Planting the seeds of creativity and innovation

6/3/2024 Kate Worster

Written by Kate Worster

A business concept that began with an effort to improve a student team competition car led twin Grainger Engineers into a niche market for small manufacturing jobs and a vision with the potential to dramatically expand fabrication options in small, urban spaces.

Richard Mauge (BS, MechSE ’20) and Robert Mauge (BS, MechSE ’20) credit their parents for encouraging exploration and innovation at an early age. The twins were enrolled in Shotokan Karate (they both earned black belts); studied music (Richard plays flute, Robert is a clarinetist); and by purchasing magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Popular Science and Scientific American, Richard and Robert’s parents discovered their children had an interest in science and technology.

“No matter how advanced or how crazy it sounds, you can do it. If you put in the effort, and if you have willpower and the drive, you can fix your car or build a beautiful house. You can have champagne taste on a beer budget.”

Richard Mauge, MATRICS

The twins were taught from a young age the value of a “can do” attitude. Though they never met their machinist grandfather, his mentality was passed down through their father. Richard describes the philosophy this way, “No matter how advanced or how crazy it sounds, you can do it. If you put in the effort, and if you have willpower and the drive, you can fix your car or build a beautiful house. You can have champagne taste on a beer budget.”

The brothers also started working on computers at the tender age of three, quickly becoming comfortable navigating software and the internet. During high school the twins began exploring and learning available software, including Blender, an open-source software that introduced them to computer-generated imaging (CGI). 

These early CGI applications planted the idea that, in 2023, bloomed into MATRICS, Inc., their machining and design business located in Champaign, Ill.

Grainger Engineering and student team competitions

Robert began looking at universities while in high school. He knew he wanted to be a mechanical engineer, and one of the top engineering programs in the nation was located nearby. The outstanding education, proximity to family in the Chicago area and in-state tuition all combined to make Illinois a great match.

While the Illini car teams held interest for both Mauge brothers, Robert began his university education by participating in a variety of activities, such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and working as an RA in the campus residence halls. He learned to work collaboratively to solve problems and lead projects, skills that shaped his role at MATRICS.

“If you're doing the mechanical course load at U of I, you do get a fair bit of experience manufacturing things, specifically from the design courses … With all the project teams on campus, you get firsthand experience building something from the ground up, and more. For mechanical engineers, it really helps inform future design decisions,” said Robert.

When Richard first arrived at Illinois, he says he considered anything and everything. Then he found the Illini EV Concept (formerly known as Illini Eco Concept) car competition team. “First of all, the car looked cool. It was unique at the time. And second, when I understood the competition and the freedom of design, I realized, wow, I can literally make a supercar,” said Richard.

There was, however, one complication: the team did not have a computer numerical control (CNC) machine large enough to make the molds in one piece. CNCs are computer controlled, highly precise and efficient manufacturing machines.

“I had to make the molds in six different pieces, and then basically glue them together. And nothing turned out to be proper,” said Richard. “There were too many big body gaps, the tolerance was incorrect, it was an extremely tough process, and it took way too long.”

That summer, Richard, Robert and their father built a CNC router in their garage at home, then brought it in pieces to campus to be assembled and used to make the molds for that year’s car. The process of building that first CNC proved invaluable to the twins’ futures.

Twin brothers Robert, right, and Richard Mauge show off the CNC machine they built in their garage in Champaign on April 29, 2024. The brothers own Matrics Design and Engineering, which  manufactures technical and artistic products catered to smaller businesses, start-ups, student groups and research groups.
Photo Credit: Heather Coit
Twin brothers Robert, right, and Richard Mauge show off the CNC machine they built in their garage in Champaign. 

From education to employment to entrepreneurship

While in college, Richard and Robert landed internships with Psyonic, a startup founded by an Illinois alum and winner of the Cozad New Venture Challenge. Originally based in Champaign, the company was looking for people who had carbon fiber experience, which the Mauges had from the EV Concept car team. The internships led to full-time employment directly after their 2020 graduation. 

While they both started as mechanical engineers, Robert later moved to lab manager and regulatory roles. “I didn’t get as much manufacturing experience, but I did get a lot of experience regarding how to lead projects in a commercial space and a more research-based space as well,” said Robert. “Going through that whole process was transformative. We as engineers are very focused on making things, moving fast, breaking stuff, etc.; but when it comes to regulation, even just documenting past progress, you don’t think about that. Developing those skills early on really helped.”

In 2022, Psyonic’s decision to relocate to San Diego, Calif., coincided with the brothers being ready to move in a different direction. They stayed in Champaign, close to their family, where they own a home, and they started their own company. 

The young business partners had a few advantages. They have worked well together since they were children and know they can rely on one another. They also know each other’s strengths and enjoy bouncing ideas off each other.

