New ShopBot Accessory: The Pressure Sensitive Z-Zero Plate

The new Pressure Sensitive Z-Zero Plate

The new Pressure Sensitive Z-Zero Plate

For a while we have been looking at ways to simplify the process of determining tool length with a ShopBot by improving on the design of the current Z-Zero plate. The two limitations we wanted to address were the need for an alligator clip, which adds a manual step to a process that could otherwise be entirely autonomous, as well the fact that the current design relies on the flow of current through the cutter itself, making it unable to zero non-conductive bits.

The Pressure Sensitive Z-Zero Plate was designed to address both of these issues, while maintaining the strengths of the system stemming from its simple and robust design. The plate is effectively spring loaded by a compressible O-ring to isolate the aluminum plate from the base as shown in the section view below. In this way, the plate is interchangeable with our existing Z-Zero plate, using the same Wago connection and C2 commandUZZP TopdownUZZP Section

Users can expect precision of 0.001” varying radially along the surface of the plate. By leveraging the lack of an alligator clip, designated X and Y coordinates can be set using the over-travel of a tool to fully automate the C2 routine. The example we have set up here at ShopBot uses a Desktop, where the tool has enough travel to allow the plate to sit permanently without loss to the tool’s cutting area, but the set-up can be implemented on any ShopBot tool.


To order one from our first batch, call ShopBot Tools at (919) 680-4800 and ask for Production Support.

Contributed by David Preiss

My First ShopBot Project

“If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” – The Red Green Show

Prior to working at ShopBot, my last excursion into woodworking was high school shop class. The fruit of my labor that semester was a horribly wobbly candleholder – which my mother still may pretend to love.

I’ll admit to having some trepidation a couple of weeks ago when I decided to create a sign for my wife’s pottery studio. As I contemplated this project, which I was planning to give to her for her birthday, I realized how little I knew about wood and woodworking.

Nonetheless, I gave it a go and started by spending too many hours designing the project in VCarve Pro. It was simple to design the words, but I got tripped up adding pictures. I had sat in on TJ’s introductory training session a couple of months earlier, and vaguely remembered him showing us how to add pictures to our project. After a lot of trial and error, I was finally able to figure it out.

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Now that I had my design created, I needed to consider the rest of the project: Pine or oak? Paint or stain? How was I going to hold down the wood during cutting?

Here at ShopBot, we have some excellent resources in house. I asked Buddy (one of our salespeople) about painting signs – as he’s created many signs with his own ShopBot tool. I still had a slew of additional questions, though, and I knew I had to talk to the one man who would be patient enough to guide me through the remainder of the project: our trainer, TJ.

Thankfully, TJ never laughed at me (at least as far as I noticed!) as I asked my newbie questions. He showed me how to check for VCarve software updates, how to re-size my project, and how to recalculate the toolpaths. We got some nice red oak to use, and then he taught me the differences between toolbits, and which one would help make my project pop (it turned out to be a V-Bit 90).

I wasn’t sure about hold down techniques, so TJ and I discussed a couple of options, ultimately deciding on a simple plywood hold down method. TJ reminded me to zero the x, y, and z axes, and we started to cut.

While cutting, we talked about stains, paints, and polyurethane. TJ made all that stuff seem a lot less strange to me. After approximately six minutes, I ended up with this:


I was thrilled – it was the most professional-looking thing I ever made!

I still needed to stain and seal the sign, so I headed to Home DIY Store (name changed to protect the innocent) and contemplated different types of finishes. My wife likes the color red, so I chose MinWax Sedona Red. I was leery about ruining this sweet project by doing a crappy stain job… so I took my time, and applied two coats of stain, nice and evenly.


IMG_1676_sm   IMG_1677_sm   IMG_1678_sm

The last step was to add a sealer. I used the MinWax water-soluble polycrylic, and applied three coats.

Here is the final product:


For a first project, this one was relatively simple. Woodworking with power tools always seemed daunting to me, but thanks to our ShopBot Tools and TJ, the project was made so much easier! I was so excited about it I gave it to my wife the day before her birthday. When she saw it, she burst into tears (the good kind, mind you) – it was the best present I could have given her!

