18 Lessons in Smart Prototyping From a Self-Made Billionaire

CNC & Machining Workshop

Dan Gelbart made a fortune in R&D for his company Creo. His prototyping was done at home, in his basement, using tools on par with what many of us have access to at our local hackerspaces and universities.

In his spare time he has put together a short YouTube course on “how to build stuff” for students and researchers whose primary skill sets are unrelated to fabrication. The goal being to build good things quickly with simple equipment. The course is solid gold for anyone looking to improve their shop or hackerspace on the cheap. Dan didn’t always have his fortune, and he knows lots of ways to save money like using $20 diamond-glass plates from supermarket scanners as your cheapo sand blaster’s window so that it’s both safe and scratch resistant.

The 18-part video series begins by demonstrating how to use and modify his favorite shop tools, and reveals all kinds of enlightening shortcuts that make complicated assemblies trivial to produce. There is a true art to uncomplicating things, a rarity for some engineers.

To cherry-pick a particularly useful video, Part 8 shows how to put all these tools together to build custom project enclosures, often the biggest headache for makers. Dan walks you through cutting the form, filling your inevitable mistakes, the right order of operation for the bends, how to recess covers so they’re not sharp and the paint won’t chip, powder coating, and lots more.

Forty years of tinkering yielded many little tips that seem so obviously the right way to build things, but would be easily missed by an amateur. Things like using spot-welded captive hardware whenever possible, thinking about which way to bend a sheet so it can all be done on a brake, and most importantly, using keyholes instead of screw holes whenever possible.

“I cannot overemphasis the importance of making everything with keyholes and slots and captive hardware. If you spend all your life in R&D you’ll spend about one year of your life taking screws out of covers, so if you do it in slots, it’s the same as extending your life by the same amount of health food plus exercise extends your life, and it’s much simpler.”

The one disheartening caveat to his advice is that many of his projects begin with something none of us will ever have, or have access to: a waterjet cutter. He does mention that a plasma cutter is a poor man’s waterjet, which is something many hackerspaces do have or at least could afford.

Later videos reveal specific applications, how to work with alternative materials, normal machining, and how to build ultra-precise devices for pennies on the dollar. If you ever want to graduate beyond 3D printing and laser cutting plastic, without feeling like you have to go to tech school or learn from people who want to take all day to do things traditionally, this playlist is for you.


5 thoughts on “18 Lessons in Smart Prototyping From a Self-Made Billionaire

  1. Natural says:

    He’s a genius!

  2. DreadPirateZed says:

    Inspirational. I’d never heard of the man before, but he’s become one of my heroes.

    1. Matt F says:

      I first heard of him from comments on ArduinoVsEvil’s youtube channel ( http://www.youtube.com/user/arduinoversusevil/videos ), which is what provoked me to write the article. Dan’s videos have been (slowly) been making the rounds, but are tremendously underpromoted. Any given one of them should have 100k views, not 2k.

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  4. MrHolozip . says:

    bookmarked for later, but a quick glance at all the industrial equipment in the thumbnails suggests that this really isn’t going to be something I could hope to achieve…

Comments are closed.


Matt has a passion for education and unconventional engineering. He delights most in projects that remove barriers to curiosity and allow makers to explore new hobbies without committing to them. He is active in any hacker or makerspace activity he can get his hands on and has more creation-related pastimes than a healthy adult probably should.

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