Durham tool maker ShopBot develops open-source power tools

dranii@newsobserver.comAugust 3, 2013 

— By David Ranii

You’ve heard of open-source software that makes its source code freely available. Well, get ready for open-source power tools.

ShopBot Tools, an established Durham manufacturer of computer-driven, multi-purpose industrial tools, has developed a portable, hand-held version aimed at consumers that it touts as an “open hardware platform.”

That means companies will be able to download for free all the information they need to develop hardware accessories for the Handibot, which is designed to cut, drill and carve wood, plastic and aluminum with “computer-controlled precision.”

“We feel we have created a universal platform that others will build upon,” said David Bryan, who led the team that created the Handibot. “If someone wants to develop a jig or an accessory, they don’t have to reverse engineer the Handibot. They take all my work that is public and go from there.”

Likewise, information is freely available for people to develop software apps to guide the Handibot through specific, complex tasks.

“We feel the best ideas for applications will come from users,” said Ted Hall, 65, founder and chief executive of the 27-employee company.

The funding for Handibot was, in a sense, open-source as well. At the end of June the company launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, a website that allows investors to donate money to a project. The 30-day campaign raised $349,498, far exceeding its target of $125,000.

“It has validated all our work,” Bryan said.

The Kickstarter campaign called on people to pledge $2,400 or more to place an order in advance – larger commitments enabled earlier delivery or extras such as special training at ShopBot in Durham. The company has promised all deliveries by no later than December, and at that time it will begin accepting new orders. The initial price tag will be $2,400, which the company expects to lower down the road.

Hall, a former neuroscience professor at Duke University, said crowdfunding was especially appealing because “it gives you an opportunity to market to a broader audience” that the company wouldn’t reach otherwise.

In addition, it enabled ShopBot to test the concept with potential customers.

“It has certainly been successful enough to get us going on application development, creating the ecosystem that will support the thing,” Hall said.

That includes making a free app development kit available and encouraging people to list ideas for apps on the Handibot.com website “so the developers will have a better idea” of what people want, Hall said. ShopBot also will create some apps of its own and subsidize some developers early on to seed the market.

All apps will be sold through the Handibot website. Hall expects they’ll cost more than smartphone apps, possibly in the $10 to $30 range, to compensate for the smaller potential market that’s involved.

Dale Dougherty, founder and CEO of Maker Media, the publisher of Make magazine, calls the Handibot “a bridge tool. It’s taking a power tool and, in a sense, giving it smarts.”

“The important part is that it is able to interface with a computer,” said Dougherty. “Instead of the person using it doing all the control of where to cut and how to cut, a machine is doing it.”

In Dougherty’s opinion, that will make it easier to use for many people.

“A lot of us don’t have a lot of woodworking skills,” he said.

Small product, big impact

Since Hall founded the company in 1996, ShopBot has been making computer-controlled machine tools called CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) routers that today have price tags ranging from $5,000 to $40,000.

The Handibot is a portable version of ShopBot’s large, stationary tools. It’s roughly the size of a milk carton and weighs about 30 pounds.

“Unlike most CNC tools, you take the tool to the work rather than the work to the tool,” Hall said.

“The components of this actually come straight from our desktop tool. We just shortened it up,” he added. “For a little tool, it is really quite powerful.”

Last year the privately held company generated $8 million in revenue, and this year it anticipates racking up $10 million – not counting Handibot sales. That would bring the company back to where it was before the recession, when its string of double-digit annual record growth halted.

“We just had the legs knocked out from under us,” said Hall, who ended up laying off about half his staff as a result. “Life is hard (when you’re) a small manufacturing company in the United States.”

Before the recession hit, the bulk of the company’s sales went to companies broadly categorized as residential construction, including cabinetmakers and furniture makers. That market was pummeled by the recession and today is a small piece of ShopBot’s sales. The biggest piece now comes from small and mid-sized manufacturers.

“Fortunately, since the financial meltdown, the manufacturers have found us,” Hall said.

Speed, accuracy, consistency

The shift in customers speaks to the diversity of CNC’s products.

“We have a tool that will cut teeny little printed circuit boards for high-end electronics stuff,” Hall said. “The same tool will cut plywood that can be part of a house you are building.”

Durham Bookcases, a custom furniture maker with locations in Durham and Cary, purchased one of ShopBot’s CNC routers about a decade ago.

“It was evident for us to be able to continue to produce the same products and new products, it was going to be impossible to continue to do it basically by hand,” said Phillip Fletcher, the company’s founder. “We needed the accuracy and consistency and the speed of that technology.”

Take, for example, a 36-inch wide by 84-inch tall bookshelf with adjustable shelves. Cutting a board to the proper dimensions, then grooving the shelves and boring all the holes needed for the pins that hold them in place, used to be a time-consuming, largely manual process. Now the company has a computer program that does it all automatically and that can’t be beat for consistency.

“Push a button and it’s all done by computer,” Fletcher said. “It’s the same this month as it was last month as it was last year.”

The tools can even be programmed for elaborate carvings. During a tour of ShopBot’s Durham facility, Hall pauses before a likeness of himself made from foam that was fashioned by a ShopBot router and explains how it originated.

“A couple of years ago at a trade show,” he said, “someone had a scanner and they scanned me in.” That scan was the basis for the program that powered the carving.

It all began with a boat

The inspiration for ShopBot came when Hall was building plywood boats in his back yard and became interested in using a computer-controlled tool to help him realize his designs.

“I had created a boat-design software program and that allowed me to print out these beautiful digital plans for the boat, but I was having to tape them down to the plywood, follow along the lines with a jigsaw,” Hall said. "(It) wasn’t very accurate or very satisfying.”

But the CNC routers that were available at the time weren’t a viable option.

“Just an old, beat-up used one cost $40,000 or $50,000 but, even worse, it weighed 10 tons,” he said.

So Hall created a CNC router of his own that he started selling for $3,000.

“It was basically an Erector set made up of parts you could get at Home Depot,” Hall said.

Assembly wasn’t included.

“It took somebody a week to build one of them, but they did work for three thousand bucks and they got people interested – and got me distracted,” Hall said.

Indeed, Hall got so distracted that the boat he was building in his back yard at the time is sitting in his barn today unfinished.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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