Made in Pittsburgh: 5 Great Ideas
Modern-day creation in Pittsburgh doesn’t just involve physical products; we also have a knack for hatching new ideas that can solve problems in innovative, unexpected ways. These locally based thinkers are applying big thoughts to bigger problems.
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Joel & Justin Johnson
The idea: To put the maker movement within reach of more consumers through better, easier-to-use hardware.
Joel and Justin Johnson are putting new meaning into the phrase “made in Pittsburgh.” Two years ago, the Florida brothers launched a Kickstarter campaign for their prototype, BoXZY, a sturdy aluminum desktop manufacturing unit featuring three interchangeable, computer-controlled heads — a smart carver, a laser etcher and a 3-D printer nozzle.
The breadbox-sized tool was aimed at the growing maker movement of hobbyists, tinkerers, teachers and artists crafting with computer-aided design software and programmable tools. Inveterate tinkerers themselves, the Johnsons had spent many hours at TechShop Pittsburgh in Bakery Square and figured there was a market for a 3-in-1 desktop makerspace.
They admit they were not prepared for how big that market turned out to be. BoXZY blew past its $50,000 pledge target in less than a day, eventually ringing up almost $1.2 million in pre-orders. They found space for their company, KinetiGear, in a former Westinghouse Electric plant in Homewood (which had been rehabilitated for startup businesses) and started cranking out BoXZYs.
Things have settled down somewhat since then, with KinetiGear and its staff of nine employees and five interns assembling and shipping between 20 and 30 BoXZYs a month (at a price of $3,600 apiece). Joel, 36 (pictured), even found some free time to get married this spring, while Justin, 32, became a father.
Now they are plunged back into two separate new-product development cycles, with Joel, the CEO, overseeing a next-generation 3-D printer project (the details of which are still secret) and Justin, chief operating officer, working on a bigger, better BoXZY.
The brothers are accustomed to functioning under tumultuous circumstances. “We lived a wild life,” says Joel. He and Justin are the eldest and the third, respectively, of four children; the divorce of their parents was complicated by several business ventures that went bust. They recall moving dozens of times by their teen years, including several periods of homelessness. Joel says he taught himself to read at age 6 with the Audubon “Field Guide to Reptiles,” while Justin took apart home appliances and dreamed of being a mechanic.
Justin found work at a garage and studied mechanical engineering in college, dropping out when he felt he’d learned enough. Joel, meanwhile, double majored in philosophy and psychology at the University of North Florida.
It was, of all things, “Snowmageddon” that got them to Pittsburgh. The epic 2010 blizzard brought flocks of contractors in its aftermath, including Justin and his father, who were working together at the time. They liked the area so much they relocated here. When his father moved on, Justin called Joel, who had just finished college, to come help. While tricking out kitchens and installing drywall, they dreamed and planned and argued over ideas for inventions until they came up with BoXZY.
Customers are dreaming up new BoXZY projects all the time, the brothers say. Laser-engraved wood cellphone cases. Fidget spinners. Circuit boards. Bluetooth speakers. Custom milled woodwork and ornamentation. Light-up chessboards and skateboard components.
The brothers see BoXZY as more than a tool for weekend projects. Ultimately, they say, it can be a means through which low-income strivers can build and sell products out of their homes and start climbing the ladder. The firm’s Homewood location, they say, is a reminder of that potential.
“I am personally meaning-driven,” Joel says. “I don’t just want to solve a problem, I want to solve a socially relevant problem. And because I have experienced a lot of poverty in my life, I’m also very interested in upward mobility.”
“For me it’s about giving people freedom — the freedom to grow their life,” Justin says. “It was hard for me. I had mechanical talent but no way to express it or do anything valuable with it for a long time. It comes from a deep source of empathy.”
Perhaps KinetiGear’s biggest challenge, according to Joel, is the intimidation factor. In other words, even assuming (as he alleges) that the machine is easier to use than an office printer, BoXZY certainly looks complicated. So the pleasure of imagining all the cool projects one can make with it must outweigh the perceived pain of learning how.
That is the driving concept behind Joel’s new 3-D printer, which he plans to roll out on Kickstarter this fall, and Justin’s BoXZY 2. Both will have expanded work areas in order to make larger objects. Bigger things are “more relatable,” Joel explains. “You make something, rather than a part of something.”
It sounds almost philosophical — but judging by the Johnson brothers’ track record, there’s some real-world practicality in there too.