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Gareth Conner Reflects on Ten Years of Automation Success

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Gareth Conner Reflects on Ten Years of Automation Success

If there were a “2014 Theater Technician’s 365 Day Desk Calendar”, June 28 would surely mention Creative Conners. We imagine it would say something like “On this day 10 years ago a new business was incorporated with the mission to provide affordable, accessible and high quality automation equipment to the theatrical industry.” And there’d be a picture of our beloved Gear Guy from our logo, and maybe a mention of turntables or the evolution of computer controlled motion. We’d take it as a reminder that the years do add up, success doesn’t come without patience, and there are important times to stop and reflect.

Celebrating this anniversary had us first thinking about numbers. Initially it was novelty numbers like how many times do we think  Gareth has said the word “Stagehand”, then practical numbers like how much food to cater for the 10 year anniversary party today. But gradually we got a bit more introspective which resulted in this interview with our fearless leader and company founder.

Q: We know it’s been 10 years since the company was founded, but how many years since you first began creating the system?

Gareth: Yes, it was a few years prior. My initial experiment developing a Stagehand control board was in January 2001. I know it was January because it was a New Year’s Resolution I got to right away.

Q: Is automation always on your resolution list?

Gareth: Well, yes frankly it is, although there are other resolutions that sneak in there. This year for instance I made a resolution to run a half-marathon. I guess you could say I like motion of one sort or another (we’ll see how that half-marathon goes!).

Q: In these first ten years of business operations, how many control systems have you sold?

Gareth: It surprised me a bit when I checked the records on this, but the tally of just the Stagehands sold [each Stagehand corresponding to one axis of motion on stage] is approaching 1000.

Q: So there could be, on any one day of performances around the country, almost 1000 pieces of scenery moving under the control of a Creative Conners system?

Gareth: Yeah, isn’t that cool! Also it would include other countries like Korea, Australia, and this fall our gear will premiere in Istanbul. And that doesn’t include the customers using just our machines with their own control system.

Q: How many machines have you sold?

Gareth: We’ve got 130 machines out there moving scenery. We are very excited to have expanded both the number and robustness of our machine line in recent years.

Q: Looking back, what years brought the most changes for the business?

Gareth: I would have to say 2006 and 2011 were quite significant. In 2006 we introduced our Revolver machine, prototyped the hardware for our Stagehand FX, began offering a rental option for our gear, and evolved the Stagehand in important areas like battery back up, the ability to update firmware over the network, and modified it to work with hydraulics which we appreciate on a regular basis. Just this week we got an order for a hydraulic powered lift control to be used on an Eminem / Rhianna concert.

Q: And 2011?

Gareth: Yes, a lot of changes in 2011. We finally made the leap into a commercial space, which we outgrew in a year and moved up to our current space. Prior to that we had a basement / garage based business and collaborated with two other commercial shops for machine fabrication and inventory housing. Setting up shop in our own commercial space afforded the opportunity to increase staff, bring almost all fabrication in house, and do more R&D on all aspects of our gear simultaneously (mechanical, software, and electrical). Plus, in our current 6800sf shop, we have room to do things like rent arcade games for our anniversary party.

Q: How many new products have you introduced since the ramp up in 2011?

Gareth: The company was launched offering one complete automation system consisting of four products. We now offer about a hundred products and services, which include things like stage hardware and education seminars, as well as the core variety of machines and motion controllers. Most of that increase has happened since 2011.

Q: This may be a painful question to answer, but how many units have ever been returned?

Gareth: Not painful at all. We have had our share of units that have to get repaired or replaced whether it’s been damaged in shipping, has a faulty bit that escaped our quality control, or just components that wear out over time, but it’s a small number and we work tremendously hard to rectify the situation immediately.

Q: Any products returned due to customer dissatisfaction?

Gareth: None. We’ve never had a customer tell us they didn’t like the product and ask for their money back. Although our system is designed to be plug and play, without on site supervision from us, we have always offered 24/7 customer support to make sure it all goes well, and we encourage our customers to stay in touch.

Q: How many lines of code were in Avista? Spikemark?

Gareth: Hmmm…it’s been I while since I checked those stats. I think Avista had about 30,000 lines and Spikemark, at least the first version, had significantly less. Spikemark is a bit more effecient 😉

Q: What’s on the horizon in the coming years?

Gareth: Specifially we’ve got our new Showstopper 3 just about to launch, we’re experimenting with servo motors, wireless control, and developing more machines like a turtle and a friction drive. Also, to accommodate our increase in demand for touring productions we are developing our own road box (aka “The Roadie”) to house the control gear backstage and in the trucks.

Q: What’s the biggest change for the company?