Contributed by Matt Cummings

Desktop MAX Project: A Tiny Table for a Tiny House


Think about the tools that you use to make things in your daily life: a toaster, a hammer, a knife. Now place these tools on an imaginary graph where one axis describes the ease of use of the tool and the other describes its capability. I find that most tools in my life that rank high in ease of use rank low in capability—I’ve never failed to toast a piece of bread in my toaster yet try as I might, I’ll never be able to use it to bake a loaf of bread or a flaky croissant. On the other hand, after years of practice I’m still unable to wield my chef’s knife with the dexterity of a professional chef—this is the opposite end of the spectrum.

The best tools in my life are the ones that I can pick up easily and get results quickly, but as I learn to better use the tool, my capability expands and my results get better and better. I was considering this as I went into the shop this past weekend to try building a piece of furniture for a friend—a piece that had a lot of features that I had no idea how to properly design, much less had ever attempted before.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently visiting a friend who lives across town. She lives in a tiny cabin behind the house of her son and his family and has gotten around in a wheelchair ever since having Polio when she was younger. She’d wanted my advice on a backup heating system in case a winter storm knocked out the power in Durham (something we were at no risk of during our downright balmy December!). The challenge was that nearly every inch of the 300 square foot cabin was taken up with beds and tables and chairs that accommodated friends and grandchildren that frequently visited—leaving no room for a propane heater.

With the help of another friend, we spent an afternoon taking away, adding, and moving furniture in an exercise in spatial reasoning that would make a Tetris champion sweat. At the end of it all, we concluded that in order to add the propane heater, there was not enough space for her existing kitchen table. She then started to describe the substitute table that she wanted me to go find at a thrift store: “No deeper than the computer desk, long enough to seat four friends, but not so long that I can’t get by to get to my bed; drawers for hiding things that my infant grandson shouldn’t be grabbing; enough space to fit my wheelchair under the table.” I quickly realized that this table likely didn’t exist anywhere in Durham.

Having taken mental notes of the requirements I went to work on a design. I recalled a table that I’d seen in a children’s furniture store. It was a short table with two drop-leaf ends that could be folded up and tucked into the corner when it wasn’t being used for coloring. I took the drop-leaf idea and decided to add stability by substituting the normal pull out support with a swing out table leg.


Not being an experienced furniture builder I tried to stick with what I knew—dovetails are pretty but I’ve yet to master that part of VCarve so I made simple box joints, planning to glue or screw them together if the fit wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t quite sure how to design a properly fitting drawer with metal slides so I decided to just cut a few plastic bars that would act as simple slides for the drawers to rest on.

Because the edges of my parts would be showing I didn’t want to use plywood—I selected a pretty, glued up spruce plank from the hardware store. The 2’ x 4’ sheets were a perfect size to fit on the Desktop MAX, leaving just a little bit hanging over one end. After a few test cuts I realized that I needed to re-orient some of the parts to take advantage of the stronger direction of the grain.

image3    image4

Despite my inexperience, after a few mistakes and a few hours I had a nearly complete table. I took it home to my garage to stain and seal the wood; choosing a light walnut color that matched the hardwood floor in the cabin. I sanded the sharp edges and made little adjustments to my drawer slides until the whole thing moved smoothly and felt stable.

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Finally, on New Years’ Day, the humidity vanished and a minor cold snap set in. I went over to my friend’s house to check on her new heater and make sure that it was keeping her warm enough. I brought over the new table as a surprise, hoping to at least give her a place to put her toaster for the time being. She was ecstatic! The table fit right into the space in front of the bed, leaving a lane just big enough to maneuver around in a wheelchair. We oriented it so that the second leaf could be lifted when her grandchildren came by to read with her later that day.


It was a great project for me over the holidays; I got to help a friend and I learned so many new things while also getting the results that I’d hoped for. The next time that I set out to design a table I’ll be looking at it from a new vantage point and no doubt create something even better. This is what I love about the gentle learning curve with CNC tools, the cost for mistakes is low—in this case, just a couple more boards from the hardware store. Not just that, but with each project I complete, a new world of ideas is opened up to me.

