Founder Zack Bieber gives robots the ability to navigate complex and often dangerous environments.

Photos Jonathan Castner

The Machine Lab makes robots move. Its robotic mobility platforms with wheels and tank treads got started as a hobby.

Then the TV show, BattleBots, gave Bieber’s creations visibility as he was getting started in Southern California. “I’ve always been into robotics, even since I was a little kid, but that BattleBots thing in 1999 got me some air time on TV and I was approached by a couple SWAT officers,” says Bieber. “My robot was one of the only robots that had tank tracks on it, and they recognized — compared to existing armed robots, which there weren’t very many back then — and they asked me if I could build something that they could use for dangerous situations but was low-cost. That kicked off the business.”

Bieber subsequently sold his first unit to the SWAT team in West Covina, California, in 2001. The Machine Lab’s catalog now includes four basic mobility platforms, a tactical line, accessories like arms and trackpods, and a variety of operator controller units (OCUs). Basic platforms start at $2,250.

The systems, featuring wireless video systems, robotic arms, and capabilities to handle a wide variety of terrain, caught on, and municipal police departments were followed by county and state customers, then the military started buying from The Machine Lab after Bieber moved back to his home state of Colorado in 2008.

The company’s portable MMP-30-DOD robots have since been used extensively by the military. “We’ve got over 1,600 of those out in Afghanistan and surrounding areas,” says Bieber. “We built one of the first backpackable manned robot systems in that time period — most bomb robots back then were 600 to 800 pounds each. We did one that was 50 pounds.”

Custom projects over the years have included brush-clearing robots for minefields, cornfield-fertilzing robots, robotic rooftop cleaning systems, and a robot disguised as a big snowball that filmed a TV show about penguins in the Arctic. “Because we’re a small company, we can zig and zag on different products for different industries pretty quickly,” says Bieber. “We provide the mechanical solution, and then a lot of universities and defense companies will put all their sensors, their computers, whatever smarts they want on the robot, and then they’re up and rollinq way quicker than if they had to fabricate something.”

The Machine Lab manufactures at its 8,000-square-foot facility near Fort Collins in Wellington, and each robot requires about 24 hours of labor. “We do everything in the beginning and the end here in my shop,” says Bieber. “We do product design, 3D modeling, CNC machining, and we prototype everything here and make sure everything works.”

The operation relies on a network of vendors in Colorado, California, and Minnesota for a variety of metal and plastic components. “Let the experts deal with the high-quantity stuff. If we need more than 10 or 15, we farm it out,” says Bieber. “We lean back on our price point and our ability to make things much more cost-effective, and that’s where we sit as far as the market’s concerned.”

He adds, “We’re really trying to not reinvent the wheel. We use a lot of off-the-shelf components and try to do everything American-made, and we can still hit a lower price point.”

Challenges: “The toughest part is keeping up with the tech,” says Bieber. “We’ve gone from analog video to digital video to high-definition video. That’s kind of the bread and butter of what we do — wireless video systems — so we work with a couple companies to try and stay on top of the tech.”

He adds, “It’s kind of feast or famine here. From 2010 to 2015, we had back-to-back military contracts for five years. We were cranking out almost 500 robots and another 200 to 300 robots worth of spare parts in 10 months — that was our craziest. The last year and a half, we’ve only done eight or 10.”

Opportunities: New products. One new robot, the Glimpse, is set for release in 2022 with a MSRP around $12,000. “It’s a very small, almost shoebox-sized food that we’re catering to the home and commercial inspection industry,” says Bieber. “We have a lot of features on it.”

One aerospace manufacturer has expressed interest in a Glimpse unit for inspecting jet engines, he adds. “There are tons of different applications for this.”

Bieber also teases a new military-focused robot due for release in late 2022. “It’s fairly revolutionary for a small robot. It does some things, to the best of my knowledge, that nobody else’s can do.”

Needs: “I think we need to wedge ourselves more securely into these new markets we’re approaching,” says Bieber. “Getting the name out there, and getting the name associated with quality and good price and reliability.”