Fixing Broken Machines from the Amazon Return Bin

Fixing Broken Machines from the Amazon Return Bin

You never know whom you might meet in a makerspace and if you would have met them anywhere else. It’s especially true for the people who manage a makerspace. Would you have been able to see how incredible they are and what they can do if it weren’t for them running a makerspace? They are remarkable people and remarkably resourceful, figuring out how to do all kinds of things.

Well, my guest today is one of those people, ordinary in the sense that you won’t know her by name, but extraordinary also in that you should know what she does. She came to working in a community college makerspace late in life.  While she does a lot of things like others who run makerspaces in an educational setting, she’s also developed her superpower, which is fixing broken and abandoned machines. She discovered that she can find these broken machines, such as 3D printers that have been returned to Amazon. She can get them at auction, fix them herself and put them to work.  The more broken it is, she says the happier she is. 

Here is a gallery of photos that Debra provided, which shows her work.


Fixing Broken Machines From the Amazon Return Bin

Dale: Today, I’m joined by Debra Daun, who is at Joliet Junior College, which is in Illinois, and she works in the MakerLab there. And we’re going to be talking about how she finds interesting used equipment, brings it in, repairs them and kind of has her own stash of things that she’s salvaged, if you will.

So Debra, welcome to Make:cast.

Debra: Thank you.

Dale: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Debra: I have been running MakerLab at Joliet Junior College now for close to four years. I graduated just at the time that I started here. I graduated from Kankakee Community College with a two- year degree in computer graphic technology. And that is I graduated on Saturday. Started on Monday.

Dale: Wow.

Debra: Things happen so fast and I also still work at Kankakee Community College, doing the same kind of thing. I maintain their 3D printers. I’ve been a tutor. I’ve taught as an adjunct  professor, build your own 3D printer. And ever since I started that program and the director of that program brought back to build 3D printers from a build your own program, I’ve been immersed in this whole field. I was originally going to learn 3D modeling to model for movies and games. Same skill set also works for 3D printing.

Dale: So your interest came up initially from the graphic side.

Debra: Graphics and 3D modeling.

Dale: And then you realize this also applied to objects in the physical world that you create and do as well as the virtual worlds.

Debra: It’s a gateway bringing things that are virtual into the real world. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s a hard thing to teach some students.

Dale: Tell us about the MakerLab at Joliet.

Debra: The MakerLab here was started in 2016. I came along a few years later. I am the only employee in here. I run the MakerLab. I maintain all the machines. I wrote the workshops. I maintained the membership. Our MakerLab is open to the community.

So anyone from the community can join, not just students of the college. We have a very diverse membership. A lot of them have their own businesses and use our equipment, our MakerLab for their own businesses.

Dale: What are some examples?

Debra: Yeah, I’ve got I’m somebody who does high-end cakes. I’ve got someone who does beautiful wooden flags, amazing artwork.

And I’ve got another couple that are prototyping new inventions. I think COVID did a lot for people to sit around and think of things that they could invent. So I’ve had maybe half a dozen requests in the last month or so for people wanting to prototype something.

Dale: Now, are these people, whether they’re students or not, that come in knowing how to use the equipment in the space or do they just get an idea that they might be able to  use this space?

Debra: I think the majority of them come in not really knowing what to expect because I teach community classes. Some of them have come in after taking like a 3D printing class or the laser cutting class, which is just a short workshop. Some of them have knowledge. But most of them come in just saying, this is what I want to do. I think you could help. What do I need to do?

Dale: And how do you get them from we’ve called it a book zero to maker, right?

Debra: How do you, that’s the fun? All I do is say, okay, watch what I do. And they get excited because I say, okay, in a few hours, you can be doing this too. And they’re usually all on board.

It takes some people a little longer, depending on the level of computer skills, but I can have little kids printing in three hours after a little time on Tinkercad, little time on Thingaverse, next thing you know, when their parents come to pick them up, they’re running around showing their parents how to do it.

So adults can pick it up almost that fast. It’s really a simple concept. It’s just a matter of not being intimidated.

Dale: Let me ask you this. Why was this not intimidating to you to run a MakerLab, maintain all those machines and have lots of people show up that don’t know what they’re doing? Seems intimidating to some people anyway.

