Here’s the third episode of MAKE‘s podcast, Make: Talk! In each episode, I’ll interview one of the makers featured in the magazine.
Our maker this week is Larry Cotton, a long time contributor to MAKE. Larry’s a retired engineer and part-time math teacher who lives in New Bern, NC, and likes to listen to, write, and play anything musical. I talked to him about his LED Paper Cutter, Rok-Bak Chair, Spin the Birdie rotating bird feeder, Camp Stove Coffee Roaster, and his project in the current issue of MAKE, a sturdy, multi-position iPad stand called the iStand.
And, at the beginning of the episode, Makezine.com editor-in-chief Gareth Branwyn shares news of some cool things happening on the site.
When Steve Hoefer sent in his prototype of the Tacit haptic wrist rangefinder, we had a field day with it taking turns walking around MAKE headquarters with our eyes closed. Using it is super intuitive: with your hand extended, the servos vibrate as you get closer to an object, like a wall, and alert you to stop or change route. The closer the object, the greater pressure Tacit puts on your wrist. Steve wrote up the project for us and it appears on the pages of the current issue, MAKE Volume 29, a perfect fit for the DIY Superhuman theme.
The best part of Steve’s intro is when he talks about the first version of Tacit he made:
My first version of Tacit was a headband with vibration motors that ran faster when objects came closer. But this design had a distracting “mad science” look, and most obstacles, like furniture, are below head level. I also found that motors vibrating against your skull will quickly drive you insane. I realized that it was my own sighted prejudice to want to attach vision-simulating sensors to the head. The hand is more directable and useful, and putting a device on the back of the wrist leaves the fingers free.
Here’s Steve describing the deets of how Tacit works:
We’ve shared the full build instructions with you on Make: Projects so you can get started right away. To tap more of your Superhuman potential, pick up a copy of Volume 29, on newsstands now.
From the pages of MAKE Volume 29:
We have the technology (to quote The Six Million Dollar Man), but commercial tools for exploring, assisting, and augmenting our bodies really can approach a price tag of $6 million. Medical and assistive tech manufacturers must pay not just for R&D, but for expensive clinical trials, regulatory compliance, and liability — and doesn’t help with low pricing that these devices are typically paid for through insurance, rather than purchased directly. But many gadgets that restore people’s abilities or enable new “superpowers” are surprisingly easy to make, and for tiny fractions of the costs of off-the-shelf equivalents. MAKE Volume 29, the “DIY Superhuman” issue, explains how.
BUY OR SUBSCRIBE!
Products! Products! Products! Such is the thought flooding my head as we move into our fourth hour at the Victoria flea market without selling a gosh-darn thing. Our printers are cranking away merrily, we’ve got a crowd hovering around, captivated, and Bilal, Ilan, and I are chatting up the crowd with our charming selves. Lots of looking, but no buying.
For those of you who have no idea who we are, we’re the Pocket Factory. We are Bilal Ghalib and Alex Hornstein, and we’re traveling around the country for a month in a Prius full of low-cost 3D printers, starting a business printing and selling things on these machines. We think of ourselves as modern-day troubadours, moving from town to town with our moneymakers in our trunk, eliciting inspiration and fascination where we travel, and making a living for ourselves off of our ideas and our wits. We’re chronicling our successes, failures, and stories from running a design and production business using Maker 3D printers as our production machines. You can read about our exploits weekly here on MAKE, and also on pocketfactory.org. OK, back to our story…
We currently know how to make six things: iPhone cases, belt buckles, 3D portraits, a gramophone horn that passively amplifies iPhone speakers, custom nose cones for model rockets, and a little necklace that I made this morning of a little duck with gears in its belly, and the gears spin as you move it along the necklace chain. In the last week, we’ve worked out ways to quickly customize and print “stock” designs for belt buckles and phone cases. We’ve taken three products from idea to saleable product. We’ve got our wares spread out in a merry display on a table, prices carefully taped under each one so that it’s clear that they’re for sale. But the people aren’t in a mood to buy ducks. In fact, they’re not buying anything.
