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Acme Industrial Thinking: CNC Every Day

By Ross Gruet, Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Bob and Jen are a creative power couple. They didn’t claim this status in our interview, that’s just how we feel about them after hearing about all the amazing creations they have put out into the world. The industrial engineer and the artist, feeding off each other’s energy and talents, learning from each other and enhancing one another’s lives. They own and operate a multi-faceted business that takes ideas and turns them into reality, be it a custom storefront sign or sci-fi movie prop, they can fabricate just about anything. And at the center of it all is their ShopBot PRSstandard CNC Machine. This is the story of Acme Industrial Thinking.

Background + Business:
Bob Rhea started making at an early age. His first job out of high school was doing special effects and model making for Frameworks Productions. “That’s where the maker thing for me really took off. I felt like this was just what I have to do.” Fresh out of Sam Houston State University in Texas, Bob and Jen moved to Austin, Texas, in 1992, where Bob got into plastics and industrial design. He formed a lot of friendships and connections while working for a plastics company where he was in both the sales and in-house fabrication departments. He went on to work with a few different rapid prototyping companies that had super expensive machinery that he was able to learn and use. Bob worked with engineers from a variety of different companies. “That exposed me to every kind of tool you could ever imagine! When I got into the 4 and 5-axis CNC machines, it was just amazing.”  
“Fast forward to 2001, after burning out on the corporate world, my wife (Jen) and I move from Austin to Asheville, NC and opened a café in Biltmore Village. I made everything in there and folks kept asking where they could get this stuff, and I said, ‘I can make it for you’. We started Acme because of that. After about a year of everyone wanting signs, I started looking for a CNC machine.”

The moves to Austin and Asheville were based on the desire to live in creative metropolitan areas. They established creative career paths, and then the economic crash of 2007-2008 prompted a move to Nameless, TN. You heard that right. There is a town called Nameless, north of Nashville, TN, where Jen’s family has farmland, and they were able to set up shop in a large building that is now Acme headquarters. While they continue to get more in-tune with the maker community closer to Nashville-proper, there’s no denying that they have as big a shop space as they’ll ever need out in the country. And the view is spectacular! 

“We get more calls for boutique signs than anything else. A recent example was multiple pieces, back-painted glass, lit from inside. All kinds of insanity! I could have made that by hand, but it would’ve taken forever. With the ShopBot, that job took about 3 weeks. It’s just a bad ass machine. There’s no other way to put it.”

The ShopBot:
Bob’s friend, Robert, in Asheville, had one of the early 5’x10’ PRSalpha ShopBot CNC machines. “I was just mesmerized! I asked him how much something like that goes for and when I found out, all I could think was, ‘That’s manageable! That’s affordable!’” Bob went ahead and purchased a 4’x8’ PRSstandard. “It has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my business. It’s an extension of what I do now. It’s like having a 3rd arm. I have yet to have any problems with fabrication on that machine. It’s just a battle horse, man!”

Sci-fi Movie Props:
I talked to Bob about a couple of sci-fi films that he made props for. “Some of the props you see on the site for the movie, Sol, are some of the first items I made with my ShopBot.” Acme was also fully responsible for all the props for the sci-fi channel short film called The Pod. “That was another fun one. I made all the props for that.”
Favorite Projects:
Acme’s website contains images of a wide variety of projects they’ve completed over the years. The projects that intrigue me most are the sci-fi props. Bob’s favorite project is a spaceship he created from an illustration on a book cover commissioned by a book publisher in Canada. “I utilized 3D milling on the ShopBot for the top part, and everything else was 2D cut. I had such a blast making that!” Bob is a huge Star Wars fan and says that if we saw his office, we would laugh. He has a few walls full of figurines and models. The sci-fi love is deep with this one! His passion shines through in examples like this favorite project, pictured below. 

Upcoming Projects/What’s to Come:
When I first got in touch with Bob and Jen to set up a time to talk, they were nearing the finish line on a big project featuring sci-fi pods for an escape room company. “We’ve got more and more people calling us for movie props as well as escape room props.” This recent project is a great example of the detail Acme can provide. There’s no question why more escape rooms will want work by these independent builders. 

While I only had the opportunity to speak with Bob for this user profile article, he let me know that Jen does just as much as he does for Acme Industrial Thinking, from loading part files and material on the ShopBot, to painting, sanding, laser cutting, and much more. It’s entirely a team effort. We’ll ask Jen if we can interview her as a follow-up down the road! And while custom signage and props are in the forefront of what Bob and Jen create, they take on commissions for murals, paintings, furniture, and even parts for guitars and drums. “Every year it’s something different. That’s what keeps it fun.” Check out the world of Acme Industrial Thinking on every corner of the internet and get in touch with them for your next one-of-a-kind custom creation.

Acme Industrial Thinking: Website, Instagram

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