A garage in suburban Canberra is an unlikely setting for a manufacturing business – a public service town far away from the industrial heartlands of Sydney and Melbourne. But by their own admission, Duncan Amos and Phil Preston are unlikely designers.
“We’re a pair of creatives who got into manufacturing,” Duncan says. “The only reason we were able to become so good at it is because of the tools we’ve been given to work with.”
The idea for their business, Red Robot Photo Booths, was a combination of luck and ingenuity, stumbled upon when Duncan attended an event after work and saw a crude photo booth – no more than a cardboard box with a camera in it. There he saw huge potential for something more sophisticated than the technology on offer and decided to start a business with Phil in his own backyard.
These days there is scarcely a wedding, birthday party or event that does not feature a portable photo booth – in tow with fake moustaches, wigs signs and other props – but when Red Robot launched in 2008 the trend was still yet to take hold.
Duncan had previous experience in industrial design and Phil had knowledge in photographics, but given the infancy of the industry, both were new to the world of designing and manufacturing photo booths.
The pair were also embarking into manufacturing at a tumultuous time in its Australian history. Manufacturing, which was once 25 per cent of Australia’s GDP, had moved to less than 10 per cent, with soaring labour costs compared to other markets making it harder for the domestic industry to compete.
“When we look back eight years ago, when we started this journey, we knew where we wanted it to go, but we didn’t know what we needed to do in order to get there,” Phil says.
“We had to learn how to design products, to take things to market and to grow markets.”
The first photo booth prototype was a huge monolith-type structure and was met with much enthusiasm from the under-served market. But the real turning point came when Duncan asked his young daughter to help him move the product and noticed how much she was struggling to lift it. Inspiration struck, and Red Robot evolved from a photo booth rental company featuring a product they designed, to manufacturers designing products for other businesses to buy.
“From then on, we set about designing the world’s most portable, most robust products so that people could build their own photo booth companies,” Duncan says. “They needed to be able to move and shift them, and they needed to be easy to use. That was the start of the design process.”
Manufacturing is built on design – baseline drawings that become basic prototypes and are put through a ‘test and recreate’ process until they meet expectations. It is a costly and time-consuming process.
For businesses like Red Robot, which also offers clients bespoke solutions, this is made more problematic as they need to design not only with customer needs in mind, but also fulfil a unique set of requirements.
With the ability to visualise the product limited to renderings and sketches, often this can mean what the client and designer envision the final product to look like can be wildly different.
For Red Robot, the design process started the traditional way – pen, paper and a lot of time spent thinking – until Duncan was introduced to Siemen’s Solid Edge software portfolio and was hooked. Needing a system to match the freedom it gave him to design, he decided to try in on a Surface Pro 3.
“It unchained me from my desk,” Duncan says, adding that whenever an idea hit – at home, on weekends – he was able to let his creative mind wander.
“The transformation from a paper based old style design process, through to using actual technology that I could move around with, was just mind blowing and revolutionary for me,” says Duncan.
“The thing that really blew me away was the (Surface) pen because I come from an artistic background. It’s virtually an extension of me.”
From a concept point of view, the Surface Pro also had a staggering impact on the business. It allowed Duncan to visit factories and show the design in a 3D form instead of a physical render.
“Solid Edge is a really intensive piece of software yet I can literally design on the fly,” he says.
“More importantly, I also had people with a great deal of mechanical skills who were physically building the products who would ask me ‘did you try this?’” he says. “Instead of trying to sketch their idea on a piece of paper we were able to use the Surface Pro. We could also make any change in the 3D space long before we do any physical manufacturing. We can literally be manipulating in 3 dimensions right there and then, so it speeds up the prototyping process. It made a huge amount of difference.”
The impact to the bottom line was immediate, halving the cost of the process which previously was anything from $60,000 to $100,000.
“For a small company it is an astonishing amount of money that has been saved. Expenditure saved in the prototyping phase allows us to put it into different areas.”
It means Red Robot can prototype faster; letting the software take over admin and leaving creativity at the fore.
The need to quickly envision products was also important early on in the process because Red Robot was surfing in unchartered waters. The business was so unique that there was little in terms of design templates to work off.
Duncan had been envisioning the design of retro photo booth and was looking for a tablet with “the guts” of a computer to power its mechanics when he came across the Surface 3. The model that came out of that process – The Original Retro Photo Booth – is designed around the tablet.
From then on, the product suite that is at the heart of the Red Robot business was built on Microsoft’s open-system, giving the creatives that work within it the freedom to build a product that is compatible with the requirements of different customers. Being built around a common product also helped Red Robot expand beyond Australian shores.
“Before, we would have to send computers from here to support clients but this has reduced our barriers to market. We can flat-pack our product for anywhere in the world, as long as they have access to a Surface Pro,” Duncan says.
Red Robot’s photo booths now sit at the heart of over 500 businesses in Australia as well as companies spread across 21 countries. Most recently, they were challenged by the BBC to create a replica photo booth Tardis from the series Dr Who, which needed to be built exactly to the specifications as the one used on television.
It is this process that has seen Red Robot go from a business conceived in a garage to the most awarded photo booth company in the world in less than a decade. Last year alone, the company’s products achieved revenue in excess of $65 million for its customers. Its success has enabled the business to consider entering different sectors with the launch of a collaborative working space. Phil says the aim is to disrupt other businesses the same way they redesigned the process in photo booth manufacture.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Phil says. “With all the experience we have gained, we want to help others achieve what we have. We want to help people take the ideas in their heads and turn them into products that can positively impact people’s lives.
“We’re creating an environment where that will be a reality. It’s all about untethered desks, and creating a creative space that is not locked into one design process.”