Durango inventor combines music, robots and booze

Ryan Finnigan finds his creativity in ‘maker spaces’

Ryan Finnigan plays his invention Benny the Booze Organ in his living room, which also functions as an electronics lab. Finnigan builds novelty robots in addition to running a metal art company. He is also one of the founders of the MakerLab. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Ryan Finnigan plays his invention Benny the Booze Organ in his living room, which also functions as an electronics lab. Finnigan builds novelty robots in addition to running a metal art company. He is also one of the founders of the MakerLab.

The two most popular guests at a party are probably a robot and alcohol. One fascinates people and the other can make people fascinating.

Ryan Finnigan, a mechanical tinkerer, is also likely popular. After all, he is the genius behind a machine that combines music and cocktails. And it’s named Benny the Booze Organ.

With Benny, each note you play triggers a pour of alcohol. You have to approach the notes with care, because a melody could leave you with a tasty drink or an unpalatable drink.

The organ is one of the electronic art pieces Finnigan built with friends to be used as performance pieces for events in town and also for Roboexotica, a contest in Vienna.

Finnigan has also built other contraptions that mix robots and music. His beer orchestra is made up of musicians sipping drinks and completing an electric circuit to produce their part of the song.

At the 2017 Hello, Dollface New Year concert, he draped performers in electroluminescent wire that plugged their tails into each other and played each other as musical instruments.

Finnigan, 40, is founder of his metal art company, CarbonForm Design. He became interested in electronics and robotics after his metal art accidentally turned into a career in his 20s.

“A lot of it came out of my passion for music. I had a recording studio and I started modifying and hacking various instruments and things like that, and I started building my own,” he said.

He discovered the cocktail robotics when he came across a website for Roboexotica.

“I thought ‘This is awesome. Two things I love: cocktails and robots.’ And so, I got really excited and talked some friends into doing a project with me,” he said.

Finnigan attended Roboexotica twice and entered Kattolik, a robot built a with an Ikea table and coat rack, and a frame for the official event poster, that served up the first official shot of the contest to attendees. He is the only American to win two of the contests’ three main awards; he won drink serving and the interactive and conversational awards.

Recently, he worked as a subcontractor for E7 Systems to help build a large self-pouring beer system that was installed in a restaurant in California. Finnigan plans to continue working with E7 Systems on professional cocktail serving robots and self-pouring drink systems.

He expects novelty venues to be interested in the systems first, because they make sense in destinations where patrons are more interested in the experience and less about the practicality of replacing a bartender, he said.

Originally from Chicago, Finnigan moved to Durango in 1998 and studied analytic philosophy at Fort Lewis College.

“Philosophy is engaging yourself in such a way as to become a better problem-solver,” he said.

In his early 20s, he also started working for Community Connections, an organization that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Host home providers are independent contractors who live with their clients. Finnigan said it was natural fit, because he is the oldest of seven children. He still works as a host home provider, and for 18 years has lived with client Mike Tinkel, whom he considers part of his family.

“He’s the most joyful person you have ever interacted with,” Finnigan said.

The host job helped provide a consistent income so that he could start CarbonForm Design.

There was a time in his 20s when Finnigan was looking to move from Durango to a larger city because he was getting more into the “maker culture” and he wanted to get into creative technology work.

Finnigan is a co-founder, with Alexi Carey, of the MakerLab at the Powerhouse Science Center. MakerLab is a public lab that has workspaces with industrial power and hand tools and classes, such as woodworking, 3-D printing and electronics, that allow people to make a variety of crafts.

“A big part of where the MakerLab came from was realizing if I couldn’t find that community here, then I should be a part of helping build it,” he said.

The MakerLab will hold its grand opening Friday. Finnigan and Carey will perform with their band called Bit Nova, which is described as “synthy robotica rock.”

Before opening the MakerLab, Finnigan taught classes through the Powerhouse Science Center and worked with kids one-on-one in a project-based setting.

He has worked on a laser harp and a pancake printer, which will make edible pancakes with different colors of batter, with students who come up with their own ideas.

“It keeps me inspired and engaged, too,” he said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

Ryan Finnigan plays a laser harp that he helped one of his students build. He has worked with about 15 students on one-on-one projects teaching them the skills needed for their creation. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Ryan Finnigan plays a laser harp that he helped one of his students build. He has worked with about 15 students on one-on-one projects teaching them the skills needed for their creation.

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