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David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is on a journey, intensively immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

In my last post, I heralded the underrated benefits of analog drawing and why I think it’s the perfect gateway to making. The post was not, however, meant to take anything away from the incredible benefits of computer-aided tools. In fact, after last night’s ShopBot class at TechShop, I have an even higher respect for how amazing computer-based tools can be.


Photo credit Seth Quest

The ShopBot class was a long time coming. It was something I’d been building towards and looking forward to. In addition to the hands-on classes I’ve been taking at TechShop, I’ve also been preparing on and learning the software side of things as well. TechShop has a generous arrangement with Autodesk, and all of their classes – Intro to Autodesk, Autodesk Inventor, and Autodesk Assemblies – are free for TechShop members. There are also a few introductory CNC courses that take place in the computer lab – Intro to CNC, and CAD to CAM. Even though I didn’t have a clue what those letters meant, or what I was going to use it for, everyone on the TechShop team said it would be critical for the Zero to Maker journey. They were right.

I’m assuming some people are starting from zero (like me), so I think it might help to begin by defining some of these abbreviations:

CAD (Computer Aided Design) – Software that aids in the design process. I’ve been using Autodesk, but it can refer to any computer design program that designs products, parts, or architecture. The advantages over analog drawing and drafting are immense, as Christian commented on the last Zero to Maker post about the ability to make last-minute changes to please customers and clients

CNC (Computer Numerical Control)
– Any machining tool that is operated by computer control and programming, including drills, lathes and milling machines, but also laser cutters and 3D printers.

CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) – The software used to control the CNC machine tools. CAM software is the bridge from CAD designs to CNC machines – it turns the designs into a readable program for the machine to execute. At TechShop, the CAD to CAM class covers VCarve Pro and Cut3D.

If you’re anything like me, all these new abbreviations and courses make the process seem a bit overwhelming. When I was a few Autodesk classes into the process, I still felt like I was miles away from being capable of using any of these tools. However, after taking the ShopBot class, I realized that I was very close all along. The trajectory or learning curve for the CNC machines is far different than the traditional skills, like woodworking or metalworking – once you get a few of the basics down, you’ve opened the door to a world of possibility.

Our ShopBot instructor was Carter Stokum, the same instructor I had for the Intro to CNC and CAD to CAM software class. If you had to learn how to use an (initially) intimidating new tool, Carter, with his casual, laid back attitude and obvious mastery of the equipment, is exactly the right person to teach you. He began the ShopBot course just like all the other classes I’d taken with him: a warning that he tends to talk quickly, a directive to slow him down if we need to, and a round of introductions from the students to understand our experience and goals for the course. After the formalities, we dug right in. The course picks up right where the previous classes left off. We toured the machines and set the drill bits – the same process we had talked about in the software classes. The fact that we had watched videos and talked through the entire process really helped to alleviate any intimidation.

Then the magic happens. The first time you see one of the CNC machines cutting a part, you understand why this is so important, why you read articles about the growing maker movement and why working at TechShop feels like you’re somewhere special. Not because these tools are new or that they’re doing anything too extraordinary, but because someone like me – a totally uncoordinated novice – can use them to effectively make… well, so many different things! If you think about the costs, this can be done for less than a few hundred dollars with a TechShop membership or even your own DIY CNC. This is a whole new ball game.

As I walked out of the class, I saw Mark Hatch, TechShop’s CEO, sitting at a table near the front entrance. Mark and I had met a few times before, but given my recent epiphany, I was eager to update him on the latest. I explained to him my big revelation – how I have glimpsed the bigger picture of what this tool access can mean. He just nodded and smiled. He knew exactly what I was talking about. He’s watched it unfold for years now, and added some incredible statistics to back up what I’d just experienced. He listed a number of the machines in the shop, and the incredible price drops that have happened in the past 15 years. Each TechShop has over $750,000 in equipment, but an even more interesting stat would be the 1995 value of that machinery (I have no idea what it would be, but please drop any estimation methodology in the comments and I’ll follow through).

I left with a whole new appreciation and excitement for this Zero to Maker process. Not because of anything I did, but for what MAKEm what TechShop is doing, what sites like Adafruit are doing and everyone else who’s working to provide more access to tools. For me, this is much more interesting than learning new skills, it’s a front row seat to the future, a guided tour of the coming age of decentralized and personal manufacturing. I could feel the excitement before, but I didn’t really understand it. Now I know what I’m looking at!

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David Lang

Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!


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Comments

  1. I’m disappointed that this set of articles focuses mostly on the TechShop.  I tried them out at Christmas time, getting their Christmas special of 1 month membership and three classes for $99.  I wanted to use their Tormach CNC router.

    TechShop required me to take three classes before I could even touch the Tormach machine.  The classes were only offered two weeks apart, so I could not get onto the machine within 30 days if I tried.  The intro to CNC class (required) was two hours wasted; I’m internet educated on CNC, and I could’ve taught the intro class.  I was disheartened with TechShop, who seemed more interested in making me take crappy classes than getting me on the machines.

    I recommend finding and joining your local hackerspace instead.

    1. David Lang says:

      Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve focused mainly on TechShop because that’s where I’ve spent my time, and sorry to hear your experience wasn’t positive. Although I don’t know all the details, I know that TechShop has a ton of liability issues to deal with, especially because they’re dealing with people like me who have no experience. It’s been a great place for me.If you don’t mind, I’d love to hear more about the resources you used online to educate yourself. I was trying to find some good links and material, http://www.cncinformation.com/ seems to be a good resource. Can you recommend any others?

      Thanks again for reading and sharing your perspective.