One reason is the printers. People are way more interested in the printers themselves than in what we’re making. I can understand this–our prints are pieces of plastic standing next to a futuristic robotic machine that can make anything. One of these objects is more interesting than the others, and the printers are stealing the show. People will stand around for hours watching them print and talk excitedly about the possibilities, but they won’t pay $5 for one of our prints. We’ve actually started downplaying the technology–when we’re selling, we make a point of mentioning the words “three-dee printer.”
We’ve got a theory about printed products — when you’re sitting around for hours not selling anything, you have lots of time to come up with theories. The way we see it, there are three valuable parts to the products we sell: There’s the aesthetics and utility of the design itself, any customizations we add to it for a customer (we change shape, logos, add text or initials, or images as the customers like) and there’s the story of how the customer got the product. Printers help with customizability, and we can spin them into a great story, but they don’t dictate the utility of the object–that’s entirely up to us as designers. For someone to buy one of our products, the sum value the customer puts on the design, the customization, and the story has to be greater than whatever we’re asking for it.
Now, Victoria has a wholesome down-to-earthness that I’ve come to love over the last couple of days. This is a city that fights to keep iPads and laptops out of classrooms because they value the tradition of taking notes by hand. Technology for the sake of technology isn’t a big selling point here. There goes the value of our story. The guy at the table across from us is selling antique Chinese coins and 20s-era pornography. He’s raking it in.
It’s not really an iPhone crowd, either, but Victoria has its share of phone slingers. Problem is, there’s another table a few booths down selling Chinese-made iPhone cases and belt buckles. They’re selling a few pennies of molded silicone for ten bucks. We’re selling ours for $20. Whoops–we’re undercut, and there goes our margins. Competition’s a bugger, and while we have a good looking robust cases and belt buckles, when confronted with a choice between something printed on a machine run by scruffy 26 year-olds and a plastic-wrapped factory-finished products, well–the people of Victoria have chosen. If they named the town after us, they’d call it Sucktoria.
We might not be selling in the flea market, but something very interesting starts happening. Flea markets are rife with entrepreneurial energy. It’s the nature of the game—everyone sitting behind the tables next to us has a nose for business—they’re always thinking about what people want and how they can make a business out of it. As the day goes on, we start to get more and more visits from the other vendors, visits that turn into brainstorming sessions. One guy, Tim, came over and watched the printers for a while, asked a few questions, and walked off again. Half an hour later, he’s back, “why aren’t you guys making personalized license plate frames? You could print out little pieces for each corner of the plate and put people’s initials on it, or photos of their kids.” Five minutes later, he’s back again, “What about printing replacement parts for antique radios? You can’t buy that stuff anymore, and there’s always people in here looking for some ancient dial or other. How much did you say one of those machines costs?” It’s incredible—you can see the gears spinning in his head. The guy at the booth next to us sold jukeboxes, and started chiming in, thinking of custom wall mounts for vintage records and jukebox memorabilia. We might not be pulling in the dough here, but we’re surrounded by seasoned entrepreneurs who are certain that if they had our tools, they could kick butt. It’s awesome!
In the months leading up to this trip, I started paying special attention to people who make a living shaping plastic into valuable forms. As it turns out, it’s a time-honored tradition, and it has its own masters and marketplaces and disciples. Look in any dollar store, and you’ll see the result of years of thought figuring out how to mould a few pennies of plastic into $.99 of value. Look at Lego. Look at the Tijuana toy vendors. Look at Walmart. All these products are made by artists in the same genre, and they ask a similar question: “People don’t want to spend a lot of money, so how do we make something really cheaply so we can sell lots of them, cheaply?”