Debra: Oh, no, man. The first time I walked in this room, this was like, I think I’m in my happy place. I grew up in my dad’s manufacturing plant. I was a little kid. I was sitting in the machinist’s room and he was teaching me things. I used to get tools for toys when I was a kid. Had a Craftsman screwdriver set. Really nice. To come in here and have access to all these machines, to be able to share that and to share how to do it, I can’t think of anything better. I know I could retire, but why would I do that? Because I’d be doing this anyway. Now I get paid to do it.

Dale: And what is the role of a MakerLab in a community college setting? You mentioned a community aspect I’m interested in, how does the community college, this one or the other one, you work out? How do they view these spaces and how does students view these spaces?

Debra: A lot of students actually don’t know we’re here. That’s one thing COVID has done for us is brought us a little more to the forefront. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was here for several months by myself, in this entire building with a few security people and some maintenance printing PPE, and working with the Dean of our college.

She organized the effort and the pickups. And then I was in here printing to the orders. That got a lot….

Dale: All by yourself?

Debra: Yes. Eight hours a day, five days a week. It was pretty grueling. But I brought in some of my own machines in addition to the machines that were here. We had the laser cutter going. I had six Flash Forges, three of my own printers and a Gigabot, which is a large format printer, all working eight hours a day.

And it brought a lot of news coverage. We produced 3000 mask covers and ear savers by the end of it. And it seemed to wake people up to realize we were here.

Dale: That’s great. And this is really just for the local area that you’re producing it, right?

Debra: Oh, no. I sent some to the north side of Chicago, which is Chicago is 35 miles from here. I’ve sent stuff all the way down to Morris hospital, which is probably around 20 miles in the other direction. All the makerspaces around here, we’re coordinating and changing information and trying to work together.

Dale: A network of them. So back to the community college setting, tell me about the students and how how they are impacted by having a makerspace?

Debra: Since I’ve come, I’ve changed the direction that it was going. What I do is I help the students who are doing architectural modeling, who are doing other types of 3D modeling to 3D print their final projects. So that’s now a part of that program. I’ve been working with orthotics and prosthetics that I will 3D print mock-ups of components to build the orthotics and prosthetics with.

So they don’t have to use the expensive real ones in a mockup. It saves a huge amount of money. And I’ve also started working with the nursing department and I’m starting to contact other departments and bringing them into awareness of what we can do here. And that has started bringing in more students because of the people from those programs find the MakerLab and they keep coming back.

Dale: So do they come back to do some of their own projects?

Debra: Oh yeah.

Dale: What are examples? What do you see there?

Debra: Oh, the last one I had was a prosthetics and orthotics student who had an idea for some design of his own and he wanted to print a prototype. So he came in and I helped him figure out how to print it.

I have one guy that was really good. He would print things for his girlfriend. And she was very lucky. He put a lot of work into it. I’ve had her parts for machines that maybe they couldn’t get anymore. So the student for his job would come in, for instance, a food machine that had  a spout that was broken. They couldn’t get a new one. So he got food grade PLA designed it and 3D printed it and took it to work. So instead of the several hundred dollars, it would have cost to try to find one and ship it into the country. He made it for 70 cents.

Dale: Wow. And do you think the college sees value in this?

Debra: I think so. I have made things recently for media services for the front of the podium for graduation. I made a sign with logo for the president’s podium. They needed something right away, and I was able to do it in a couple of days. I think more and more, more as they figure out what you can do with 3D printing and laser cutting, they’re beginning to connect the dots and look around and see what else I can do for them.

Dale: Become a production center for the community.

Debra: Yeah. And I do outside jobs for the community too. So that helps fund this because we don’t really have a budget where like cost recovery.

Dale: One of the things I love about community colleges is there really isn’t a single kind of person that comes to a community college. You really have many different kinds of people coming. And I wonder if in your classes and workshops, that you have a wide range of ages and backgrounds and ethnicities and such. Is that happening at Joliet?

Debra: Yeah. Oh yes. Just everywhere. When I go to pick up these machines, I buy, I’ll run into other people who are doing the same thing and they’re not all kids. There are people of all ages who are keeping up with technology and starting in new directions and they are interested and they’re not intimidated. And even if they are, once they find out what’s involved, they’re not as intimidated anymore.

Dale: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of what you just mentioned you are on the lookout for broken machines.

Debra: Oh yeah. The more broken the better they are.

Dale: And you get them on the cheap and you fix them and make them work again.