Contributed by Brian Owen

Ohio Fab Lab provides 21st century skills and supports entrepreneurship

Lorain County Community College


It all started with a high school student raising his hand and asking a simple question: “Can we have a Fab Lab here?”

The year was 2005, and the questioner was a high-school aged student enrolled in the early college program offered by Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio. The student asked it of Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, who was visiting as part of Lorain’s Meeting Great Minds program. Gershenfeld was opening students’ eyes to the excitement of MIT’s Fab Lab program. He described how Fab Labs are helping people in developing nations all around the globe… how they’re learning competitive 21st century job skills… becoming self-sustaining communities. So the question was provocative. Why not here in America? Here, where we’re trying to build businesses and restore hobbled neighborhoods into thriving communities?

One simple question led to a great answer: the creation of the Fab Lab at Lorain County Community College (LCCC), the first Fab Lab in the United States outside MIT’s local reach in the Boston area. Part of Gershenfeld’s response to the question was to encourage development of a regional Fab Lab network whose members could support one another’s growth. This led to the creation in 2006 of the Midwest Fab Lab Network, hosted by David Richardson at LCCC. Richardson was the driving force behind the Meeting Great Minds program, and also played a leadership role in developing the University Partnership at Lorain; thanks to this Partnership, 2-year students at Lorain can now take 3rd and 4th year undergraduate classes offered on the Lorain campus by nearby colleges.

The blossoming of Fab Labs around the U.S. led to the creation of the US Fab Lab Network in 2009. Starting in 2014, Richardson began to serve as its chair. “I retired from teaching at Cleveland State University in 2000, but I remain involved in Fab Labs for a simple reason,” explained Richardson. “In all my years of teaching I have never seen an educational tool that motivates people more than a Fab Lab.”

President Obama visited the Lorain Fab Lab in 2010. Here he's introduced to a ShopBot CNC tool by the College President, Dr. Roy A. Church

President Obama visited the Lorain Fab Lab in 2010. Here he’s introduced to a ShopBot CNC tool by LCCC President Dr. Roy A. Church

Richardson continued, “There are different methods of teaching. You can talk about your subject matter. You can demonstrate it. Or you can involve the student directly in making. Learning by making is like handing an eager student — or even a somewhat passive student — a seat on a rocket ship. Give them a project, and students take off. This is self-motivated education; there’s nothing more effective, or more satisfying to witness.”

Robert Koonce and Allen Smith,at LCCC’s Fab Lab, displaying plaque they designed and cut on ShopBot to welcome President Obama.

Robert Koonce and Allen Smith (Cleveland Boys & Girls Club executives) display a plaque students designed and cut on the ShopBot to welcome President Obama.

“Everyone leaves Fab Lab workshops with a smile,” said Richardson. “If they leave looking frustrated,  it’s because they haven’t finished their project and want to keep going. I love this kind of learning because it’s not about earning the A, B, or C, or doing well on an SAT. It’s about constant iteration… how can I solve this problem? How can I apply what I just learned to making another version or another project? The bottom line: it’s about self-actualization, and I find it inspiring.”

US President Obama, College President Dr. Roy A. Church, and Fab Lab Director Prof. Scott Zitek, work with 10th grade geometry students.

US President Obama, LCCC President Dr. Roy A. Church, and Fab Lab Director Prof. Scott Zitek, work with 10th grade geometry students.


ShopBot is hands-on with Fab Labs.

ShopBot has been involved in the innovative and progressive Fab Lab agenda for many years, supplying a ShopBot CNC router as an integral component of Fab Labs, including Mobile Fab Labs that tour the country. Fab Labs typically also feature laser cutters, 3D printers, and other digital fabrication tools.

David Richardson commented, “What I’ve noted over the years is that ShopBot’s tools come with really good people.” Richardson recently reconnected with Sallye Coyle, ShopBot’s educational outreach director, at an ITEEA conference in Florida. “She was there to speak with teachers and community college executives, and to demostrate ShopBot CNC’s capabilities. I couldn’t help but notice the way that folks were actively engaged with her demonstration; her presentations drew groups of engaged makers.”

