Bennett Harris is “Reinventing Science” to inspire kids.

That's Ben Harris grabbing a selfie with Bill Nye "The Science Guy" at the first ever White House Maker Faire, Spring 2014

That’s Ben Harris on the right, grabbing a selfie with Bill Nye “The Science Guy” at the first ever White House Maker Faire, Spring 2014

Bennett Harris (who goes by Ben) is probably best described as a Renaissance man of education. He tinkers, he designs, he builds, he teaches, he’s a tireless evangelist for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Education and its cousin STEAM (add the A for Arts, since it’s all linked), and he puts it all together with his Reinventing Science kits that help capture the imagination and interest of young people in the principles of science. He builds these kits together with the help of a ShopBot Desktop tool.

We caught up with Ben recently to see what he’s been up to — it turns out to be a lot (as usual!)

The successful Kickstarter for “Reinventing Science.”

The most recent great news is that Ben has achieved a successful Kickstarter campaign in support of expanding his manufacture and marketing of Harris Educational’s “Reinventing Science” kits. Ben said, “You may be old enough to remember, that in the 1950’s and 1960’s companies like A.C. Gilbert and REMCO made educational science kits that were sold as popular toys. Kids were excited about the Space Race, parents were supportive of their kids learning new high tech and high science concepts, and schools were racing to be competitive in the fields we now call STEM.”

“Somewhere along the line we seem to have lost that hands-on spirit and as kids became more interested in computer and video games the science kits started to dry up,” Ben explained. “At the same time schools started to do less hands-on science and hands-on projects. ”

“There are science kits available today for school use, and some on big box store shelves, but I’ve found that too many of them seem to be low dollar, low quality throw away items with few (if any) instructions. The majority of them aren’t made in the USA either. I want to change all of that and bring back quality, durable, educational STEM kits for both home use and for schools. At the same time I want to convince parents, kids, and those investing in our future through education that STEM is important and worthy of investment!”

Sounds like a great cause. Here’s the video from the Kickstarter effort:

“Reinventing Electromagnetism” (see picture below)  is Harris Educational’s newest STEM kit. It includes everything (other than a battery) necessary to build a working single-loop simple DC motor and multi-turn compass galvanometer. Includes powerful neodymium magnets. Teaches concepts of magnetism, electromagnetism, electric current.Screen shot 2014-11-18 at 1.31.46 PM












“Reinventing Edison” (below) is Harris Educational’s first and best selling STEM kit. The kit lets you recreate the steps Edison (and other inventors) took to create the first practical incandescent light bulb. Experimenters use a safety vacuum chamber and hand vacuum pump to work with several included filament materials (including Carbon Pencil Lead, Tungsten, and others). Along the way you learn about voltage and current, air pressure, history, invention, properties of matter, and more.

Screen shot 2014-11-18 at 1.32.04 PM

















Commitment to North Carolina education.

One of Ben’s goals with the Kickstarter is to help fund his effort to build a permanent Maker space, with an educational focus, in his hometown of Burlington, NC. A proud graduate of the Technology Education program at NC State, Ben is devoted to bringing inspiring science education to his community. He was the engine behind the first Alamance mini-Maker Faire and continues to be involved in growing this event. He’s now searching for a permanent home for a Maker space where he can build his kits, teach classes, and invite other educators to get involved in offering hands-on learning to young people (and older!).

Ben is involved as a volunteer with the EV Challenge, which was founded in North Carolina back in 1996 and has been a very active program ever since. Ben explained, “The mission of the EV Challenge is to energize high school students about engineering through a real world electric vehicle program.” Students who get involved get the opportunity to build real, full-size plug-in electric vehicles, participate in a yearlong educational program and competition, all the while learning numerous skills including: applied engineering and environmental science, electrical troubleshooting, public speaking, and community service.

The EV Challenge has a great intro video on this page of their website.


The new EV Challenge Electric Circuit Troubleshooting Simulator by Harris EducationalBen has created and produced a product, The EV Challenge Troubleshooting Simulator,  that’s now in use as part of the EV Challenge curriculum. Ben said, “The EV Challenge is a high school program where kids take donated gasoline vehicles and convert them into fully electric vehicles. The students then compete in a race event that also includes a troubleshooting challenge.”

“Harris Educational created this trainer so that every school in the competition could afford to have one in their program. It is designed to teach principles of EV circuits, failure modes, and logical and safe troubleshooting skills. It is my hope that the EV Challenge program will grow to include more schools and more student groups from around the country — and also, when we’re able to open a permanent Maker space, we can be helpful to the EV Challenge students at this venue.