Debra: When I wanted to learn how to fix a computer, what I did is I took a broken computer, figured out why it didn’t work. And then I started figuring out how to fix it. And I started getting broken computers from my friends, and I developed that to troubleshooting. First, you have to figure out why it doesn’t work, and then you figure out why it does work.

Eventually you end up with a process and you end up with a base knowledge. Pretty soon you’re able to do something like take a broken machine, troubleshoot it, repair it and send it out. And I did that a lot for my friends. Part of that was growing up in manufacturing setting and knowing how to troubleshoot when I started getting into 3D printers, I didn’t think I would own one because I take care of 20 some printers in two different schools. So I thought what do I need one at home? And then I was on eBay one time, stumbled across an auction for a printer that had no bids on it and was five minutes left. So I bid and I won it and I went, well, dang now I have a 3D printer. And it came and it took me probably a day and a half to figure out how to put it together. I applied some of the knowledge from fixing the machines at Kankakee community college. They are RepRa p printers they’re Flux Mendel’s. So they are all built from scratch. They all require all kinds of adjustments and measurements and having everything tightened just right.

And that was very valuable in learning how to put together this little Creality Ender. Then I found out about Amazon return options and I started looking at one that’s based here. They’re all over the country, but we have one that’s right around the corner from my house. And I found some printers really cheap.

However, when you looked at the pictures, you realize that somebody had used them, abused them and then dump it back in the box. And I thought this could be a really good way to learn how to fix printers, because you never know if you are doing this as a business, what someone is going to bring in. I’ve done a little bit of this kind of consulting through the MakerLab.

When community members have brought in a printer, I’ve helped them figure out how to fix it. And I wanted to develop that skill. So I began just bidding on these printers that I thought nobody else would want. It’ll say printer used and used usually means badly. Pieces missing.

Dale: So tell me more, this I’ve not heard of this before Amazon return auctions.

Debra: Big thing. I think they were all over the country. There’s a whole sub-economy around Amazon of people buying pallets of returns and reselling them. And they’re in different formats. They’re all over the country. I’ve just lucky enough to live near one.

Dale: When you say live near one, that’s a distribution center or

Debra: something, it’s a warehouse and they have online auctions.

And you can have it shipped, or if you’re close enough, you can go pick it up. And they have this little kind of area for, they just put things where that it’s not good enough to list. They just put it there and it’s a sales area and you can go through and you can dig and people do. Sometimes you go there, it looks like feeding frenzy because they’re just tearing into these pallets.

But I got a Delta printer for $25. Took a day to fix it. It runs great. Couple, one a month ago, my significant other was digging through boxes. Found a box and opened it up and inside was a brand new 3D printer. It was in one of the Amazon return boxes and it was stuffed under something. We got it for five bucks.

Dale: Five bucks?

Debra: Five bucks.

This one was — it’s a Winice, which I can’t even find all information on the company it’s just dead ends. And somebody had tried to put it together. Did not. There was some really important steps missing in the directions. They couldn’t get it.

Dale: So this a return bin?

Debra: It’s a return bin. Yeah. And if you are willing to try it. You can do very well, but I have accumulated boxes of screws, boxes of T-nuts, extra end stops, all the little bits and pieces that might be missing. I have them accumulated now. And if there’s some machine I can’t fix, or maybe it’s just partial, then I’m building a boneyard. A boneyard is way to get spare parts.

So I may not be able to build a machine out of a stack of stuff, but I’ll have aluminum extrusions. I’ll have stepper motors. I may have a good motherboard. I’ll have always little components and pieces that I can use to get some other machines.

Dale: Yeah, isn’t that funny? In a way, you know what all these things are and it’s the art of salvage is to know what they are and know what their value is and how they’re used.

Debra: Exactly.

The several years of working on the Flux Metal printers at Kankakee Community College really laid the groundwork for me to be able to start doing this, but I’m also very mechanically inclined and I can figure out machines pretty easily.

However they do. You have to really be a buyer, beware. I just finished the one 3D printer I sent you the pictures of it turned out to be a Tronxy. They had taken a picture of the underside of the machine and the outside of the box with no lettering. You didn’t know what you were getting. You can go in and see it ahead of time if you have time.

But that one was relatively easy to fix. It had been abused and I cleaned up the PLA and all that. But the second one I sent you was listed as a 3D printer. Absolutely no good pictures, except for partial one of the inside of the box that showed a set of safety goggles. And I’m going okay. That can not be a 3D printer.