Lorain County Community College is truly a hub of support for innovation in the community it serves. The Fab Lab is just one element of the school’s dedicated resources in support of Technology Commercialization. The College also is home to NEO LaunchNet, offering business startup help; Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise (GLIDE), a unique public/private partnership that supports startups; and the College also provides workforce development, education and training.

You can learn more about the United States Fab Lab Network at their website.

The Nerdy Derby Flat Track

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Cutting a Nerdy Derby Flat Track

Design Decisions:

The Nerdy Derby Flat Track project was created with three criteria:

  • It had to be shape-compatible with the original Nerdy Derby track, so that the same cars would fit on each track
  • All the parts had to be cut-able with a Handibot, so no part could be larger than 6” x 8”
  • It needed to be material agnostic, so that a set of parts could be cut out of whatever material was available. This allows them to be fabricated from waste material as described in Distributed Manufacturing as Waste Management

This Flat Track design has evolved through many versions, but two have bubbled to the top.  My favorite one I just call “Flat Track” and uses rubber bands, ORings, or hair ties to make a flexible, “fluid” connection.

blog elastic connection


The other version uses bowtie-shaped connectors that fit into cutouts in the tracks. It works just fine but has lots of little fiddly bits to keep track of.

blog bowtie connector


Files for both versions are included in the Project Download so that you can make up your own mind which one to make.

Materials and Bits:

Downloading the Project Files (link) will get you several folders and files. If you just want to cut track parts without fiddling with design files, the ShopBot Part Files have already been created for both nominal 1/2″ material that’s really 0.47″ thick, and nominal 3/4″ thick material that’s actually 0.73″ thick. They have been toolpathed for a 1/4″ bit that’s zeroed to the top of the material, and have speed settings for cutting with a Handibot. The files cut through the material an extra 0.015″ deep, with two tabs holding each part (More about this later)

The Project Files also include the tool database setting for the bit I used to toolpath those ShopBot files. It’s named “Bits for Flat Track files.tool”, is in the Shared VCarve Files folder, and if you use the IMPORT function in the VCarvePro tool database,a new tool group with this new bit will be created.

import bit

There’s a great video about working with the Tool Database on the Vectric website

Cutting Files:

If your material thickness is different than those two sizes, or you’re just feeling adventuresome, the VCarvePro files for each part are included in the project files.

The VCarvePro files uses an interesting feature called “Document Variables” that make it easier to modify the toolpaths. In our case, they are used instead of inputting a number in the Cutting Depth field when setting up toolpaths, but can be used just about anywhere in the toolpath. You can find the list of Document Variables at the bottom of the EDIT menu in VCarvePro, and opening it will show the three variables that I use.

Document variables form


The “groove_depth” variable is the depth that the groove is cut that holds the elastic connectors in the “Flat Track” files. It’s not used in the bow-tie versions. “pocket_depth” is the depth of the pockets that are machined to make the lower sections in the track that the car wheels ride on. The default value of 0.25″ matches the regular Nerdy Derby track, but since you’re creating your own set you can do what you want!

If you open the Groove or Pocket toolpaths and look in the Cut Depth field, you’ll see text where you usually see numbers. If you hover your mouse cursor over that textbox you can see its value.

hover value


Calculating with Variables:

The third Document Variable is “thrucut”, and is used a little differently. The Document Variables are defined by the creator of the file, but there are several  Special Calculation Characters that VCarvePro also understands.

special calculation characters

The one we use is “T” which represents the thickness of the material as defined in the Job Setup form. Adding the value of our “thrucut” variable to the thickness value lets us cut a little bit deeper than the thickness of our material to make sure that the parts are cut all the way out.

We define that total cutting depth in the “cutout” toolpath cutting depth field by typing “T”, then “+”, and then hovering with our mouse until a list of all of our Document variables appears. Select “thrucut” from the list and your new formula appears in the box. Hovering your cursor over it shows its current value based on our default material thickness of 0.73”.

old thickness calc

This may seem like an overly complicated way to set cut depths, and for simple parts like these it may be. It is a BIT more complicated than just typing in a number, but what happens if your material thickness changes? You need to find all the places that cut all the way through and change the cutting depth in each toolpath. Or if you want to it cut a little deeper (or not as deep) you’ll need to modify each toolpath!