But while the general class of product may be the same, the commodity plastic-angle doesn’t work well with 3D printed production. It takes about an hour to print out one of our iPhone cases, and takes ~$.75 worth of plastic and ten minutes of human time to clean it up, put it in a box, and ship it. Mass-produced cases similar to ours sell for as low as $2.50 online. Even if we keep our printers running around the clock (as it turns out, this is hard), we can barely produce and ship our product for the retail price of these commodity cases. We can produce pretty cheaply, but we can’t race to the bottom. If we want this to work as a business, Bilal and I figure that we have to net at least $10/print. So, we’ve got these machines that can melt plastic wire into any shape imaginable. Great. What’s a plastic shape that customers will value at $20? $35? What do people love about their products?
For some people, the story is enough. 3D printers have an undeniable cool factor, and our on-the-spot printing makes for a compelling story. They’ll tell the story of its creation time and again, showing it off to their friends, thinking of other stuff they could make. We give them photos of their product as it’s being created. We note where we were when the print finished. Not everyone is a printerphile–not by a long shot, but the 3D printing story has sold the majority of our products.
And customization! If we run into a customer who has a punchy vision for something he’d like to make, we can swing right back with a designer-cad-printer uppercut. We had a great experience making custom earrings for Jake, a guy who was watching us print in Boulder. He took one look at our printer and asked if we could make him some custom gauges for his ears (for the un-pierced among you, dear readers, an ear gauge is basically a grommet that you put into your ear). We measure his current ones with calipers, design and size a new set in a couple minutes…he’s really into the Foo Fighters and wants their logo on the gauges–no problemo. Ten minutes later, the printer spits out a couple of bright blue gauges and they’re in his ears seconds later. It’s rare to find someone with such a clear picture of what he wants, product-wise, but it’s great when it happens. He’s able to realize his vision, one that would be hard to pull off by any other means, and we’re fast and flexible enough to make it for him. We’re clearly providing value. The printers are the perfect tool for the job. We offer “stock” customizations on many of our objects (debossed initials/text/images), and we pull out CAD software to do more open-ended customizations for a customer. The big challenge here is to find customers who place value on customization, and then working with them to build up a custom object. After our recent experience with the earrings, we think we’ll be spending some quality time in tattoo and piercing shops.
We experimented with a “bring your busted plastic stuff to us and we’ll repair it” booth. Armed with calipers and CAD software, we advertise on-the-spot repair of whatever possessions we can fix–busted knobs, cases, toys…bring it and we’ll design and print a replacement/repair, starting at $5. Yes, it’s undervalued, but we want to see if customers would use a cheap repair service for products they already own. This is a surprisingly hard thing to pull off. We’re fighting against 20 years of tradition that says plastic parts are best repaired with duct tape or a store warranty. It takes time to think of a broken possession, bring it in, listen to Bilal and I tell bad jokes in Boston accents, pay for the print and walk away with a fixed part. Everyone we’ve spoken to likes the idea of using printers to repair things, but so far, we have yet to make a single sale this way. It’s always difficult to convince people to change, and pulling off a repair-yer-parts angle will take a lot more experimentation to get right.
Sometimes the printers enable us to make a product that simply wouldn’t exist unless we made it. Bilal and I had a design exercise where we went through a dollar store in Salt Lake City, looking at products and thinking about ways to make them more fun or interactive. We paused at the silly string aisle. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” we mused, “if we made a device that would automatically spray people with silly string if they got too close?” Out comes the calipers, the printer heats up, and twenty-four hours later, I’m standing in the shredded plastic ruins of nine flawed iterations with an Arduino-controlled silly string shooter in my hand, unfortunately choosing my face as its first target. This must be what having children feels like. We have a bill of materials, we know how to make it, and it does exactly what we set out to do. Thirty six hours from having our idea, we have a new product up for sale in our store.