I don’t know of any that come with safety goggles. So I bid on it. I bid a little more than I normally would because I was just dying of curiosity as to what it was. Got it, home figured out it was a little mini laser cutter. They had no idea what it was. They just saw extrusion, said 3D printer. I’ve gotten parts of electric recliners for a dollar that were aluminum, extrusions turns out that they didn’t know what it was. They just listed as a 3D printer part. I bought one just to see what it really was. And then I donated it .

Dale:  It’s a bit of a gamble, isn’t it? You’re seeing if you can get it cheap, but sometimes you’re going to put a lot of time into fixing these things.

Debra: It is. It’s a learning thing for me. So the more broken it is, the happier I am. But for other people who are trying to get a 3D printer cheap, they  may not be so happy when they open up that box and find out that the whole thing is caked or the eccentric gears are missing. Or like I’ve opened one the other day and the entire glass plate was just shattered inside the box. And I have no problem with that. But I’ve seen people who get into this bidding and they go crazy and they will bid things up to almost retail. A couple of times I’ve seen it go over retail.  Okay, these people don’t understand what auction means.

And so they’re buying something without knowing if it’s going to work, they’re buying something with no warranty. Because you bought it, that’s it. You bought it as is, and they’re paying more than they would if they ordered it from Microcenter or Amazon.

Dale:  What’s an unusual machine that you’ve gotten that way and beyond a laser cutter or 3D printer, anything?

Debra: Generally, I am just bidding on those specific things. But I have gotten a couple resin curing stations, brand new because someone bought a resin printer. Totally didn’t figure out how to use it before they tried. That’s why I now have five of those and they just returned the washing station and curing station too, because they didn’t need it.

So I got those brand new for next to nothing. Couple of the resin printers were a little rough, but several of them were just brand new. People open them up and couldn’t figure out how to do it.

Dale: What intrigues me a bit is this potentially is a good way to get a Makerspace going or to expand a Makerspace, but you need someone like you,

Debra: You need somebody who’s willing to learn do the work, which I find fascinating. I think that it’s a challenge. It’s like doing the world best jigsaw puzzle. If you want to learn something, this is a great way to learn it cheap. Yeah. But it does require having a space, having tools, knowing where to get spare parts and being willing to learn.

I use a lot before it.

Dale: Use a lot of what for forums. Oh yeah. Yes.

Debra: 3D printing forum on Facebook. I’ve gone to a few manufacturers forums. I was even talking in messenger with somebody who worked for FLSUN, which is a Delta printer. We just connected and we’re talking for hours about 3D printing.

Dale: I think the way you probably look at it is you decompose a machine into its parts and which parts are easy to replace or standard parts or specialized parts and

Debra: which parts just need to go in the boneyard. I do have the ability to go look at it, if I want to, before it comes up for bid and I do that sometimes, but I also go in knowing what I think it’s worth. And if it goes past that I walk away.

Dale: Do you think, could you train someone to do what you do?

Debra: I probably could. It depends on their willingness to puzzle it out. I think I could

Dale: You have to have enjoy the puzzle. You would get good at it.

Debra: You have to have some enjoyment of that kind of thing.

Dale: And patience.

Debra: Yeah. Oh, patience is absolutely number one. That’s rare. I have immense patience. I have three sons and they all were. The oldest one when he was two years old, he was going in and out of DOS and Windows on the computer. So I knew right then that I had to stay ahead of them in order to keep the world safe, so to speak. But that’s why I started learning and it just, I find it just fun.

Dale:  You talked about your father was in manufacturing, you picked up some of this, but it sounds like a little bit late in life you decided this is stuff you wanted to learn in school and

Debra: Oh yeah. I have a biology degree. That’s what I originally went to school for. I’ve worked in hospitals, I’ve worked emergency services, I’ve worked disaster services. I’ve done a lot of different things, but I was working in an advertising office and the office closed.

So I was left trying to find a job. When you have gray hair, trying to find a job in technology is not easy. Yeah. So workforce development offered a chance to take this computer graphic technology class. And Kankakee was the only college in the area that offered it. And I had to drive an hour each way every day for two years, that was gruelling.

I finally graduated with a 4.0 because that was a personal goal. And I just got totally hooked on all the technology with it. I knew I wanted to do something with computers and I always loved like Pixar and Tim Burton movies. And it just fascinated me in the chance to learn how to do that was like too good to be true.