“I have a broad set of interests,” said Robert. “My mechanical knowledge isn't as deep as it could be. But I still know a bunch of different things, and I like working on different things. Whereas Richie — he is very much focused on a singular project. And that's oftentimes manufacturing related.” 

Richard sold his Psyonic stock to purchase Psyonic’s CNC Machine that he had also customized as an employee. That move allowed Richard to continue to work for Pysonic as an independent contractor, while Robert focused on the new venture — building a second CNC machine specifically for MATRICS and creating a logo, building a web presence and marketing their services. 

Robert described the iterative process that allowed the second machine to build itself into an industrial-grade CNC. “We hand drilled some components, we built a very basic CNC and made it as nice as possible. That allowed us to flatten a new set of components. It was not as good as what we could do now; but it allowed us to get to the next level. We machined things with this very basic CNC, got it to the next point, then we'd edit, and make that part the best we could. Then we’d assemble the machine with the newly improved components. We kept machining newer, more accurate components, fixing some of the problems, tearing it down and rebuilding it.”

Richard added, “Once we built this new machine, [the former Psyonic] machine quickly became obsolete because of how much better the machine we built performed. So while the first machine was our lifeline, it quickly turned into kind of a closet toy.” 

Twin brothers Robert, left, and Richard Mauge show off the CNC machine they built in their garage in Champaign.
Robert Mauge clamps a part to a CNC machine.
Robert Mauge shows off the aluminum shield he made, in the style of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker video game.
Richard and Robert Mauge, owners of Matrics Inc Design and Engineering, show their company in its early stages.
Part of a CNC machine built by Robert and Richard Mauge.

Building a better future for all

With the hand-built, high standard CNC operational in their home garage, the Mauge twins focused on their niche market. MATRICS serves startups and small businesses, fulfilling the types of jobs not practical for large manufacturers.

“We take on those small, low volume prototype runs, or low volume production runs, and we're also able to help with design knowledge. We have this very interesting background where we started as mechanical engineers and then went into manufacturing. And oftentimes, those two were very much divorced,” said Robert. 

Richard continued the thought adding, “When we work with clients for a long period of time, their designs become even better. Essentially, we learn from each other. I learn what their requirements are, and they learn what our requirements are to make the most efficient and effective part with the right tooling and the right strategy.”

While they continue to build a consistent manufacturing and consulting client base, long-term the twins are developing an idea that could be a game-changer for their field.

Their plan is to combine their mechanical engineering, design, manufacturing and business experience to develop production CNCs small enough to fit into tight quarters, such as an urban office building, while maximizing the machines’ build area. 

“This is going to be very different from any of the CNC machines that we've developed so far. It's going to be with small businesses and startups in mind specifically, aiming to solve some of the main issues that we experienced firsthand, namely reliability, space and weight. For startups or small businesses with a little amount of cash, having to go and relocate to find a space that has garage or first floor access is just too much,” said Robert. 

Richard added, “There's a lot of prime real estate in city centers that could be utilized efficiently if we actually get this concept off the ground. We want to make machines powerful enough, reliable enough, precise enough and in a small package to fit through a door and within the weight limits and dimensions of an elevator. That type of machine doesn't exist.”

While they acknowledge the need for additional customer and market research, they believe the customer base will be people who aren’t necessarily manufacturers.

“We get to tailor the machines, the experience of using the machine to someone who has less of a knowledge base or prefers things a certain way. And since we're using our machines right now … at the very least we get to use it ourselves,” said Richard. “Ideally, we’ll get to a point where we could go in and start hiring some new individuals here at the company,” said Richard. 

The goal, however, is not to be wealthy. “We want to make a difference, a big difference, hopefully,” said Robert. “We never really thought of starting a business right out of college. We're in it because we see this as getting to the life that we want for us and others. For us that is the ability and freedom to pick and choose what projects we do.” 

Richard and Robert Mauge, owners of Matrics Inc Design and Engineering, show their company in its early stages.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Richard and Robert Mauge.
Richard Mauge and his father, Robert H. Mauge, Jr., with the CNC router the twins built at home to make molds for the Illini Eco Concept student design competition car.


Advice for Grainger Engineering students

While Richard and Robert have been out of college for only four years, they have some advice for Grainger Engineering students.

Robert emphasized the importance of getting involved and practicing networking. “I thought that networking was kind of useless and pointless … And then, literally my last semester of senior year, when COVID was also starting to happen, I realized the benefits.  It's a very weird process, a very uncomfortable process, especially for most engineers, but it's definitely a very important one.” 

“Find what you're really interested in,” said Richard. “…You can improve your quality of life if you can find a job that you're truly interested in and also pays well. Look into where those positions will be located and know that you can make changes. It's about living — living the life you want.”

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This story was published June 3, 2024.