I often played with LEGO as a kid growing up in Riverdale, N.Y., but my first maker project wasn’t until high school when I built a 30-foot-tall trebuchet and competed in the 2006 Punkin Chunkin competition in Delaware. We hurled a 4-pound pumpkin 531 feet ­­— good enough for third place in the Youth Trebuchet division. As I watched 800 pounds of counterweight launch the pumpkin through the air, I knew I wanted to study engineering.

RACING TO LEARN

I met my future Wazer co-founder Matt Nowicki during orientation of my freshman year of college at the University of Pennsylvania. All of the extracurricular clubs had lined the main walk on campus and were trying to recruit new members. Parked on the side of the path was an open-wheeled, Formula 1-style race car. Matt, a senior and clearly the leader of the club, explained that the Formula SAE Team builds a new car each year and races it in an intercollegiate competition in Michigan. I didn’t love cars, but I knew this is where I would really learn how to make things. I immediately joined the team.

I would go on to spend hundreds of hours in Penn’s machine shop, CNC-milling metal parts for the race car, for research labs, or for my own coursework. Because of all the setup and breakdown time that machining necessitates, I would regularly work late into the night making a part. Whenever possible the engineers would avoid the shop because of the time commitment and instead would design parts that could be laser-cut, which was way faster. The downside to using a laser was the parts had to be made in acrylic or MDF, because, as is the case with lasers at most makerspaces, ours could only cut certain soft materials.

SENIOR PROJECT

What we really needed was a waterjet for cutting sheet metal, but Penn never had one because they were so big and expensive. So in 2011 my professor suggested that we attempt to build a small waterjet for our yearlong senior design project. I loved the idea for many reasons: it was an engineering challenge, it involved my passion for making things, and I knew that there was real potential for the product — and I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. By May of 2012, our team had built the first small-scale waterjet, capable of cutting through ¼” aluminum and ⅛” steel.

Lerea and his Penn teammates show off the first iteration of their desktop waterjet cutter.

Then we all graduated. I felt this could be more than a school project, but I figured it would be beneficial to get some real-world experience working as an engineer before embarking on this adventure. Fortunately for me, Matt, who had been working for the hardware startup BioLite in Brooklyn, N.Y., called me and said they were looking to hire a mechanical engineer. I signed up. I worked there for two years and was involved in two complete product-development cycles designing portable camping gear.

In 2014 Hackaday somehow got wind of our senior design waterjet project and published a blog post about us. Hundreds of people emailed us asking if we had plans to commercialize the technology. It was eye-opening for me, because it wasn’t just engineers who were asking. Artisans, makers, and small businesses of all sorts inquired as well.

DIVING IN

By 2015 I was ready to make the leap to start a waterjet company. But I needed a partner. Luckily, Matt, who had since moved on from BioLite, was looking for a change. It wasn’t hard to convince him to join me as co-founder and CTO.

We started out by researching the market from my parents’ basement and testing the Penn waterjet prototype in the backyard. Then we googled “hardware accelerator” and discovered Hax, an accelerator for hardware startups in Shenzhen, the electronics capital of the world. We joined Hax in January 2016, hired Dan Meana and Christian Moore — two engineers from the Penn race car team — and moved to China.

Pennies, with the metal around Lincoln’s head cut out by Wazer, create a unique jewelry material. Design by Stacey Lee Webber.

We were amazed by the speed and affordability of prototyping at Hax. Wazer utilizes a lot of off-the-shelf hardware like hoses, fittings, valves, solenoids, and motors. We found that commodity hardware near Shenzhen was roughly one-tenth the cost of that in the U.S., often for the exact same parts sold by McMaster-Carr, Digi-Key, or Amazon. At Hax we were surrounded by entrepreneurs with whom we could share ideas and receive unbiased feedback.

21ST CENTURY BAND SAW

Demonstrating quick, clean cuts in metal.

We launched Wazer on Kickstarter eight months later, in September 2016. The campaign was a huge success. We knew it would be difficult to transition from prototype to production. After qualifying vendors and redesigning the machine for volume production, our team established Wazer’s headquarters in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where we are part of a mission to revitalize manufacturing in New York City. Every Wazer is built in our combined office/workshop/assembly facility and is thoroughly tested prior to shipment. It took an additional 21 months — twice as long as expected — before we delivered the first Wazers to our extremely patient customers.

I certainly wish I had a waterjet back in high school and in college when we were building the trebuchet and our race car. Wazer is the 21st century band saw, a digital cutting tool that belongs in every workshop, because it cuts every material. Six years after its initial inception I am most excited to see the amazing and varied things that our customers make with Wazer — creations that no one on our team ever dreamed of.

A peek under Wazer’s cover shows its 12″×18″ cutting area and nozzle.