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:
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.
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…
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.
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?
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.
The Daily Mail has more… I suppose there are sensors in there that are doing things like detecting pollution, harmful substances, etc, etc ?
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.
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!
The folks at Aerogel.org are serious about it: The “Make” section of their exhaustive “open source aerogel” site will teach you how to make high-quality monolithic aerogel the way the pros do it, from building your our own supercritical drying apparatus (“manuclave” is their neologism), to mixing up the wet ingredients, to actually performing the supercritical drying operation. It still won’t be easy or cheap, but all the information you need is right there, well organized and clearly explained.
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
Learn to Mold and Cast at Cincinnati’s Hive13
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!
Jaaga, the Bangalore Hackerspace
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
Glen Ellyn’s Workshop88 to Hold Open Hack Every Thursday
Mini Lathe Certification Class at Mesa, AZ’s HeatSync Labs
See the class page for information on how to sign up.
Super Happy Hacker House #20 at Vancouver Hack Space
Our friends at Imagine Science Films have launched an Open Call for the 5th annual Science Film Festival that occurs every October in NYC. This year, the festival will also take place as part of the first biannual festival at University College Dublin in Ireland, in July. This is a fantastic film festival consisting of music videos, silent films, animations, narratives & even comedies, with each film having a scientific theme, tone, or character. To get an idea, check out the awesome line-up from the 2011 festival. Submit your film early to be shown in both cities. I look forward to seeing your film in the Autumn in NYC!
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