      David

      1. As for CNC resources, I suppose YouTube is where I learned the most.  I don’t recall any specific resources.

        After not getting to touch the Tourmach at TechShop, I purchased my own 7 x 7 CNC subtractive mill from ZenToolworks.  I’m still getting it tested, as I also started building a RepRap Prusa 3D printer.

        I didn’t intend to discount TechShop.  They’re doing good things for people who don’t have access to the machines.  My personal beef was that the three required intro to CNC classes weren’t offered within the same month.  I’d prefer to take all three of the classes the same day, just to get them out of the way.  The machine is the thing I needed, not the classes.

  2. Ryan Turner says:

    I understand your frustrations with CNC but the truth is it is very dangerous to let someone use a machine that has the potential to severely damage itself in the blink of an eye.

    cnccookbook.com, the mach3 user guide and cnczone are the best places to learn about cnc.

    The entire thing has a lot of subtlety that you only encounter when actually using machines though.  Even if you know g-code and can use all the software, getting the different programs to play nice is non-trivial and there are no comprehensive resources on work-holding or properly aligning the machine to the part.

    Finally, keeping a machine accurate to the thou can be non-trivial.  If a manual machine is in trouble you will feel it when you try to turn the handles.  A cnc machine will just keep going till it breaks.

  3. For CNC stuff, a buddy of mine bought a machine kit, built a controller, and spent some time learning how to program it to cut stuff.  That got me inspired, so I read a bit about the machines and software and controllers.  Decided to build a “clone” of his machine kit using some scavenged Laserjet motors and purchased lead screws and slides.  Ordered a controller kit and soldered it up and fired it up and it all worked!

    Along in there I scavenged some other bits from old printers and such (power supply, stepper motor, slides, etc.) and built a little single-axis “test” machine out of some wood scraps and threaded rod and stuff to see if I could actually make it run.  Learned a few things about the electronics and building something and controlling it.  It was a sorta hit and miss process, but with a minimal bit of guidance from my buddy and just reading and absorbing, I think I developed a better understanding and insight into the whole realm of CNC stuff than had I just taken a class and used some machine.  And learning from not-knowing and making some mistakes and thinking hard about them was very gratifying and “eureka”ing.

    And with the free programs available (Mach3 test version, other CAD software, etc.) it is easy to get started while figuring out how it all works, and learning gcode and stuff.

    Others might have different goals and time and interest levels, but that process worked for me, and I think I probably developed a deeper understanding of the details of all the bits involved.  It was fun and challenging, and a good way to make the brain keep working!

    Keep up your good work, I enjoy your entries.

  4. For CNC stuff, a buddy of mine bought a machine kit, built a controller, and spent some time learning how to program it to cut stuff.  That got me inspired, so I read a bit about the machines and software and controllers.  Decided to build a “clone” of his machine kit using some scavenged Laserjet motors and purchased lead screws and slides.  Ordered a controller kit and soldered it up and fired it up and it all worked!

    Along in there I scavenged some other bits from old printers and such (power supply, stepper motor, slides, etc.) and built a little single-axis “test” machine out of some wood scraps and threaded rod and stuff to see if I could actually make it run.  Learned a few things about the electronics and building something and controlling it.  It was a sorta hit and miss process, but with a minimal bit of guidance from my buddy and just reading and absorbing, I think I developed a better understanding and insight into the whole realm of CNC stuff than had I just taken a class and used some machine.  And learning from not-knowing and making some mistakes and thinking hard about them was very gratifying and “eureka”ing.

    And with the free programs available (Mach3 test version, other CAD software, etc.) it is easy to get started while figuring out how it all works, and learning gcode and stuff.

    Others might have different goals and time and interest levels, but that process worked for me, and I think I probably developed a deeper understanding of the details of all the bits involved.  It was fun and challenging, and a good way to make the brain keep working!

    Keep up your good work, I enjoy your entries.

  5. Bill Griggs says:

    David Having Maker skills is helpful. You will begin to consider fixing
    things instead of ditching them. The real joy will begin when you come
    up with a way to make something better and then do it.

    1. David Lang says:

      Thanks for the great resources Bill! You’re absolutely right about re-considering the world around me. I look at everything with a whole new perspective, “Hey, I might be able to fix that” or “I bet it’d be more fun to make that myself.” When I started this process, I knew I’d learn something, but have been pleasantly surprised how my perspective has changed – my world has come alive with possibility. 

  6. Bill Griggs says:

    In response to the post below: There are several sources of online information about CNC. Perhaps the largest and most comprehensive is http://cnczone.com. They have a special section dedicated to people who make their own CNC machines as well as areas dealing with commercial machines.

    Another good resource is http://buildyourcnc.com, which offers plans and videos on building several variations of CNC Router tables.

    Yet another source is http://joescnc.com which is a membership site but is also one of the most concentrated centers of information on the web.

    Both Shopbot, Camster and Mechmate have with forums which are fantasic resources  for CNC info. The URLs are http://shopbot.com, http://camsater.com and http://mechmate.com respectively.

    On the software side there is the Vectric forum http://vectric.com which will get you up and running on their CAM software.

    These sites should be enough to get you going. If you still have more questions about CNC I would be glad to help you. You can contact me through my blog http://makermasters.com.

    Bill

  7. brennon strnad says:

    Enjoyed reading this series!

    As it happens, what got me interested in making is wanting to build an ROV. Problem is, I know little or nothing!Luckily there are places like MAKE that showcase what I want to know. Keep the posts coming!

  8. When i was driving back from the Maker Faire this weekend I had a 30 min rant on this very subject. super excited. The distance from imagination to mass production is only a membership away. Glad to know that other people feel the same way.