EV Challenge participants using the simulator

EV Challenge participants using the simulator

The EV Challenge website explains that participating in the Challenge course and events ” is often a life-changer for students and has a significant positive impact on their experience of science and engineering. Recent research indicates that:
•    84% of the students become more confident in their ability to learn science.
•    68% of the students become higher performers in their science class.
•    34% of the students are more likely to pursue a career in engineering.
•    30% of the students are more likely to pursue a career in science.
The program is currently serving high schools in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, West Virginia, and Iowa and would like to grow to include a national reach.”

A couple of photos Ben has taken of EV Challenge events…

Students roubleshooting wiring issues on an EV

Students troubleshooting wiring issues on an EV







Making last minute repairs and updates to this STEM Cycle from Dudley High School in Greensboro, NC

All of this commitment led to a very special invitation this past Spring…

White House Maker Faire!

On Wednesday June 18th 2014 President Obama declared a “National Day of Making” and hosted the first ever White House Maker Faire. Ben said, “I was very honored and proud to be invited to the White House as an ‘Honored Maker’ for the work I’m doing with Harris Educational, The Alamance Makers Guild, The Burlington Mini Maker Faire, and my Maker Made STEM kits. Kudos to all of the creative and talented folks who were picked as exhibitors for this event! Very Inspirational Day!

President Obama addresses the Makers

President Obama addresses the Makers

Kudos to Ben for his work! You can learn more about the kits at his website, Harris Educational.  And learn about the ShopBot Desktop here.

Calling for: CNC’d Seasonal Décor

Winter’s coming and the holiday season is almost upon us. We’re calling all “Handibotters” and “ShopBotters” to participate in our first annual:


How does this season inspire your creativity? We invite you to CNC it and share it! Whatever holiday you may celebrate, share your CNC project with ShopBotters and Handibotters everywhere by helping us decorate our tree at ShopBot World Headquarters in Durham, NC. Have fun with your materials and supplies, and show us how you celebrate this special time of year.

Be creative and have fun! We ask that you make your item using a ShopBot or Handibot as the primary tool – feel free to use other techniques and tools as well.

We’re building a CNC’d tree at ShopBot that we’ll use to display all submissions. With this in mind, your creation should be similar in size to a tree ornament (no larger than 3”–8” on any axis) and weigh less than 1 pound. It must fit in a flat-rate box or envelope for shipping. Your final design can be 2D or 3D, as long as it fits within the rest of the parameters.

Submissions must be received by Dec 15th, 2014.
The tree will be fully decorated by Dec 22nd, 2014 and a photo of the completed tree and the design submissions will be posted to the ShopBot blog and Facebook page. The tree will remain up through New Years 2015.

Please send your item (packed carefully) to:
ShopBot Tools, Inc.
Attn: Holiday Decor Challenge
3333 Industrial Drive
Durham, NC 27704

Please include your name, email, and any information you’d like to share on how you made your piece and any references to resources and materials you used to design and create the submission. Tell us your story, about your inspiration for the project. You and your design could wind up being featured on the ShopBot blog some time in the near future!

THE FINE PRINT (Please Read!)
We encourage you to upload a photo of your submission on the ShopBot Tools Facebook page, but this is not required to take part in the challenge.

By submitting your CNC holiday decor challenge entry, you are authorizing ShopBot to publish your project in upcoming publications and promotional materials, on our websites and in our other e-media, as well as to possibly display it at shows.

We welcome the use of open source or licensed projects, as long as your submission does not include any elements that are protected by copyright without the expressed written permission from the person or institution that holds the copyright.

ShopBot will not be held responsible for loss or damage due to circumstances beyond our control.

Contact Jeanne Taylor at with any questions.

Freedom Challenge Ministries serves more people in need, thanks to their growing ShopBot-based business.


Just about any time of day, any day of the week in Balstrop, Louisiana, you’ll find an industrious production facility with 4 ShopBot PRSalpha ATC tools running at full tilt. About 11 years ago, James Brent (Pastor Jim) was called into the ministry and felt compelled to witness to people in need; specifically people who weren’t already involved with the church. “It wasn’t really on purpose that I started all of this…” he explains, “As we started witnessing to drug addicts and wanted to help, we decided early on that a few church services weren’t enough to turn their lives around.” And thus Freedom Challenge Ministries was started.

Freedom Challenge Ministries has had hundreds of graduates of its faith-based, year-long program committed to helping men (and women in its sister program, Morehouse Women’s Challenge) overcome their struggle with life-controlling addictions. Some individuals are court-ordered into the program, but many come on their own. Freedom Challenge Ministries offers a safe, controlled environment — for an extended period of time — with little or no cost to the families, and operates completely on charitable donations.

In the early days, when looking for ways to get the word out about the ministry, as well as fund it, “some of the men decided to make crosses using jigsaws.”  Floyd Arnaud, Director of the Men’s Group, explains, “we had collected scrap wood from a local cabinetmaker and about 6 guys cut out crosses one-by-one.” After selling the crosses in local Walmart parking lots for several weekends, and handing out flyers about Freedom Challenge Ministries mission, the popularity of the crosses grew to the point that they quickly exhausted the cabinetmaker’s supply of scrap and had to begin buying material to produce the crosses.