Now, having access to printers didn’t let us build our silly string shooter–we could have built a device like this in any garage or hackerspace in the world using whatever materials and tools we could cleverly cobble together. What’s special about the printers is that they make it easy for us to sell our device once we develop it. Having access to cheap printers means that our R&D process is exactly the same as our production process. If we get a design that works off of the printers, we’re done. Making another copy of the design is as easy as pressing the print button–we don’t have to figure our how to tweak our original garage hack into a product–our original garage hack is a product. As an added bonus, 3D printers really speed up the iteration time on a project. Most of the time, if I spend all night on a hand-built project and it’s 90% working, I’ll just cover the ugly or non-working bits with a band-aid and call it done. Spending another all-nighter in a hackerspace, rebuilding a project to fix a relatively unimportant final detail (like adding brakes to my electric bicycle) is a huge drag (I know, I know…everybody’s got 20/20 hindsight. Shut up!), but if it just takes a couple tweaks in CAD and a half-hour print to bring the product to perfection–sure, I’ll do it.
And, of course, it’s pretty rewarding to watch a couple of kids go nuts with something you dreamed up a day ago. There’s something glorious about designing a product this way–we went from idea to sell-able product in 24 hours, with an R&D budget of $15 (most of that was silly string). Sure, maybe there’s only a couple hundred people in the world who want a silly string booby trap, but if we can find and sell to just a few of them, it’s totally worth the development sprint. This quick build/quick test development cycle is already a common way for product development firms to do product R&D, but now printers are just cheap and reliable enough to let us use them as both prototyping and production machines, and they’re accessible enough that an individual or small company without a ton of money can feasibly own, run and maintain them. This is a technological advance, led by makers, that creates empowering tools for other makers to start their own businesses, to find a way to earn a living off their own creativity. It’s a glimpse into the power of open-source maker tools, and it’s a power that extends far beyond the scope of our project. It’s something we’d like to see more entrepreneurial makers taking advantage of. It’s big!
Back at the Victoria flea market, a man comes up and watches our printers for a bit. After a few minutes, he turns to me. “My name’s Paul, and you’re making crap.” he says, matter-of-factly. “Nobody needs what you’re making.”
We talk for a while, and it turns out he’s a really neat guy. He refurbishes antique books, tanning his own leather by hand, hammering new gold leaf into book bindings and painstakingly using herbal compounds to restore inks and pages and stains. Standing next to our machines pooping out slice after slice of steamy molten plastic, it’s obvious to me. With these machines, I’ll never be anything close to the craftsman that Paul is. I’m not making things that are glorious works of art. But I’m not a craftsman. I’m a troubadour. Bilal and I carry these machines from city to city, making our living any way we can. People don’t buy from us because our plastic parts are elegantly produced works. They buy because we can offer products in a way that nobody else does. We give our customers clever designs, we give them a good product, and we also give them a story to tell. We make things for people in a way that delights them, that’s different from how they normally browse and choose products. We tell them a story that’s unique and interesting about how and where and why our products are made, we pull our customers into the design and production process and give them that unique and bizarre story, a peek into the troubadour’s tent where everything’s just a bit different from the everyday. So no, we’re not craftsmen, and we’re not trying to be. We have machines that make little things out of plastic, and it’s our job to make this interesting and valuable to customers. We’re 3D troubadours, and the show must go on.
Pocket Factory: On the Road, Dispatch #1
David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is on a journey, intensively immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth
Yesterday, I arrived at TechShop at 9:30AM, a half hour after they open. I love getting to the shop in the morning, mainly because it’s quiet. There are only a few people there, usually those working under a deadline who need every open hour to finish their project, and the regulars. Most of the machines and vents haven’t been fired up yet. The relative calm among the machines, the possibilities that hang in the air — it’s an inspiring place to enjoy a cup of coffee and plan out a day.
