Lynxmotion owner finds success with robot kits
Every day, robots leave from a building in Pekin that has no signs or windows.
Despite the lack of fanfare, the robot kits made and sold here are shipped all over the world.
The kits are the creations of Jim Frye, who started the company, called Lynxmotion, in his basement in 1995.
Frye said he got the robotic bug early.
“My dad was into slot cars. I always seemed to have a knack for small mechanical things,” he said.
“I never expected making kits would become a business. It was just something fun to do,” said Frye, 48.
Frye is one of six employees at the company he said has grown every year since its inception.
“We may not break any records in 2009 but we’ll be level with what we did last year,” said Frye.
Lynxmotion is a family business with Frye’s wife, Annette; daughter, Beth; and son, James; all involved heavily in the operation. Annette Frye admits she’s not a big fan of robots but said, “I do enjoy having our own business.”
It’s a business that has found its niche in the marketplace.
“We got in at the right time, establishing quality kits,” Jim Frye said of the company’s success.
These aren’t kits you’re likely to buy for your nephew in the second grade; rather, they are aimed at the serious hobbyist market. Lynxmotion kits sell for anywhere from $300 to $1,200.
Models like Biped Nick and Biped Pete walk on two legs while the Hexapod and Phoenix cross the room like an insect. You also can set up a robotic arm on wheels, one of the most popular models.
“Schools want to teach how a robotic arm works. They have two choices: They can spend $20,000 for a real one or $400 for a robot arm from us,” he said.
Plenty of schools have chosen to go with Frye’s robotic arms, including a school district in Tucson, Ariz., “that buys more robotics (from Lynxmotion) than anyone else,” said Annette Frye, who handles the books for the company.
But the company offers a lot more than arms these days. Along with 25 different kits that are available, there’s also the Servo Erector Set that allows the real enthusiast “to imagine, build and control” a wide variety of contraptions.
The company’s growing audience includes filmmakers.
“They’ve used our models in a number of movies and TV shows,” Jim Frye said.
When NBC remade “Knight Rider” last year, the opening sequence featured a Lynxmotion model walking out of the lab, said Frye, noting other models and some of the firm’s electronics were used in the film “Hellboy 2” and TV shows like “Mythbusters” and “Smallville.”
“We get calls (from film companies) all the time. We’ve even been approached about a reality show. I don’t think they realize how small this company is,” he said.
While Frye admits the attention is nice, he’s more interested in continuing to build robots. “I still have a desire to design new things,” he said.
With 32 distributors in 24 countries, Lynxmotion is in constant motion satisfying robot hobbyists.
“My job here is to make sure we don’t run out of anything,” said Frye, pointing to shelves of boxed kits awaiting shipment.
“The quality issue is first and foremost,” he said of company policy regarding kit construction.
Frye called his company a good example of American ingenuity.
“The bulk of our aluminum parts are made in Chicago. We have a very small number of items made overseas,” he said.
As interest in robots sweeps the globe, Lynxmotion has remained the gold standard for hobby kits, said Frye.
“I used to worry all the time about competition. We had some of our models copied overseas but we find that our customers police the Internet for us,” he said.
The company Web site, www.lynxmotion.com, is more than a place from which to order kits. It’s a sounding board for the hobby robot community. The site’s forum involves detailed discussions about topics like bot boards and servo controllers with thousands of posts on every aspect of the operation, said Frye.
The company likes to ask its public for input, he said.
“We’ll ask the people on our Web site what they think of a new model. We want to know what people think of a prototype,” said Frye, a former engineer with Advanced Technology Services in Peoria.
“I was two weeks short of my 10-year pin when I decided I needed a change,” he said.
That change not only brought the Frye family together in business but has turned Pekin into the country’s hobby robot headquarters.
Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 email@example.com.