Hacker family Robison

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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