David Lang and Travis Good, two "Zero to Makers," at TechShop
Yesterday was especially enjoyable. In addition to the regulars, there was a gentlemen set up on one of the worktables, reading intently. It was Travis Good. Travis and I had met the day before and spent the afternoon together taking the TechShop basic woodshop class. As it turns out, Travis is on a similar “Zero to Maker” journey. He’s dedicated the months of January and February to taking all of the classes that he can at TechShop, exploring hackerspaces and making-related Meetups, and immersing himself in maker culture. Sound familiar?
Admittedly, our meeting at TechShop wasn’t accidental. Travis had emailed me in December to tell me about his plans and ask for any advice I might offer. We also made plans to meet for coffee once he got into town. On Tuesday, that coffee turned into an opportunity for me to take the woodshop class with Travis and to share in his experience.
Turns out, a woodshop class isn’t the best place to chat – noisy saws and vents, coupled with a constant vigilance over not losing a thumb. I was glad to see Travis again on Wednesday morning, with a window of relative quiet in the shop, and to hear more about how his journey was going.
He was enthralled with his reading material, and didn’t notice me until I was a few feet from the work table. We exchanged good mornings, and I noticed the table was full of all sorts of materials – different types of wood, metal, and adhesives. I immediately inquired about the materials, and Travis excitedly launched into plans for this and that: using the wood to create dice, trying to weld the metal, maybe slicing the wood four ways, adding a layer of clear acrylic, and making a type of symmetrical coaster. As he talked, it was impossible to ignore his excitement, and impossible not to be excited myself. Even though he had only taken a few classes, he told me he was starting to see so many more possibilities and was anxious to explore.
Explore. I repeated it in my head and then to Travis. As I thought about it, I realized that was the crux of everything I had learned and found on my journey: the courage to explore.
That conversation with Travis helped put things in perspective. I was able to reflect on how far I’ve come over the past few months, as well as to get excited about where to go next. More importantly, it was great to remember that I’m not alone – that a lot of folks are taking the same steps as Travis and I. People are excited about making for all the right reasons: connection, creativity, and community.
If you have a moment and have a similar “Zero to Maker: story (or New Year’s resolution about making), I’d love to hear about it!
Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey
Are you a hackerspace member with an event you’d like to publicize? Send it to email@example.com or tweet me at @johnbaichtal and I’ll post it. Also feel free to subscribe to my hackerspaces Twitter list. Hackerspace Happenings runs weekly(ish) Tuesday(i)s(h).
Soft Circuit Saturdays at Philadelphia’s Hacktory
We would like to announce a new monthly event aimed at people who love knitting, sewing, crafting, or working with fibers and paper. The term “soft circuits” has come to be used in the tech world to refer to a mash-up of electronics and crafts, sometimes with new age materials like conductive thread or micro-controllers that can go in the washing machine. We will be holding these events every 2nd Saturday of the month, to encourage anyone to come and share ideas, see what others are working on, and experiment with these materials. Our first event will be Saturday, February 11, from 1 – 4 pm. We will provide some of these materials for you to work with, we just ask for a $5 donation if you use any. If you want to bring your current craft project to work on, without adding electronics (or giving a donation), that’s fine too! It’s our hope that the monthly schedule will help us get to understand the community of people who are interested in this topic so that we can offer targeted classes and projects for them in the future.
Blinky POV Soldering Session at Minneapolis’ Hack Factory
Adam Wolf of Wayne and Layne, and Twin Cities Maker member will be hosting a class on how to solder one of his popular kits the Blinky POV.
If you’ve never soldered before, this is the class for you! This course teaches through-hole (90% of electronic kits) soldering and is recommended for the beginner. This is a hands-on class where the students learn techniques to help them solder through-hole components. Soldering can be daunting for the first solder joint, then the 2nd solder joint is not so bad, and by the time you’ve assembled the blinky grid, you will be quite confident and proficient in basic soldering skills.
Classes take place at The Hack Factory. We provide all the tools, irons, solder, parts, and seats for up to 8 students.
