A new kind of micro-manufacturing

She comes from Austria and has a stare that vaporizes wood. She’s intelligent, extraordinarily precise and big. If you were to welcome Helga into your home, you first would knock down a wall. She weighs 2,600 pounds.

That was one of the first things Josh Powell and Nick Mauer, the duo behind MTRL Design, needed to do. They needed to get Helga — also known by her technical name, the Trotec SP 1500 — into their work space at the Mastercraft Building in north downtown.

Helga is a commercial-grade laser cutting machine that’s the size of a Prius. She’s powerful enough to split wood without batting an eye and delicate enough to engrave a love note on the edge of a glass.

Powell and Mauer are two thirtyish humans. They’re on a mission to harness Helga’s might and plant the seed for a new kind of micro-manufacturing company.

In late 2012, with help from their landlord, Powell and Mauer welcomed Helga — so named for her Austrian roots — into their lives through a 10-foot-tall windowed garage door installed just for her arrival.

They’ve been busy ever since, working on projects for artists, designers and architects enamored with feeding ideas to Helga and watching her laser-cut them into being.

But for MTRL Design, the big step comes next. After months of designing and prototyping, Powell and Mauer are launching their own line of laser-cut furniture and accessories. At the same time, they’re starting a campaign through the crowd-funding website Indie gogo that will raise money for their long-term goal: to grow their own fields of bamboo, the surprisingly strong, naturally antimicrobial and sustainable material at the core of their “eco-responsible” business philosophy.

Council Bluffs and Emerson, respectively — before migrating west to the music and arts scene in Omaha, where they played in a band called Felt. In 2005 they parted ways. Mauer moved to Portland, Ore., worked as a graphic designer and picked up experience with laser-cutting technology. Powell studied art at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, showed his paintings and sculptures around the metro area and, more recently, started curating art shows.

But they kept in touch. In late 2011, Powell and Mauer started a monthslong Google chat that became the blueprint for their new business. Back home, Powell obtained a space at the north end of the single-story Mastercraft Building that in recent years has become a centrifuge of Omaha startups. In November 2012, Mauer moved back.

MTRL Design is in a long, rectangular workroom that smells like wood and benefits from natural light for most of the day. At the center of the room sits Helga. When she’s working, a laser head darts back and forth across a five-foot surface area, beneath a clear, protective shield. An adjacent cooling system calms her, and she vents through a substantial fume extractor. Powell and Mauer believe in wasting little if any material, so when Helga first arrived, they designed, laser-cut and assembled a standing computer desk out of her wood packing crate.

Their startup cost for equipment alone, including Helga, her accessories and various finishing tools and machines, ran close to $220,000.

Bob Grinnell, owner of the Mastercraft, didn’t hesitate tearing down a wall if it meant landing MTRL as a tenant.

“I could see they’d be a good fit,” he said. “They’re a couple of great guys — great personalities, very accommodating themselves. When I’m looking for tenants, that’s always a feature that pays off well.” It’s been a warm welcome. Other tenants have been eager to put the two-men-and-a-laser operation to work.


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