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.

TH: How significant do you feel 3D printing technology will be in the future?

John Robison.

John: Very significant, once there is software to translate a physical sample into code that will drive one of these new printers efficiently. Obviously the machines need refinement too, but that is happening very fast. When a small business can create its own plastic parts on demand, that’s going to be a big deal in many different service industries. Of course, it's a dream come true for all sorts of creative people—artists, prototypers, designers, anyone, really.

Jack: Extremely significant. 3D printing is in the process of revolutionizing traditional methods of making things. I think small printers like the RepRap will ultimately leave the world of hackers and become consumer electronics, much like computers did 30 years ago. Individuals and companies will be able to directly manufacture the things they need, for significantly less cost than the things are currently available for. My original plan to use the printer to make parts for my quadrocopter is a small-scale example of this, but the potential is limitless.

It'll have significant effects on education too. Students will be able to make whatever they can draw, perhaps giving a new generation of engineers much more hands-on experience at a very young age.

I saw two TED talks about 3D printing. In one, the speaker demonstrated 3D printing an entire house. It can be scaled up to print skyscrapers faster, safer, and with more design flexibility than traditional methods. In the other talk, the speaker printed a human kidney while explaining the process of printing using stem cells. In 30 years, perhaps if you get really ill you’ll be able to go to a 3D-printed, concrete geodesic doctor’s office, where they'll make you a new and improved set of organs using your own cells. There are undoubtedly countless other game-changing applications that haven't been invented yet that'll pop up over the coming years.

Jack working at a hackerspace in preparation for the HOPE conference last July. [Credit: John Robison]

TH: Given the nature of your company, what involvement do you have in hackerspaces?

Jack: We're quite involved with our local hackerspace. Without their machining equipment, we couldn't make much of the hardware that we need to fabricate. Aside from the machines, I wouldn't know how to use them without the education of a few other members with machining experience. It's just a very good environment there. People help each other out a lot, and there are a lot of different skill sets present.

Whenever you put a bunch of people with overlapping interests and different skill sets in a room with all the kinds of power tools imaginable, you'll get interesting results.

TH: You sell a few items on the website. Are hacker-friendly kits an important part of your business? Why?

Jack: Hackers and technology geeks are pretty much the entirety of our customer base. Many of them, like myself, prefer to build things themselves. The process of building and configuring the machine really makes it feel like your own. Each RepRap is unique with a different set of hardware and different settings. The whole project itself is very hacker friendly: Everything is open source, and the machine can modify itself. Most RepRap owners try out a wide variety of configurations before settling on the one they like best. I think that kind of customization is quite appealing to a hacker.

TH: Do each of you have different roles within projects, or is each part of a new idea a collaborative effort?

John: I’m the dad, and I offer advice. It’s [Jack and Mary’s] business and they do it all. Being the dad I believe (like all dads) that I taught them everything they know, but they would surely disagree with that notion.

I’m very impressed by what Cubby and his mom have accomplished and I want to stress that they have done it all on their own. They have focused on ideas like the RepRap, the quadrocopter, and 3D printing, and chased those dreams with varying levels of success (so far).

TH: What projects are you currently undertaking, or plan to in the near future?

Jack: Like most hackers, I have ten times more projects that I want to do than I have time to do. Right now I'm working on repairing the electronics in a cigarette-making machine for a tobacco shop that found me through the hackerspace, and my mother is working on repairing the original light-up guitar she and my father made 30 years ago for Ace Frehley of Kiss.

When I have a little bit more time next month, I'll begin tackling a world mostly untouched by hackers: open-source laboratory equipment. I've had the idea for a little while; I call it the OpenChemLab. The plan is to come up with open-source designs for common laboratory equipment such as centrifuges, a melting-point apparatus, a gas chromatograph, and a variety of spectroscopy devices. One of the guys at the hackerspace gave me an electron multiplier tube that he acquired somehow; it'll become part of the innards of a mass spectrometer.

John: My time is fully taken up by conventional work. I have a company, Robison Service, which repairs and restores high-end automobiles. I write books and have a pretty active speaking schedule as an advocate for people with autism. Finally, I serve on a number of boards in the autism community, and I’m a member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee.

You can learn more about 3D printing in TechHive’s introduction to the technology, or follow the Robisons’ progress on their website and YouTube Channel.

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