Let’s say the material we have is really .55” thick. All we have to do is to open the Job Setup in the EDIT menu and change the current value of 0.73” to your new value: 0.55”

new thickness


To see this change you just need to recalculate the toolpaths, and anywhere you use the “T” value will be recalculated and will have the new cutting depth.

new calculated thickness

The Document Variables file that I used, “Nerdy Derby Flat Track.DocVars”, is include in the Shared VCarve Files folder. Don’t be afraid to play with these settings … you can always import this file from the Document Variables form to reset them if you get them messed up.

Using Merged Toolpaths:

create merged toolpath

The last fancy feature is only used in the files for the straight sections, because they have multiple toolpaths—grooves, pockets, and cutout—in multiple parts. If we had just selected the three toolpaths and generated a part file from them, it would have cut them in their order in the list. It would have worked fine, but wouldn’t have been particularly efficient. It would have cut the groove in both parts, then cut the pockets in both, and then cutout both. Lots of moving back and forth.

What we actually want to happen is to have the file finish cutting ALL the features in the first part before moving to the second. That’s what a merged toolpath does—combine the features in each part to make the cutting more efficient.

merged tooolpath form


One thing to be aware of is that merged toolpaths are NOT re-calculated when the toolpaths that they were built from have been modified. Don’t worry that you’ll forget though, because you’ll get lots of warnings after you’ve recalculated a toolpath that was used in a merged toolpath. You just need to delete the merged toolpath and generate a new one, that’s all there is to it!

Also remember that since the new merged toolpath was built from the other toolpaths, when you save your part file you ONLY use the merged file. I’ve renamed the merged toolpaths in the VCarvePro file to hopefully help you remember!

only merged


Want to learn more about using Merged Toolpaths? Watch this Vectric Video


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The project files can be downloaded from Handibot Projects in a zip file.  To help with prototyping and figuring out how many pieces of each you need, Sketchup files are available in the 3DWarehouse to build your own virtual track layout.

Enjoy your Flat Track and feel free to modify the files to fit your needs,


NOTE: These files are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

You are free to:

Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format

Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material

for any purpose, even commercially.

To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

ShopBot Helps UNC Students See the Stars


“Making” as distinct from “Building” is as much about knowing how each part is made as it is about arriving at a finished product. Through the exercise of planning and designing, we learn skills that apply to more than just the project at hand and we become more capable of creating new and better things.

Teaching a set of these skills is the goal of University of North Carolina’s BeAM Maker in Residence program; a project based class where students are guided through the creation of a complicated device by an experienced maker. BeAM facilitates this by identifying a project that will have a significant impact on campus and finding a local maker who can provide the know-how to pull it off. This year, their project was to design and build a large telescope that could be used in cooperation with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to teach students about astronomy at a series of free events on campus.

Raleigh Astronomy Club member Jim Presley, who has built a number of custom telescopes and helped with the observatory at North Carolina State University (NCSU) won the residency. I met Jim at a free sky-watching event where we both volunteer regularly with the planetarium. The kind of telescope that Jim creates is called a Newtonian Reflector. It consists of a large primary mirror that sits at the base of a long tube, the primary mirror gathers and reflects light towards a secondary angled mirror at the top of the tube and this, in turn, reflects the light through an eyepiece which magnifies and focuses the image for the viewer. The tube and mirror assembly is usually attached to a simple stand referred to as a Dobsonian Mount which allows the astronomer to pitch the scope up and down and swivel around to find his target.


Jim was operating one of his beautiful hand-made telescopes that night and we spoke about his process for creating them. Most of the components for the mount are typically designed with simple, straight lines so that they can be hand cut. I asked if he’d thought of using CNC to cut the parts for the project scope and Jim replied that he knew BeAM had a ShopBot but wasn’t sure if they were going to use it. I replied that I just so happened to work for ShopBot and would be happy to come to the class and help out if they wanted a little introduction to the tool.


A few weeks later Andy Martin, Anthony Wong, and I (employees of ShopBot) visited BeAM to provide a brief training session for anyone who was interested in learning more about the ShopBot. We brought along a Handibot that could be set in the center of a large table where everyone was seated while I projected my laptop screen onto a large monitor to give a demo of CAD/CAM and using the ShopBot control software. After a few test cuts with the Handibot, we moved over to the large 5×8 ShopBot to cut out parts for the telescope mount that had been designed for the student scope.


