MegaBots lead image. MegaBots

More Than Meets the Eye: Manufacturers Build Real Transformer

Forget McGregor-Mayweather. The fight of the century is between MegaBots' combat mech Eagle Prime and its Japanese rival, Kuratas. NED's John Hitch tells the story of how America’s manufacturing elite came together to create a machine — and a movement — even bigger than themselves.

As far as secret lairs of madcap scientists go, MegaBots’ Fortress One in Hayward, Calif., isn’t too shabby. Wedged between some nondescript industrial business and a lot that appears to be a cemetery for semis, this ivy-covered warehouse is surrounded by perimeter walls tall enough to hide the seldom-seen 16-ft, 12-ton war machine on the other side. As an added layer of security, there’s even a Ring video doorbell.

These guys are good.

Standing outside the place, I could only imagine what crazy antics and experiments were happening within. After all, 31-year-old co-founders Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein, mechanical and electrical engineers, respectively, actually built their very own Iron Giant—modeled after the piloted mechs of mid ‘90s video games. Called the Mk. III at the time, but now dubbed Eagle Prime, it's intended to be the first of many MK3 class fighting mechs. And it’s also the most impressive action figure ever built, even fitted with an arsenal of interchangeable accessories like knives, a claw, a ginormous chainsaw, and a double-barreled cannon.

The MegaBots crew—which has expanded from the two co-founders to a full-time staff of more than a dozen over the last two years—”plays” with this $2.5 million toy by pummeling hybrid cars for sport, cutting up ovens, and generally finding new ways to create the wanton destruction previously only possible in daydreams or cartoons like G.I Joe.

This is probably how COBRA got its start.

It’s all for the sake of science, mind you. And to ensure MegaBots annihilates a 13-ft Japanese mech named Kuratas. The fight goes down this September, and will be posted later on YouTube.

The match has been promised and hyped since the summer of 2015, but it’s definitely worth the wait. For geeks, this isn’t merely our McGregor vs. Mayweather; it’s Optimus Prime vs. Voltron. It’s a first-of-its-kind event and has the support of huge American companies such as Autodesk and Parker Hannifin, along with several other niche manufacturers and robotics experts that keep manufacturing moving. And it has the support of nearly 8,000 Kickstarter backers who contributed more than $500,000.

Best case, this fight will spawn an entire new international sports league. Worst case, it’s still real giant robots punching each other for our amusement.

And one of them is on the other side of this gate! Maybe they’ll let me drive it!

This is mid-July, mere weeks away from MegaBots scheduled fight with Suidobashi Heavy Industries, which makes Kuratas. Just two months ago, the MegaBots team revealed its fully-functional MK3 bot at Maker Faire in San Mateo, using a pair of Toyota Prius, or Prii, as punching bags to demo the hydraulically charged power. Even at 25% strength (for public safety), the slight electric Japanese imports crumpled into submission with a few well-placed jabs.

Those totaled hybrids, by the way, lie lifeless and splattered by paintballs a few feet away from the door, serving as a savage warning to any other Japanese machine that dare face MegaBots.

Finally, Cavalcanti opens the door to the covert confines, revealing something I never expected—an ordinary-looking fabrication shop.

Oh, look. A filing cabinet. And here’s a bag of disposable towels. Safety headphones. Welding masks hanging neatly on the wall. Is this some kind of sick joke?

To make matters worse, Cavalcanti isn’t some half cyborg villain, but a thoughtful, friendly, and extremely knowledgeable tour guide wearing glasses and a charcoal MegaBots t-shirt.

He even acknowledges how low tech this supposed advanced giant fighting robot headquarters is as we pass by a Lincoln-Electric Precision Aspect 375 TIG Welder and a Kent CNC machine, the type of totally normal new equipment we write about all the time.

“We look like we’re welding a wheel loader together,” the MegaBots CEO says. “The difference here is this is a prototyping shop, whereas Caterpillar would have giant jigs for making 10,000 wheel loaders. This is more of a one off.”

So they are definitely not building a giant mech army to take over Silicon Valley. Dammit.

Cavalcanti takes us upstairs, leading us by a typical office jammed with several workstations to the left, a fairly basic setup save for the impressive robot noir art hanging on the walls. A kitchen and conference room are on the other side of the catwalk. We head to the totally corporate conference room, replete with a huge monitor, board room table and chairs.

As Oehrlein—also just a regular guy with slightly mussed hair, glasses and a t-shirt—takes over, I wonder if this is all some crazy ruse. Building a giant fighting robot can’t be this mundane.

So I ask what’s going on today, expecting they are about to practice some robo jiu jitsu takedowns, or test some sort of EMP punch.

“It’s a lot of logistical stuff,” Oehrlein, the COO, says plainly. “These are big robots; they’re difficult to move around. On the corporate side, it’s a lot of creative planning, getting the right partners involved.”

There is a trick here, and it’s been hiding in plain sight.

This MegaBots team, portrayed on YouTube as eccentric Millennial engineers (millengineers?) who take wicked delight using science to smash nice things, have a bigger secret here than a giant robot, (which I still haven’t seen yet). They are in fact serious, practical entrepreneurs.

These rogue, irreverent makers turned out to be “Transformers: Grownups in Disguise.”

The matters the MegaBots team cares about—from developing a supply chain to meeting deadlines to safety—are all things any project manager or high-level executive worries about in manufacturing. And they’ve brought together the best of the best to complete this ultimate warrior in the same way any successful manufacturer we have covered would.

The colossal ambitions to make a science-fiction mech real makes the story more compelling than most, but Cavalcanti and Oehrlein are dead-set on the same goals your company has: making something people want better than anyone else.

Before the ravenous crowds can experience this metal-on-metal violence live, as with Battlebots, which are Micro Machines by comparison, both sides have taken the safe route.

"The duel will be filmed in a private location rather than a ticketed live event because of safety concerns for the audience, and the unpredictability of the technology being used," MegaBots and Suidobashi reported in a joint statement.

That doesn't mean everyone will be out of harm's way.

For more from John Hitch and his trip west to investigate the growing MegaBots phenomenon, check out our sister publication New Equipment Digest.

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