“How can I become a better maker?” Self doubt looms large. “I don’t see myself as a designer or an engineer. There is so much I don’t know. Every step forward leads to seemingly insurmountable obstacles. How can I progress?”
Everyone feels these fears and frustrations as they move down the road of making. The difference is that these feelings will stop some, slow others, and prove only annoyances to the special few. However, anyone can do better if they see themselves as makers, learn techniques to overcome challenges and with increasing confidence develop the grit to persevere.
Using my experiences with a Shapeoko CNC mill I hope to provide some insight. My example uses Shapeoko because it’s my most recent experience, but I’ve had a number of good experiences with other kits that have a strong community tie-in.
Kits — Making That Builds Confidence
The Shapeoko is a computer-controlled mill which I’ve been a fan of since its earliest days. It now comes in three sizes and arrives in kit form. A kit offers the independence of making something yourself, but with a much greater chance for success. As a young radio amateur I made several Heathkits; As a budding 3D printer I built a RepRap Mendel; And my new Shapeoko XL is simply the latest in a long series of guided assemblies. For me kits have long been a source of making, learning, and confidence building.
Important things happen when you build a kit. First and foremost it’s a making exercise which is highly likely to result in success (since failure means an unhappy customer). With a successful build you gain confidence in your making skills, you have a greater understanding of what you’ve built, and you’re much more likely to hack it. These are all remarkably empowering.
Over the course of making anything, issues surface. In a kit, perhaps an assembly instruction isn’t clear. Maybe you’ll want input on changes or enhancements you’re considering. It could be that you simply want help to properly use the product. The community resources surrounding a product can provide important help with answering your questions and getting you past obstacles.
A Supportive Community of Forums
My Shapeoko XL was an early release and the assembly instructions weren’t perfect. No problem. The Shapeoko community online is amazing with its helpful attitude and deep knowledge. Answers were quickly provided and I was again progressing with confidence because the community was there to help.
Years ago, Shapeoko’s Edward Ford learned a lot about CNC from the CNCzone forums. Realizing how important community was in his development, he placed a priority on community as he built his CNC business. The form this takes today is the Shapeoko forums where employees and fellow users are endlessly willing to help with answers.
CNC Software and Workflow
Completing your kit and having a functioning mill is one thing, but using it effectively is another thing entirely. How does one move a project from concept to result? What are the right process steps? Which software tools should be used? There are design and control software in abundance on the Internet, but learning to use them, configuring them to work with a specific machine, and getting things done is not easy.
Thankfully, to get you going quickly the Shapeoko comes with software that has embedded workflow. With their Carbide Create for design and Carbide Motion for control you have an easy glidepath to getting quick success with milling. With software that’s tailored to your machine it’s easy to get started, to learn the basics and to build your confidence. Later, when you’re ready to stretch and want to try something new the Shapeoko wiki has lots of information to guide you.
Community Knowledge of Wikis
When I finally had my Shapeoko up and running, I found I wanted more insight. Speeds and feeds for different materials? End mills for different purposes? Techniques for different results? Options for holding down material? Ideas for auto zeroing? There are endless resources on the web but having a deep resource specific to one product family is really advantageous. Answers aren’t generic. They’re specific to the product and they fit. The accumulated knowledge of the Shapeoko community can be found on the Shapeoko Wiki. Check it out.
It should be mentioned that another valuable resource for answers can be your local makerspace. These communities of makers often have subject matter experts who are generous with their knowledge. Typically the culture of such groups places a high value on learning, teaching and supporting others. In general terms this form of face-to-face mentoring is valuable and if you have a space locally then you should check it out. One of the best side benefits is discovering others who share your interests and want to collaborate.
Kits and Community Lead to Grit
Through kits, I’ve found that one of the keys to growing as a maker is access to community resources which help you to overcome obstacles as they surface. With successes you gain confidence and develop the ability to persevere. Anyone starting out needs help. Once you’re capable at one level you’ll want to stretch into new areas which again will put obstacles in your path. As competence grows so too will your strength to persevere and over the course of many successes you’ll develop true grit.
My example above uses Shapeoko because it’s my most recent experience. Kits with supportive communities are available from many places. For instance, I’ve purchased and built kits from Printrbot, MAKE, SparkFun, Inventables, Adafruit, and others. All of them provide some of the above and several do an exceptional job of supporting your development of grit. If you have experiences, good or bad, why not share them in the comments below? Others will benefit from your experience.