The project telescope turned out beautifully with a hand painted version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night around the body (with the UNC bell tower standing in for the big cypress tree in the original). The signatures of all of the participants were also laser engraved on the side of the mount.

On November 19, the class brought their new scope out to greet students after a planetarium show where the clouds cleared just in time to provide gorgeous views of the moon and stars.


Contributed by Brian Owen

A New Design Resource for ShopBotters Doing Collaborative Work: Fusion 360


I’m always on the lookout for resources for small shops doing digital fabrication – resources that will help these shops operate profitably by improving communications with customers and improving collaborations with partners working on the same project. For small shops doing CNC, 3d-printing, laser cutting, and applying other digital fab technologies, I think of these as essential platform tools for leveraging our digital production technologies. Such tools exist for those working within a corporate environment, but there are fewer resources available for small shops to use when working with individual customers or for interacting with others such as designers and collaborative partners.

Fusion 360 is a new cloud-oriented design resource from Autodesk. It is well-suited to the small shop and could become a supportive platform tool. I’ve been following it for a while and have recently described how it works on the 100kGarages blog. If you are new to the idea of cloud-based resources for design project work, you may want to check out the blog or go have a look on the Fusion 360 website. Fusion 360 is free for a trial month and for students and hobbyists remains free.


Distributed manufacturing as waste management?


Whether you’re a production manufacturer using CNC machines, a cabinet shop cutting panels with a table saw, or a garage hobbyist working on weekends, even the most efficient cutting tools and powerful design sofware don’t let us utilize every square inch of every sheet of material we cut. This often makes us feel wasteful and not only causes bad “environmental karma,” but also has economic repercussions. We’re throwing away useable material, which equals throwing away $$$$.

We all have techniques to minimize how much material ends up in the trash. We try to design for material efficiency, which is wonderful most of the time. But sometimes, those design decisions can have a couple of undesirable side effects. We make things larger or smaller than we really think they should be, just because we have material on the sheet available. This might not always hurt the overall design, but sometimes it does. Or we fill the rest of the sheet with parts we MIGHT need someday, and end up with buckets of spare parts to store. We might end up using them, but we might also make a change to that design, rendering them obsolete. Cutting lots of small pieces on a sheet also uses up valuable machine time on a large machine, time that could be used more efficiently.

12 gallons of wedges

In most cases we cut our parts and then trim our waste material into regularly-shaped blanks and store them for future use. Most of the time that means we spend time cutting off odd corners and lumpy sections with a saw and then stack them in the corner of the shop with the dozens (maybe hundreds???) of other oddly proportioned and oddly sized pieces. If we’re lucky, we eventually find something to do with those blanks, create a custom toolpath, and cut parts out of it.

telephones in scrap

Maybe there’s another option: Distributed manufacturing as waste management!

There are businesses that need large quantities of small parts that can be cut from sheet goods: wheels or gears for toys, spacers for packaging, acrylic covers for inspection electronics projects, etc. What if we could connect those businesses with fabrication shops that could cut those parts from their waste? Material would be used that would normally end up in the landfill so the per-part price could be cheaper… and the material cost is essentially zero!

The “consumer” business could post their product needs with details like the size and description of the parts, the materials they can use, the quantity they need, and any time constraints. They would be connected to “supplier” businesses that could cut those parts from the waste materials left over from their primary cutting jobs.

The suppliers could cut these parts on their production tools, maybe out of material that they’ve saved using the “trim and store” method, but that ties up time on their larger production machine and requires thought and skilled labor to figure out how to hold and toolpath irregular sized blanks.

A Handibot® Smart Power Tool can solve a lot of these problems. Since it can be placed anywhere on the material, no trimming is necessary – just find a large enough spot on the waste material. Place the Handibot in this free space and start cutting. Files could be supplied that were optimized for the Handibot’s 6”x8” cutting area, so that all the operator would have to do is to run the selected file. Processing can be done immediately after primary cutting is finished by semi-skilled labor, creating entry level jobs that give an easy introduction to CNC technology.