Dale: Tell me just maybe just to wrap here someone who’s listening and says, like I’ve got a middle school maker space and I just don’t have enough of these machines. I don’t have a budget. Like you said, unfortunately, a lot of makerspaces don’t have budgets, but there were a lot of silly consumers that thought they wanted 3D printers and that, and then they didn’t figure out how to use them. So they go back on the market or they’re thrown away or whatever it is.

And you’re recovering those

Debra: It’s recycling in a big way. They are things that might just go into a scrapyard. If somebody like me, didn’t pick them up. I’m not the only one doing it. I know there are others that I am bidding against who are reselling them.

Dale: Yeah. So they, they can get a markup based on fixing the machine and getting it operating. And where did they go to sell it then?

Debra: I’ve seen him listed on Facebook marketplace quite a lot. I imagine that every area has some kind of local marketplace. I think that if you were going to resell something like that, you’d want to do it locally. Not try to ship that because that would be crazy. And you don’t know what kind of response you’re going to get on the other end?

Dale: Yeah. In your case, you’re not reselling these things by and large.

Debra: I may have to sell a few soon. You should see my kitchen. The kitchen table, the washing machine, the counter on the side are all covered with 3D printers.

Dale: Yeah. And you’re using some of them, you’re using them in the workshops you have.

Debra: Yeah. I’m going to be teaching with them. I did start my own little business, an LLC to repair printers and maintain printers for schools.

Dale: That’s awesome.

Debra: And I’m doing that for Kankakee now. And that’s what part of this is my own job training. For down the line if I decide to open it up to fix privately owned machines, this is a great way to be ready for anything that might come in the door.

 I’d be interested in talking to you as something that if you think about, could we train more people to do this, or at least find out if, why not? It’s really not that hard.

Dale: And it’s not a bad little business.

Debra: Geek squad does not know how to do this. You can’t just call up the local repair shop and say, can you fix my printer for me, everybody who owns a 3D printer, still owns the 3D printer, has learned how to fix it.

Dale: It’s a big thing. Almost everything you buy requires maintenance and yeah. We never think about it really often until it’s too late, the 3D printers is gathering dust is because someone didn’t figure out that they have to maintain it. It’s just, they think of it like a something you just plug in and it’s supposed to just operate continually.

Debra: Like a microwave. And it’s just not.

Dale: I don’t know what the analogy would be other kinds of, but the bicycle requires maintenance.  You can’t just leave it sit forever and expect it to work well, but it’s almost that we ignore that part as consumers, and too often we end up throwing the thing out rather than maintaining it and extending its life.

Debra: Computers are a really good example of that. I did repair and maintain computers for friends. I didn’t do it in the general public, but I did it for friends and people don’t know how to do a disk clean up. They don’t know how to do a disc defrag. They don’t know to delete temporary internet files because it’ll fill up their hard drive.

These are all maintenance things that people should do every week, like running your antivirus. And they never tell people that when they sell them a computer. They just give it to you. And all of a sudden your computer is running slow and there’s some guy on TV selling a little flash drive that’s going to fix it all for you. It’s just got utilities on it that they could run themselves for free.

Dale: Yeah, exactly.

Debra: The knowledge just isn’t out there.

Dale: Yeah, but it’s funny how it repair knowledge. There’s a few places online, but they exist in forums. That’s very informal knowledge.

 What do you think the lifespan of a 3D printer is?

Debra: Oh we’ve got a Uprint here that is finally going to go to auction. I was learning how to fix it, but the tech that was teaching me wound up going to another job. And I think that is 14 years old, but that is a high-end commercial prototyper that is very difficult to fix on your own. In terms of something like little Enders or that little Lanise or any of the little home printers? I don’t think there is a lifespan. I think you can keep replacing things as long as you want, modifying. The more automatic a machine is, the more likely it is  going to hit the end of its usefulness. The nice thing about these machines is everything is replaceable. Everything is upgradable. You can start from scratch, take all the pieces and build your own.

Dale: Listen, thank you Debra, for your time today. It’s fascinating learning about you and what you do. And also learning about the MakerLab at Joliet Junior College.

Debra: Thank you so much.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


Ready to dive into the realm of hands-on innovation? This collection serves as your passport to an exhilarating journey of cutting-edge tinkering and technological marvels, encompassing 15 indispensable books tailored for budding creators.