TechShop: High-tech DIY movement may come to Dublin

First of series on TechShop Austin: using a 3D printer to make a bust of Yoda

 

The maker movement has been around for some time. Groups of like-minded people who are interested in doing things for themselves come together to learn the basics of electronics, welding, carpentry etc – rather than relying on Ikea or Microsoft for everything.

These are the kinds of people you’ll hope you’re friends with if there’s a global nuclear meltdown.

While many small unconnected groups have been moving in this direction for a long time, the TechShop movement represents a more sophisticated approach.

TechShop was founded in 2006 by Jim Newton and Ridge McGhee in California. A university robotics teacher and a science adviser to the television show Mythbusters, Newton was inspired by his students’ inability to access the necessary tools and equipment required for robotics.

McGhee had different intentions. Frustrated by America’s increasing loss of manufacturing capability to other countries, he wanted to give people access to machinery and technology normally open only to specialists.

They currently have eight operations across the US, from California to Virginia, and plan to open two more. There is also a push to open one in Ireland, at the DCU Innovation Campus in Dublin.

Anyone can join and have access to various equipment. This includes computer numerical control (CNC) milling machines, industrial sewing machines, oscilloscopes, laser cutters, 3D printers and all manner of welding equipment.

Training is offered on how to use each piece of equipment available but once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s really up to you.

TechShop is about empowering folk to do it themselves. And while many members might be there to pursue hobbies or personal interests, the movement is also creating a new generation of cottage industries. There are people making serious money from TechShop-based businesses.

3D printing

I was invited by the TechShop team to take some classes and get a feel for how the whole thing worked. Having written extensively on the subject for the last two years, it was a no brainer figuring out what I was going to try first – 3D printing.

MakerBot Replicator (the name of the device they use) 3D printing is one of TechShop’s most popular classes. “That and laser cutting,” says Ely, our mentor. You can understand why. As the equipment becomes easier and easier to use, while the possibilities grow ever wider for what you can do, people from all walks are having a look.

First, you need to design something. This can be done on any number of programmes but the user friendly MakerWare is the preferred choice for MakerBot printers.

While advanced 3D printing specialists may design bespoke parts for submarines and such, those of us just messing around can find lots of cool stuff to work with on websites such as Thingiverse. com.

I decided my first 3D print should be an effigy so memorable, so significant and of such consequence that it would be remembered for time immemorial: Yoda from Star Wars. Thankfully for me, Thingiverse had just the 3D model available for free download.

“Yoda’s long ears are going to need support,” Ely tells me. So just like scaffolding, we add supports to the design. These can be cut away later but, Ely stresses, they are absolutely essential. 3D building is governed by the same physical principles as regular building. If you were using Lego to build a house, you couldn’t build the roof first. Likewise, you can’t print into thin air.

Once you have fixed your dimensions and are happy with your design it must be translated into G-Code, a language the printer itself can understand. The best way to transfer your design to an actual machine is on an SD card.

The printing process itself could be likened to a glue gun building three dimensional models from the bottom up by expelling a fine string of plastic, one layer at a time. These particular printers can create parts as large as 9” x 6” x 6” and layers can be as thin as .004”.

Slow process

One small Yoda head, no bigger than a pool ball, is going to take about 50 minutes to print. This gave more than enough time to pry into other people’s lives and see what their motivations were.

The class was full: six students (including myself). Three of them worked for a contract engineering company which had just purchased its first 3D printer. “Our boss is making us do it,” they said unenthusiastically.

Another guy was in the market to buy a printer of his own and was considering a MakerBot Replicator. With about $4,000 to spend, he was interested in using the machine to print guns and gun parts. (This is Texas after all.)

The last student wanted to build his own 3D printer from files he had found online for various parts of a 3D printer that could be printed out by . . . a 3D printer. Talk about DIY.

Success

An hour went by. My Yoda turned out splendidly and I had passed my MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer Safety and Basic Use class. 3D printing may not be as satisfying as building something with your own two hands. But for someone who has trouble using scissors, this was a triumph.

Next Monday: John Holden goes to TechShop to build his own computer

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