Manufacturers needing parts for existing products is certainly one market, but environmentally conscious designers could create projects with parts in the Handibot 6”x8” format. These may be one-piece projects or multi-part projects that are assembled in interesting ways. And a Handibot in a recycling center could be used for contract cutting of wood, plastics, cardboard, etc. from waste materials that have been collected. The skills are easily taught so that these cutting jobs could be done by unskilled labor.


My Latest Adventures in the World of Education

In my role doing community outreach for ShopBot Tools, I have participated in the installation of several new digital Fab Labs/makerspaces in public and private schools around the US. While each of the installations has been different, there are lessons to be learned from each one. Here are a few recent case studies:


IU1, Coal Center, PA (about an hour outside of Pittsburgh)

The Intermediate Unit 1 Educational Campus at Colonial School serves 25 schools in the counties south of Pittsburgh. Funded by Chevron at both the corporate and local level by a grant to the Fab Foundation and implemented by TIES, the stationary Fab Lab at the Colonial School includes a suite of digital fabrication equipment and an electronics lab.

One of the important parts of the installation effort of a Fab Lab is training and education. So before the installation team left, teachers and administrators were trained on the basics of each machine, and created a project to show how the various design software can be used cross-platform. For example, parts created in VCarve Pro CAD (computer aided design) software for full-size production in wood on the ShopBot were scaled smaller and cut out of cardboard on the laser cutter to test the concept and design. Likewise, files originally designed for printing on a 3D printer (additive technology, building up layers of material to create something from nothing) can be reformatted to machine out of a block of material with a ShopBot CNC (subtractive technology). After the educators have had a chance to experiment with the digital technology and electronics lab, TIES will return for additional professional development on how the Fab Lab can be used to augment the educational goals of the school system and engage the students and teachers.



Hathaway Brown, Cleveland, OH

Hathaway Brown is Ohio’s oldest continuously operating college preparatory school for girls. Walking the halls, one can see certificates of patents held by some of its students, art projects, and theatre or music production posters. Their former woodworking shop has been reformatted as a Fab Lab for the middle school age girls.

Who will use the lab? A faculty member from the theatre department participated in the trainings and brought files for a set for the spring production of… I was sworn to secrecy, sorry! The robotics program for the upper school girls will share the space and they are mentored by volunteers from think[box] at Case School of Engineering. Fab Lab Manager, Leah Jackson, is a graduate of Hathaway Brown, and is thrilled to be back at the school.


Hawken School, Cleveland, OH

Hawken School is creating new specialty spaces to expand programs in entrepreneurship and media studies: The Miller Fabrication Lab, Media Lab, Media Production Studio, and Screening Room. Nick DiGiorgio, formerly with the Cleveland School District in STEM education, is now the Digital Lab Manager at Hawken. Until the new spaces are complete, Nick is fitting the digital fabrication equipment into the space available – Hawken’s ShopBot is housed in the set production room of the theatre department, and the laser and 3D printers line the hall.

Nick’s long time collaboration with the Fab Lab/makerspace community can be seen in examples of the carts that he designed for three of the mobile Fab Labs associated with the Chevron Labs. While the mobile Fab Labs are a topic for another blog, this is a good point to talk about the community that arises around the Fab Lab/makerspace movement. Administrations and teachers and parents are talking to each other – the movie mentioned at the end of this post (“Most Likely to Succeed”) was screened at Hawken, and there was a panel of public and private school administrators to discuss the issues raised in the film after the screening. And Fab Labs/makerspaces are collaborating to exchange programming, design, and production services as needed.


Lorain County Community College, Elyria, OH

One of the longest running FabLabs can be found at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio. As a community college, LCCC is charged with a number of tasks, from GED prep to early college; from job (re)training to entrepreneurship; from continuing education and community outreach to 2 year degrees; and partnerships with 4 year institutions. Its Fab Lab does offer production services, as long as the services do not complete with a local business. The cabinetry for the three existing Chevron mobile Fab Labs was machined at LCCC, and here is a photo of the ShopBot table to prove it! As part of the US Fab Lab Network, Lorain’s David Richardson worked with the National Association of Community College Entrepreneurs meeting (NACCE) to educate and communicate to the attendees about adding makerspaces to encourage entrepreneurship.


