3D Printing & Imaging
Zero to Maker: CNC Class Comes Full Circle

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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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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