There is a minimum age requirement of 8 years old, but other than that, anyone is encouraged to sign up. We teach people all the time with no previous soldering experience! You do not need to be a member of Twin Cities Maker to attend.
The class will be held Tuesday, Feb 7th at 7:00pm, and you can sign up on EventBrite.
Learn to Mold and Cast at Cincinnati’s Hive13
Hive13 contains a variety of exciting things to create prototypes from. Learn to mold and cast these prototypes and more using hobby-grade resins and silicone. The class is $40 and includes a take-home pint of slow-cure casting resin. Due to time constraints, molding will only be demonstrate (it takes 4-6 hours for the mold to cure), but we will cast real resin things that you can take home from pre-existing molds (what things is to be determined).
The class will be held from 7:00 p.m. – 10 p.m. Wednesday, February 22. Cut-off date for sign-up is February 17.
The class will cover:
An overview of modern mold-making and casting
Safety and equipment
Building a simple mold box
Preparing silicone and pouring a mold
Casting resin in a mold
Different types of resin
Sign up on EventBrite.
Events at Athens, Greece’s Hackerspace.gr
Sounds like Hackerspace.gr has some cool classes and events coming up, starting with three great offerings tonight!
Open Art Brainstorming
Wed 01 Feb 2012 17:00 till Wed 01 Feb 2012 19:00
A brainstorming session of hackers and artists to check out how we can
Hellug Meetup / anti-ACTA meeting
Wed 01 Feb 2012 19:00 till Wed 01 Feb 2012 21:00
A conversation on how ACTA may change the way we use the net and
planning of further actions.
Wed 01 Feb 2012 20:00 till Wed 01 Feb 2012 22:00
Discussion on an urban event in search of museum and cultural artifacts.
Sat 11 Feb 2012 12:00 till Sat 11 Feb 2012 18:00
With assistance provided by experienced brew makers we are going to make a beerkit and when time is due an all-grain
Thu 09 Feb 2012 20:00 till Thu 09 Feb 2012 22:00
A lightning talks event open to all open source projects (no talks added when I was writing this… if you happen to be in Athens and develop an open source project or actively participate in don’t hesitate to add yours and mention it on the mailing list)
Jaaga, the Bangalore Hackerspace
Futurist and science fiction author Bruce Sterling profiled a new hackerspace in India, Jaaga. There’s a photo gallery and Q&A. Looks super cool — good luck, guys!
Metalab, Extroverted Viennese Hackerspace
While we’re profiling hackerspaces, be sure to check out this great post by Willow Brugh about Austrian hackerspace Metalab, one of the oldest and most respected spaces in the world.
CMKT 4 to Hold More Hackerspace Classes
Circuit benders CMKT 4, who visited hackerspaces to hold contact microphone classes, are back at it again with a new tour starting February 17th and extending into April.
Glen Ellyn’s Workshop88 to Hold Open Hack Every Thursday
Workshop88 is happy to announce a new meeting schedule staring February 2012. Meetings will be at 7 pm Thursday evenings every week, and the open hack night will be Monday nights. Class schedules and the meetup schedule will be updated to reflect these changes. Board meetings will be scheduled once a month.
Mini Lathe Certification Class at Mesa, AZ’s HeatSync Labs
In this workshop the participants will learn the basics of turning metal as well as safety and the specifics of the HSL mini lathe. Operations will include turning parting, facing, boring and drilling on both aluminum and steel. After class you are encouraged to stay and utilize the skills you’ve been learning.
See the class page for information on how to sign up.
Super Happy Hacker House #20 at Vancouver Hack Space
March 3rd from 7pm until the crack of late, VHS will be opening its doors for another awesome SHHH. Please join us for a night of hacking and socializing. Because it’s the 20th SHHH ever, we’ve decided to rent out more space than ever. All the fun of a normal hacking night PLUS extra space PLUS no self-imposed bed time curfew. Bring a project you’re working on, or just come down and find out what Vancouver’s hackers, crafters, and makers are working on.