To gain more of an understanding of why many schools in the US are interested in putting in makerspaces, digital FabLabs or the like, take a look at the film “Most Likely to Succeed.” It contrasts how students become (dis)engaged with math and problem solving skills when they are taught in a traditional lecture format, compared to a hands-on approach that includes project-based learning, making, and community engagement.

Digital Fabrication and your Museum

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As the affordability of CNC, and Digital Printing gets better, and using it becomes more intuitive, these technologies find their way into adjacent fields, like museums. This affects your institution in two very important ways.

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  1. Cost Savings.

My work while at Field Museum, taught me much about how to build cost effective, conservation minded display cases.  The reality of the cost savings of building in house  is understood by all. The shift in technology from industry to small business, schools, and artists, makes what was once highly specialized knowledge, widespread. Now embraced by the underground, outsider culture, CNC and digital printing are changing the way we build. Even the most modest of museums typically have space set aside for either staging or repairs. Now that CNC systems are less expensive, we are seeing CNC as an integral part of these spaces.

While used for repair and signage at first, it is a simple transition to making furniture, and eventually cases. Furthermore CNC lends itself to improving the way things are made. stronger, simpler, less waste.  If your Museum has not transitioned into digital fabrication, it is no longer a question of “if,” but “when.” What was, at one time, a $100K investment, can now be realized for less than $30K, and at Field, we estimated our machine paid for itself in a little over a year.


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  1. Attracting Patrons.

Museums experience periodic shifts in their visitor’s points of view. These paradigm shifts happen around major societal change. These shifts represent  shifts in public awareness. In the twentieth century, things like, “The New Deal” “WWII” or the first tour of “King Tut,” changed how viewers see the museum experience. These shifts, if taken advantage of,  are opportunities for our institutions to change.

Our current paradigm shift is centered around Maker Culture, created in 2006, and proliferating in the digital metamorphosis of our society. The Maker Culture is an immersed generation. Social Media, “Do It Yourself” trends, and prolific volumes of information at their fingertips, has produced a culture that has been brought up researching, sharing information and ideas, and solving problems for themselves.  This has produced an altogether different museum audience, one informed, instantly connected, and concerned.

Shifting Museum Culture, however, is not just the phenomenon of digital saturation, but also of the coming of age of what I refer to as, “Second Generation Greenies.” The average visitor now, knows that museums should protect and preserve heritage for future generations as well as showing cool stuff. Empowered through social media, and brought up on the idea that it is important to actively take part in helping preserve the environment, their sensibilities are different. They understand taking a socially responsible approach to museum operations. This translates into an opportunity to focus on collection preservation.


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More patient, more informed, this generation is willing to wait, if it means exhibitions are built eco-friendly, and artifacts are preserved, much the same as they are willing to pay more for fair trade coffee. From a marketing point of view, they are just as comfortable seeing work in progress, as finished shows. This means no lost opportunities when slowing down our process to do things carefully. Furthermore, this generation understands the importance of a museum’s infrastructure. Many are just as happy to raise money to preserve a collection, as they are to mount an exhibition. They are excited by seeing behind the scenes content, like prep labs, collection visits, and are into events like the member’s nights. This generation is comfortable with simpler more humble looks and materials, such as plywood, or even cardboard, “It is what it is!” They revel in the materials, especially recycled materials, appreciate local sourcing, and are willing to accept extra cost if it means doing the right thing. That means for many institutions the time has come when it is possible to put artifacts above all else.

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An Institution is benefited by generating a sense of ownership and empowerment, among its public. Digital fabrication makes this not only possible, but easy. Most important of all, while the “Second Generation Greenies,” are our Museum visitors, the first generation greenies, or “The Earth Day Culture,” has now become our donors and benefactors.  Institutions on board with digital fabrication, and its benefits, will have the tools to connect as never before.

For those interested, I will be speaking at Smithsonian American Art next month with colleague Shelley Paine, and I have an abstract on this subject submitted to AAM for the upcoming Washington event next year. With a little luck, I will see everyone there, where we can discuss this extensively. Cheers!