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Look what Utah’s ingenuity – and desire to get out of work – has wrought – Deseret News

Matt Aposhian, COO of FireFly Automatix, gives a tour of the company’s warehouse in the industrialized part of the Valley. In addition to showing off Firefly’s impressive range of automated sod harvesters and self-propelled lawn mowers, he also points out the tens of thousands of parts that are fabricated, cast, welded, formed, cut, bolted and painted right here on site to put the machines together.

When FireFly says its products are made in Utah, it means they are made in Utah.

“Steel and electronics come in through one door,” says Matt, “fully functioning machines go out the other.”

It’s all a testament to the limitless ingenuity of the human mind.

That and the age-old desire to get out of work.

“Our engineers joke,” says Matt. “They say they are lazy by nature, so they think of ways to make things easier.”

Then he adds, “It would have been nice to have had all this on hand when I was little.”

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When the Aposhian children – Matt’s three brothers and two sisters – were growing up, their father, Lawrence, owned a sod farm. In addition to having a roof over their heads and food on the table, the farm meant the siblings were no strangers to manual labor. When the cut sod rolled off the conveyor belt, they were the ones who had to get down on their hands and knees to lift and stack it.

“Those weren’t what I would call the fun days,” says Matt, “but our parents were honorable people who taught us to work hard. They instilled in us that work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit from a very young age. I think that has a lot to do with what happened.”

What has happened is the invention and production of sod harvesters and lawn mowers that have taken the robotic age by storm.

The company’s automated harvesters — which can transform a former four-man operation into one driver listening to Spotify in a heated or air-conditioned cabin — can be found all over the U.S. and around the world, even as far away as China and South -Africa.

Tanner Dixon, a mechanical engineer, works on the cutting unit of a fully autonomous lawn mower at FireFly Automatix in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Desert News

And the highly anticipated, just-released, fully electric robotic mowers – which require no operator – have already been ordered by turf farms and golf courses.

It all goes back to the day about 16 years ago when Steve Aposhian, Matt’s older brother, decided he could make a better robotic arm than the one that kept breaking on the early self-stacking harvester Lawrence had purchased for his sod farm.

Steve is the family engineer. When Steve was a teenager, Matt remembers attaching an electric race car motor to the blinds in his bedroom so he didn’t have to get out of bed to open and close the blinds.

Steve recruited a friend and fellow engineer, Will Decker, to redesign the robot arm that kept breaking. When their version proved unbreakable, they decided to see if other turf companies wanted to purchase something that was better than the original equipment.

When the answer was yes, Steve and Will, along with another engineer friend, Eric Aston, and Matt Aposhian and his younger brother Dan, founded a company they called FireFly. They established their headquarters on the Lawrence farm.

Then they raised their gaze even higher.

Lawrence Aposhian remembers the first conversation he had with his son Steve.

“He said, ‘I want to build a whole harvester from scratch.’ I said, ‘Well, go ahead.’ So he got his engineer friends, they sat in my office, got on my computer and started designing this sod harvester. In the evening they went into my shop, picked up the steel and started fabricating.”

Steve, Will and Eric enlisted Sam Drake, the professor who taught them engineering at the University of Utah, to help.

In less than a year—quick work, even by Elon Musk’s standards—they had created what Lawrence calls “this remarkable thing.”

Horizon Turf Farms, a large turf company in Texas, purchased the first FireFly harvester; then bought 17 more.

FireFly moved from the Lawrence farm into a spacious warehouse and in the twelve years since, as the company has grown to 190 employees (including 30 engineers), more than 600 fully completed FireFly ProSlab harvesters have rolled out the door. The company currently sells approximately 110 harvesters per year.

The success of the harvesters led to the six years of thinking, tinkering and manufacturing that resulted in the just released AMP: Autonomous Mowing Platform.

That’s a nice way of saying: a lawn mower that mows itself.

“There’s nothing like it in the world,” says Matt. “Because it’s fully electric and fully autonomous, it does some things that no one else can do right now.”

A 100-inch-wide driverless mower is attractive not only for turf farms – where the grass is cut as many as three times a week – but also for other places with large lawns, such as golf courses – a market that Matt sees as the future of the AMP . . There are 38,000 golf courses in the world, he points out. With a lawn mower that requires no operator, no gas and no noise, golf courses can mow their lawns early and late, not polluting the air and not waking anyone up. (You can see a video of the AMP in action at fireflyautomatix.com/amp-mowers/.)

* * *

As Matt concludes our tour of the warehouse, making sure photographer Laura Seitz hasn’t taken any photos that could give away intellectual property (FireFly is home to more than six dozen current and pending patents), he inspects an assembly line where Henry Ford proudly and a technical laboratory, straight from Thomas Edison’s playbook.

Thinking back to his youth, he summarizes in one sentence what the Aposhians and their engineer friends accomplished.

“We took over the worst jobs on the sod farm,” he says, “now they’re the best.”

The autonomy controller and battery box of a fully autonomous lawn mower are pictured at FireFly Automatix in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Desert News