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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.

CNC Mill in Action!

 

This week we got our new Tormach 4-axis CNC milling machine up and running, and we’ve started making parts for machines purchased during our winter sale. In this video, Royal is finishing up a Revolver encoder mounting block (the part that slides back and forth). He’s already milled the piece and then he flips it over and then he skims the waste off, revealing the finished piece, which you see in the video.

We plan to make a lot of our parts on this mill, and I’ll keep posting videos of the machine in action.

 

Check Out Our 4-Axis CNC Mill

Last month we purchased a Tormach 4-axis CNC mill. Royal and Tom got it set up while Gareth and I were at LDI, and here’s a shot of it in all its glory. We’ll be making drums, dogs and all kinds of things on it, and I’ll post pictures of those as they get worked on.

 

New Shop Stop-Motion Movie!

We just moved into our new shop, and before we started moving the equipment, we set up a stop-motion camera rig for 5-minute intervals. Here’s the movie at .2 seconds per frame. There are 579 stills, taken over many days, most of which while Gareth and I were at LDI in Las Vegas and Royal and Tom moved everything from the old shop to the new shop.

A few tidbits, if you’re interested:

  • At the beginning, you see Mike, the electrician that ran all the new power for the new space.
  • At 32 seconds, you see Tom starting the camera back up.
  • At 44 seconds, Tom is wiring up motors for the Huntington Theatre Company (they’re upgrading their 2hp Pushsticks to 5hp).
  • At 1:05, Gareth is recapping our experiences from LDI for Royal and Tom.
  • At 1:13, that’s me (Ian) making the frames for the windows that separate the shop area from the office and lounge area.
  • At 1:54, Emerson College shows up to pick up their rental.
That’s it. Enjoy.

 

The Move

Here are some great shots of the shop move. Our new guy, Tom, spent the end of last week packing up everything in the shop and Royal and Tom spent all day today moving everything to the new shop, which is in the same building, so it’s a short trip for the truck.

Here’s our current shop this morning:

Here’s the shop after Royal and Tom moved a lot of the stuff out:

Here’s the guys moving stuff into the new shop:

I’ll put up some more pics of the move when we get back from LDI. If it goes well, Royal and Tom should have the whole move complete by then. And then we have to unpack…

 

 

Panorama Shots of the New Shop

 

Here are some great panoramas of the new shop. Royal and Tom are going to begin the move-in process next week, so we wanted to get some good “before” pics. You can click on the pictures for larger versions. BTW, I used my iPhone’s new panorama mode in iOS 6 for the images.

We’ll put up more photos as the shop comes together.

 

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