategy that we were executing.”
In the longer term, he adds, “There are space opportunities, but we haven’t put as much focus there. There’s a new level of rigor with being able to be space-qualified. . . . I think, as we continue to grow, that will be an area we’ll look at heavier.”
Needs: In the next year or so, Stratom needs 10 to 20 more employees — including systems, software, and mechanical engineers with automation experience — and 4,000 to 5,000 additional square feet.
“We have some really unique requirements, because it’s not just about the office space and the warehouse space,” says Gordon. “Because of the systems we design, we need testing area outside that’s readily available. We also have needs for ground-level access as well dock-level access.”