Gareth: Our initial system provided a way for smaller budgeted theatres to begin doing quality automation. Since then we’ve evolved, along with these customers’ needs, to offer more sophisticated products. As theaters are reaching for more and more complex motion, we’ve pushed to raise the bar on our product line to be ready for them, and also to serve the needs of others who are already there. Because of this we’ve expanded the breadth of our customer base. We initially focused on regional and academic theatres, who are still the backbone of our business, but now we’ve got a range of clients from a two week gear rental to a middle school to a year long national rock ‘n roll tour.

Q: What kind of complex motion do you see evolving?

Gareth: A lot of theatres are interested in synchronizing many elements at once. I think we will continue to see an increase in syncing projection and scenic motion specifically. For this reason we are focusing on more intricate software. There is a need to have more devices on the network sharing position information to achieve this complex motion.

Q: Lastly, is there anyone you’d like to thank for these first 10 successful years?

Gareth: The theatres and production shops creatively integrating scenic motion into their shows are top on the list. It is always fun to see what’s moving on their stages, and we thank them for putting their trust in us to provide their automation equipment. Beyond that, if I were to list everyone individually you would see a comprehensive mesh from early influences in high school technical theatre right up to the incredible collaborators surrounding me in my shop everyday. Among the most humorous to thank would be family like my mother who, to this day, does not understand what I do for a living but offers support nonetheless. After 15 years of calling me a set designer she finally asked just last year, “What do you mean when you say ‘automation’?”

Gareth and Royal (& Sprocket) testing out a wireless friction drive prototype in April 2014.

USITT 2014, Booth #1229 Made it Move!


Sometimes when we tell people in our every day lives that our business is theatrical automation, there is a blank inquisitive stare and a pause which we quickly fill with phrases like “we make scenery move” and “have you ever seen a show where something on stage revolves?”  Not that we mind.  We understand it’s a niche market, but it makes for a comfortable and exciting attendance at the annual USITT Conference & Stage Expo where not only does everyone know the term “theatrical automation” but an impressive number of attendees want to talk to us about how to automate, and how to do it well.  Our team (Gareth, Royal, and Ryan) couldn’t decide if they felt like rock stars or kids in a candy shop at last week’s Conference & Expo in Ft. Worth.  Probably a bit of both.

From Thursday morning’s mad running of the bulls, er…students, who charged the doors of the Expo eager to be first to swipe the swag to the final packing of crates Saturday evening, we didn’t stop talking , listening, and showcasing our equipment and our passion for automation. Expositions are in fact a grown-up Show & Tell, and we were happy to showcase the components of our tried and true system, adding a couple of newcomers to the line up.

Our Spotline hoist made its conference floor premiere with well deserved attention not just for the snazzy rig with orange rope, but also for its applications like flying chandeliers or rigging elevators without counterweights.  Plus, with the tensioner accessory, it can be used as a deck winch. (Take a bow, Spotline).

Also making their Stage Expo debut were the Stagehand Pro, Deck Chief, and Curtain Call, as well as new features in Spikemark that were lots of fun to play with live in the booth.

Enthusiastic technicians numbering over 100 convened to hear Gareth, Loren Schreiber, and Michael O’Nele talk about PID loops.  Loren Schrieber explained the wide use of PID’s in industry (ever use cruise control in your car?) and their essential existence in automated scenery if one is to achieve precision and speed regulation. But jumping into PID’s is not something to be taken lightly, and a little guidance can make all the difference. Michael spoke to this point, effectively relating his experience of Gareth guiding him through tuning a motor for the first time, and correctly configuring the drives in a Stagehand motor controller.  Using an oscilloscope, a motor, a PID controller, and a webcam, Gareth illustrated very clearly how the adjustments to the PID loop changed the electrical waveform while simultaneously observing change in the motor’s movement. It was very rewarding to hear that for some attendees this session solidified their previously piecemeal knowledge of PID’s and left them more confident to harness their use in future.

One of the most impressive moments at the conference came in the sheer volume of attendees to our Basic Machine Design session.  Over 200 people filled the room, with more turned away at the door when the room reached capacity. Adopting the role of true Southern Gentlemen, Gareth and Royal shuffled seats off the stage and into the audience to get attendees as comfortable as possible for the educational session. Although you can buy machines for theatrical purposes, and most theatres you work at will have some machines in stock, this audience clearly keyed into the fact that you still need to know how these machines work and how to build your own machine.  It’s not uncommon for your stock machine not to work with the design specs. Show of hands, who has been asked to build a very tiny deck winch?

Royal and Gareth’s session focused on the deck winch, the most common theatrical machine. They guided the audience through building one of these standard workhorses, slide by slide, from initial concept to sizing the motor and gear box, right through making the drum and frame.

Additionally, the audience got a good lesson in torque and horsepower as well as feedback sensors (after all, who wants motion you can’t control?)

Since there are always more questions than can be answered in a 1 hour 15 minute session, Gareth and Royal left the audience with information on suppliers, a reminder to make use of Alan Hendrickson’s Mechanical Design for the Stage, the link to our own motor calculator, and an invitation to keep in touch with Creative Conners.

