Hacker family Robison

Suddenly, 3D printing is everywhere: We've seen it used to create 3D-printed confections, artificial blood vessels, fashion accessories—you name it. So it's hardly surprising that a number of companies will print just about anything you desire. Some companies, however, continue to view tinkering with new technologies as a central part of their activity; and one such business is Robison Industries, a small family-run operation that focuses on making add-ons and kits for open-source RepRap printers.

Proprietors John, Mary, and Jack Robison found the design of the typical RepRap so frustrating to use that they completely rebuilt the model. Jack and Mary are the brains behind the RepRap kits, but John has more than a little hardware hacking experience, too: He designed the original light-up guitar that Ace Frehley of Kiss used during the 1970s. Not bad.

We spoke to John and Jack Robison about the business, their experience with DIY tech, and the significance of 3D printing.

Jack and Mary with a RepRap printer. [Credit: John Robison]

TechHive: What is Robison Industries? How did it come to be?

John Robison: Back in the '70s I designed a lot of electronic devices for the music industry. Today the most widely known of my creations is the series of special-effects guitars played by Ace Frehley of Kiss.

I did the designs, and my then-girlfriend, later wife, and currently ex-wife Mary did the actual assembly. A friend of ours, Jim Boughton, did the mechanical engineering work, particularly on the smoking guitars. We built everything here in Western Massachusetts where we’ve lived right along.

I left rock and roll electronics 30 years ago. Over the years many people asked if I could re-create some of those instruments but I always felt I had moved on and could no longer do it. Then our son developed an interest in electronics, and I thought maybe he and his mom could do those guitars. We took a commission from a fellow last year and built a new light guitar. That’s how Robison Industries was born, in my opinion.

Now Cubby [Jack] and his mom are into the RepRaps and other creations, but I think it started with the guitar idea. They have a backlog of several guitars right now, plus we have one of the originals we built Ace back for restoration.

TH: How did you end up with an interest in technology?

John: I have always been interested in technology, whether mechanical or electronic. I was fortunate to grow up in a college town and have parents who taught at university. That meant I had the run of the school, from a very early age.

I dropped out of high school in tenth grade, but by that time I had acquired a graduate-level understanding of signal-processing electronics, thanks to the people and facilities at the university. They kind of adopted me like a pet.

I’m sort of unusual in that I’m entirely self-taught in all the things I’ve done. I’m not actually formally educated to do anything at all.

All three of us are autistic; we have Asperger’s syndrome. That gives us some advantages when it comes to out-of-the-box thinking, but it’s also made it hard for us to succeed in traditional paths.

I used to feel pretty insecure about that, but my designs have stood the test of time in many industries. Some of the stuff I worked on was shown in an episode of Ingenious Minds on the Science Channel.

TH: What draws you to the modding community, and to 3D printing in particular?

John: I’m not drawn to it, really. That’s my son and his mom. I’m very proud of both of them. The RepRap work is today’s version of the creative work I did a generation earlier.

Jack Robison: I've drawn up designs of machines and gadgets I want to make ever since I was small. However, I discovered that it’s often easier to modify an existing machine than to reinvent the whole thing. I wasn't really looking to enter the modding/hacker community; it just sort of happened as a result of my projects.

3D printing was a means to an end for me. I wanted to make a better lightweight frame for my quadrocopter than the Styrofoam one that I made by hand. When I first saw the introduction video to the RepRap project, I became fascinated. Reading about 3D printing quickly replaced the quadrocopter as my primary free-time activity. I bought a RepRap kit, and it proved to be a nightmare to construct. Parts didn't fit together properly and needed to be tweaked. Most excitingly, the electronics we got were defective and lit fire the first time I turned it on. Although it was frustrating, the whole thing wound up being a very good learning experience.

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