A ShopBotting Dinosaur Evolves

I’ve probably been making things with a ShopBot as long as anyone, except of course for Ted. I got one of the first tools…so early in ShopBot’s history that Ted came to my shop to help put my ShopBot together!… but by the end of the first week had already cut the parts for a small canoe. Everything ran in DOS…including EasyCAD, the CAD program I was using…and there were no toolpathing programs that output ShopBot code, no dxf convertor, no forum, website, or wiki, and as far as I knew no other ShopBotters in the Universe. Talk about a learning curve! Eventually a couple of us discovered each other…Bill Palumbo and Bob Grimm were two of the first ShopBotters I met…and we all started to learn how to do a few things and get a little more efficient. I even learned a little programming and got pretty good with CAD software.

But this is not a history lesson, it’s more of a confession. At some point in the process, I found a system that worked well for me and just STOPPED EVOLVING. I still built lots of cool things and really enjoyed the process, but I had my own quirky way of doing things. I was happy with the way I was working and it worked well for me, but it was definitely funky and “old school”.

I would still be stuck in the ShopBot stone age, happily cutting boat kits and strange on-off projects, if I hadn’t gotten involved with the FabLab in Boston and met Larry Sass, an Architecture professor at MIT. Larry runs the Digital Design Fabrication program there and had a vision of using CNC tools to cut out the parts for houses. Not only did he have the vision, he had actually designed and built a prototype cabin to prove that the idea worked. And it turned out that both mechanically and philosophically, ShopBot fit perfectly with his vision. Larry and I met again in Chicago at a FabLab symposium and he started talking about a “project” that he was working on that a ShopBot would be perfect for. It turned out he was one of 5 architects out of several hundred that had been selected to have a house in the Home Delivery show of manufactured housing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his entry was a New-Orleans style shotgun house that he wanted to cut on a ShopBot. I was excited about the project and jumped at the chance, but had a dilemma. I would have people working with me on this project, and my quirky old dinosaur ways of doing things just wouldn’t work.

Let me give you a quick example. Safety is extremely important, and something that I’m afraid I do a somewhat pitiful job of…with plenty of scars to prove it! I TRY to be safe, though, so in my usual half-baked way I had made my own EStop switches out of push-pull switches, the ones that control a boat’s running lights. The shiny chrome knob didn’t really seem to scream “Safety Switch” to me, so the obvious (to me at least) solution was to hot-glue the red cap from a Butane Cigarette Lighter refill can onto the knob! Although it worked just fine in a shop by myself…if I got hurt it was my own stupid fault…in my heart I knew that this kind of jack-leg solution wouldn’t work when others were using the tools and shop. The time had come… I had to evolve! BCknob

Some 21st century ShopBots to do the work:

I started ShopBotting in the cable-drive days and eventually upgraded to rack-and-pinion drive…an incredible improvement. It worked so well for me that it was as far as I went. My current ShopBot still ran on Utility Strut rails and used the small stepper motors with ShopBot-made belt drive boxes. It’s table…the third in a series… is made of wood, laminated this time out of 3 layers of 1×12, and has a 6″ thick foam panel for a table. It can happily cut at 1″ a second…well, most of the time…and jog at a blazing 1.5″ a sec!

This is all just fine when you’re working by yourself and have a 100 other things to do while the tool is cutting…sometimes you don’t WANT the cutting to be done too quickly! But cutting this house would require cutting lots of sheet goods and doing it fast enough to keep several Grad students busy…1″ a sec (if I was lucky) just wouldn’t cut it. The only choice was a brand new PRSAlpha 96×60, so I put in my order and got on the list. And there was no point cutting with my usual Porter Cable routers with my shiny new ShopBot, so a 2hp HSD spindle went on the list too. This was a production job and needed a production setup!

As time passed, the job kept growing (up to 500 sheets of mixed 1/2″ and 3/4″ material) and the start date became later, and I started thinking about ways to make sure that it got done in time. The logical solution was a second tool, so a PRS 96×48 was ordered, thinking that one machine would be cutting while the other was being unloaded, cleaned off, and loaded with a new sheet. The second tool was picked up at the end of May and assembled next to the first.

(note to prospective ShopBot purchasers: Even though I work for ShopBot and have been involved since the beginning, I STILL had to wait in the queue just like everyone else to get the tools! And I TRIED to pull strings! So when you’re waiting for your tool to ship, just remember that even Bill Young had to wait in line! )

The shop: a new home to work in:

My old shop was big enough…45′ x 90’…but only has 7′ ceilings. It’s also full of 15 years of my accumulated tools, boat parts,  shedded snake skins, and all kinds of assorted treasures (junk!), and is just not setup for the kind of cutting that we would be doing…500+ sheets of ply and 40 sheets of plastic in less than a month. Fortunately a friend had a neat old building for rent that was 25-40′ and had 12′ ceilings…the perfect place to prototype a house… so I rented it to do this project in. It had a new electrical service and even some storefront windows if I wanted to display anything. I was determined not to fill it up with all the misc “valuables” that my current shop contains, and became very selective about what I brought in. Even did a Sketchup model of it to help lay things out!


New computers for new tools:

Ever since I started ShopBotting I’d always just used my old castoff computers that were too slow to do anything else with to run my ShopBot, which meant that they were always having troubles and needing repairs. The current computer runs Windows 98, has a 1.2 gig harddrive, a 15” CRT monitor, and has lost both it’s side cover and front panel so is always full of dust. Oh yeah, the power switch had died a year or so ago so to turn it on you had to short one of the bare switch wires to something metal on the case…definitely low tech.

That just wouldn’t do for my new Shop and ShopBots, so two new Dell VOSTRO computers (with 2 gigs of ram, dual core processors, and 20” LCD monitors no less) were ordered to run the tools. I even took one for the team and ordered one with Vista Business, to help with troubleshooting any problems with Vista. The computers were mounted on shelves on the end wall of the shop, along with the Control Boxes, VFDs for the spindles, and switches for vacuum holddown motors. This setup kept everything in one place and worked quite well throughout the cutting, with wireless keyboards and mice to make it easy to get around.

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