As the Stage Expo ended and the dismantling of the booths began, a silent round of applause could be felt in Creative Conners Booth #1229.  To the attendees who took the time to connect with us, thank you.  You made us feel like rock stars. We hope to see you again soon.

Might we suggest May 12 in Chicago for USITT Presents, “Moving on Cue, Automation with Creative Conners.” This will be another opportunity to share our knowledge and passion about theatrical automation.  And we won’t have to explain what we do for a living.  Bonus!

Top Ten Reasons to Find Us at USITT This Week

 

Here’s why you should hightail it on over to  USITT’s Conference and Stage Expo in Fort Worth and see our automation team.

10. Get SWAG.

9. Learn all you’ve ever wanted to know about PID Loops Wednesday at 1pm.  Don’t worry, they will start with explaining the acronym and work right up to applying this knowledge to unmanned space flight (or for lack of time maybe just to your automated scenery).  Click here for the full schedule and location.

 

Stagehand Pro

8. See our usually reserved and hidden-in-the-wings Stagehand Pro handle the glare of the spotlight on Friday 4:40pm on USITT’s Innovation Stage.

 

7. See Ryan’s new haircut. And ask him about his addiction to Samoas®, a.k.a Caramel Delites®.

 

6. Ride on the 3′ mini-spinner powered by the Revolver.

5. Cozy up to words like speed reducer, horsepower, torque, output gearing, drum size, unmanned space flight and more at the Basic Machine Design Session Thursday 2:45pm.  Click right here for the full schedule and location.

Vegan?

4. Find out if these three popular desserts are Vegan: Thin Mints®, Swedish Fish®, Oreos®. (Hint: Ask Royal, it’s a topic near and dear to his heart. Kind of like the Samoas® are to Ryan.)

3. Lose yourself in the acreage of our biggest booth space to date, complete with four machines to monkey around with, and take the quiz to find out which machine you are.

2. Experience wireless automation control from a tablet. Then ask if you can try to beat their score on Three’s.

And the top reason to visit our brilliant Creative Conners team at Booth 1229 in USITT’s 2014 Stage Expo and Conference at the dazzling Fort Worth Convention Center is…

1. MORE SWAG! After all, we brought it just for you.

 

Creative Conners Now On Instagram

 

Well, better late then never. We got ourselves an Instagram account yesterday and we’ll be posting pics from around the shop, so if you’re interested, you can find us at http://instagram.com/creativeconners.

 

Scenic Automation White Paper

We’ve just posted our first white paper! When Gareth travels to universities for seminars, he brings along his Scenic Automation Seminar handout for all the attendees. It’s chock-full of automation goodness, including machine design, control considerations and a look around the industry at available systems. If you’re interested in checking it out, head over to the new White Papers page of our website and download your own copy.

 

Our Ad in the USITT Member Directory

Creative Conners USITT Member Directory Ad

 

Here’s a shot of our now-famous “Fat Dancer” ad in the 2013 USITT Member Directory that just arrived in the mail last week. It’s right inside the back cover and we get to share the fold with our good friends at Rose Brand.

Are you following us on Twitter?

Over the next couple of months, we’re going to be trying even harder than usual to connect with our current and future customers, so this week’s mission is to improve our Twitter presence. All of our blog posts will be tweeted, so if that’s your preferred method of hearing about new things, make sure you follow our feed by clicking here.

That’s pretty much it for now. The new shop is looking good. We’re putting up giant windows between the shop and the office area this week. Gareth and Royal got the new CNC mill running, and did some test pieces, and I’ll write more about that next week. Have a good one!

 

August Email Newsletter

 

We sent out the August Email Newsletter today, so if you don’t subscribe (you can sign up in the footer of the website) you can read it by clicking here.

This month’s newsletter has the latest news from CCI, including the new shop, our newest team member, LDI, Spikemark updates and the 2012 video contest. Check it out!

 

1000 Views!

Last fall, we decided to make a short video that gives a quick overview of what makes up the Creative Conners system and how easy it is to setup and get running. The result is the aptly-named “Overview Video” you can see above. We expected to get a few dozen hits, maybe a couple of hundred, but on Tuesday we passed 1000 views! We’ll be making some more videos this summer, I’ll keep everyone posted.

Thanks for watching!

Product Demo in Central Massachusetts

 

I had a chance to do a product demonstration for some of the colleges in the Amherst, MA area last week. It was a great time meeting the teachers and students and talking about automation. In the picture above you can see some of the students writing cues for the demo rigs with less than a minute of instruction.

Thanks to Rick Mauran and his students of Mount Holyoke College for hosting the demo (and bringing the donuts!) and to Amy  Putnam of Hampshire College and Jon Doyle of  Amherst College for coming by with their students.

If you’re interested in hosting a product demonstration at your institution, just drop me a line at ian@creativeconners.com.

 

 

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