Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Make Anything: High Tech

A life goal of mine is to be able to understand how anything is made and/or know that I could make anything.  Technology will always be advancing and I will never be an expert of any field, but it always appealed to me as something to strive for.  That is why when I heard about a company called the Tech Shop I was instantly intrigued.  In Tech Shop there is all the equipment to build most anything that anyone could want.  Their slogan is "Build Your Dreams Here".  It has its origins in Menlo Park, CA.  No sites were located anywhere close.  I checked back every couple of years and they were expanding.  Eventually, I heard about a Tech Shop that was to open soon in Durham, NC; close enough to check it out.  I was surprised that I never heard anything else about it aside from that singular article.  

Finally, a few months ago, I checked again and found out it was open, and had been open for a few years.  As I later found out, the confusion was likely that the shop in Durham was originally opened with a deal made with the primary location.  The owner could open his own business and use the Tech Shop branding, but it would operate as its wholly separate entity.  More recently, the original Tech Shop owners took more of an interest in the Durham location.  They provided additional funding for extra equipment and now the Durham location is fully a part of the original Tech Shop family.  

That bit of history is not part of the regular tour, but rather an added tidbit from my inquiries.  In addition to having the equipment, they also have classes to train people to learn to use the equipment safely and also others to just learn how to do something new.  I found one I was interested in and signed up.  Now I had my motivation for going and prepared for a tour; camera in hand.

This facility is tucked in an industrial park.  The building is not showy aside from a few decorations out front.

Got my pass.  Officially ready for the tour.

The first area is for laser etching.  The machine above is the etcher.  This is directly across from the reception desk.  There is a large window that people waiting in the lobby can ogle through to watch while others work.  

Here is my tour guide showing me the equipment in the wood working area.

This room is dedicated to a large CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router.  This one is for softer materials in general.

Work stations are set up in rows for individuals or groups to plan out their creations.
This is MakerBot.  I believe it is the second generation, aka Replicator.  The MakerBot is a personal 3D printer.  It prints a plastic material (same material that is used for LEGO's) in layers to form any design.  The goal is to package the industrial CNC machines into a product that is accessible to individuals.  The equivalent would be the invention of inkjet printers so people would not need a press to make professional documents.  

This is the 1st generation of the MakerBot.  As an example of what can be made, I was shown this crustacean creature that was printed.  All joints snap together and pivot.

This neat contraption was also printed.

Here is an industrial CNC machine for metal parts.  We only passed through because there was currently a class going on showing everyone how to use the equipment.

This is an overview of the machine shop.  The CNC router is where all the people are standing at the far end.

There is plenty of welding equipment and a perfectly flat and level table to work on.  

This is a plasma table.  It can cut through 1/2" thick steel.  The picture below shows the remnants from where a gear was cut out.  I had a little one-up-manship here.  A plasma table was the first thing I ever designed.  Mine could could through 3/4" thick armor plating and would support sheets of 8' x 24'.  

I enjoyed this part.  To be able to "Build Your Dreams" you have to have everything.  This area, inside a place called the Tech Shop is as un-tech as anything.  Heat your metal in the furnace shown above then forge it into any shape that desired using the anvil and tools shown below.

Then there is also a small area for castings.

That was everything for the first floor.  On the second floor the first stop was a room dedicated to screening processes.  Everything to make your own t-shirt logo.

This creepy room is an empty office.  People can rent a room like this to store their work or anything else.  Some of the other large areas upstairs are for training rooms and there is also a decent kitchenette.

All of the doors and drawers of the kitchenette were made on the equipment in the wood shop.

An area dedicated for sewing

The electronics work stations.

The tour concluded back at the main lobby.  The desk is littered with different items that had all been made in their facility.  It ended in perfect time too.  My class was just about to start.

This is the classroom.  The session was not on Autodesk, but people can come here to use the software or have a class on it.  

My degree is in mechanical engineering.  To be able to build much today there almost has to be electronics involved.  I have had some introduction to it, but it has been a long time.  The session I signed up for discussed the Arduino electronics board, did some basic prototype wiring and programming.  When programming, the first program most people learn is called Hello World.  All it will do is bring up a window and display the text "Hello World".  In electronics, the Hello World equivalent is to turn an LED on and off.  That was where it started.  The conclusion was something I had never done before.  The board was actually interfaced to the computer during operations and the brightness of the LED was dictated by the position of mouse in a window.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Make Anything: Medium Tech

Most people in my family know I have a history of tinkering.  Recently, my wife's aunt asked if I could "fix" a music box.  I looked at it for a minute and told her I would attempt to, but did not want to make promises.

The first object I ever took apart was a Super Nintendo that no longer would function by literally breathing life into its cartridges.  Parts were laid out in lines; as organized as possible on the basement carpet.  Several screws and miniature plastic parts were cluttered around me.  It got put back together.  Strange thing was that it worked less than it did before.  I never understood what the difference was.  I think all the parts got put reassembled.  Throughout the years I started taking apart other things.  Toy robots are the most fun and have the most inventive designs.  Printers had the most salvagable parts.  It was always things that had come close to being disregarded anyhow, but the track record of things becoming functional after the fact was not great.  So now my latest challenge would be a music box.  

Diagnosis: It was over sprung.  To get the spring unsprung was going to require a complete tear down; my specialty.  Once that was accomplished I inspected the individual parts for further damages.  It was worse than I thought.  The main gears would not align because the gears moved on the shaft.  It all sat loose.  Extra holes were drilled into the box from the bottom.  Someone else has attempted to fix this box.  I tried moving the gears back in place on the shaft but could tell it was bending.  Without proper tools, a different approach was decided.  Whoever tried to fix it before put an 1/8" piece of wood under the mechanism. My alternative was to design a part to replace the piece of wood.  The part would also incorporate a feature to hold the shaft in place.  It also gave me a chance to test out a 3D printing website. Shapeways has basic modeling tools available on their website.  Once modeled the part can be loaded on their website as private or publicly viewable.  Similar to sites like Etsy, the items can be sold in an online market place.  The model can be viewed and embedded conveniently so it can be sold or displayed through other venues. 


Shapeways has a variety of materials to choose ranging from flexible plastics to precious metals.  I went with a form of aluminum.

To verify my model I printed a a template.  Once I felt comfortable with the design, I placed the order.  It arrived a couple weeks later.  The part arrived in the box below. As such, here is my first blog unboxing.

When first opened, the initial presentation is a card to make you feel good about the purchase. Generally good content, but the heart diagram is a bit cheesy.


Underneath the card there is ample bubble wrap protecting the purchase.  The card gives a nice touch so it feels like more than just a part shoved in a box.  It is a totally different display compared to if the bubble wrap is the first thing seen.


This photo shows the texture from a 3D printed aluminum.  The website has plenty of documentation to describe the strength and look of their different materials.

Here is the part in place in the music box.The raised feature on the hinge side is what holds the shaft in place. Once it was in place I added some oil that would be for a model train for good measure.  Finally, I could reap my reward and hear the song.