After services one Sunday in August 2009, Pastor Jim had a thought: “Let’s make a football cross, and paint it in the Saints colors!?!” To say football is big in Louisiana would be a huge understatement. The 2009-2010 season for the Saints was one to remember after years and years of disappointing seasons – the first Super Bowl win took the team and the region to new heights and hope. The Saints-painted crosses were a huge hit and essentially launched the need for a more automated and streamlined manufacturing process. Pastor Jim, through the recommendation of a colleague, contacted ShopBot Tools to learn about ShopBot and eventually lead to the purchase of their first machine. Pastor Jim recalls his first conversation with Dianne in sales at ShopBot. “Dianne asked lots of questions about what we were trying to do and gave me information about the tools. She also encouraged us to look at other CNC’s to be able to compare. The fact that ShopBot makes their own tools so they really understand them, have affordable pricing, and that they have excellent tech support made ShopBot our choice.”

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These days, Freedom Challenge Ministries has nearly outgrown the 20,000 square foot shop and fabrication facility that allows the men to work onsite together to generate the products that help pay for their living expenses. Creating over 70 different cross styles and sizes is only a portion of the many wood veneer and MDF ornaments, tractors, animal, decorative shaped products they create and sell. Jake, who went through the program himself 7 years ago, has stayed on at FCM and is the main operator and shop coordinator of their CNC machines. Even taking the tools offline for some software updates and tune ups can put them behind on orders that come in daily.

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Each weekend teams of men package up crates upon crates of painted, stained and decopauged crosses and other items that are taken across Louisiana and Texas to Walmart store fronts,. Once each month, truckloads of product are taken to the Canton, Texas, flea market where Build-A-Cross has a permanent storefront along with several booths selling everything from their crosses to monograms to grab bags of “filler” containing every imaginable wooden shape. They are also rapidly growing their internet business, which often makes it difficult to keep inventory stocked. Orders come in daily and are regularly produced and shipped the next day.


Outreach is continuing to expand. The demand for their crosses and other products has never been higher. Pastor Jim believes this is just the beginning of their outreach and ministry possibilities locally and beyond.

To learn more about this organization visit:
To see some of the products they make and sell visit:
To learn about full-size ShopBot PRSalpha tools visit:

Celebs like Jessica Chastain love wearing Sidney Molepo sandals. Sidney Molepo loves his ShopBot.

Designer/Manufacturer Sidney Molepo

Designer/Manufacturer Sidney Molepo


Film actresses Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), Cody Horn (“Magic Mike”), and internationally renowned singer Celine Dion have something in common: their love of Sidney Molepo’s unique shoes and fashion accessories.

Mr. Molepo, who was educated as an architect and furniture designer, in recent years has turned his attention to the smaller, personal items that people can use and interact with every day.

Sidney says, “I create unique handmade fashion accessories. I recognize your individuality and am committed to designing and making products that meet your values and unique personal style. Now you can be red carpet ready with your very own piece of handmade luxury!”







Actress Cody Horn with Sidney Molepo clutch

He’s not kidding about the red carpet. Here, actress Cody Horn clutches a Sidney Molepo clutch.

It begins with a pencil sketch

It begins with a pencil sketch

Each clutch features vegetable-tanned leather, hand-died with eco-friendly pigment, and natural or black-stained walnut accents. Each clutch is completed with metal hardware details and magnetic clasp closure. Sidney adds, “With the ShopBot Desktop, I cut the wood pieces and also use a v-grooving bit to engrave my logo on the sides of the clutches.”

Clutch from various angles

Clutch from various angles…

clutch front two clutchesSidney works out of the studio that he has built in his home in Montreal, and shares his story: “I was born in Ramotswa, Botswana, and raised in Ottawa, Canada. I am the son of a political refugee, and due to Apartheid in my parents’ native South Africa, my family and I immigrated to Canada. As a child, I spent my time drawing, and making toys from found materials.”

“This creativity led me to pursue a degree in architecture,” Sidney continues, “and to discover an interest and talent in designing and making solid wood furniture. This passion led me to New York City where I was fortunate to work with notable furniture and product designers. Among them was designer Dakota Jackson, and it was while interning there that I first became exposed to CNC— a large Thermwood tool. This was an eye-opener for me and I started to dream about being able to own my own digital fabrication equipment to add to my collection of traditional tools.”

While living in Brooklyn, and inspired by the creative culture around him, Sidney became intrigued with the possibilities of how his background as a furniture maker could translate into making unique fashion accessories using wood and leather.

Bag made of leather and ash veneer wood. Sidney had been invited by celebrity stylist Elizabeth Stewart to contribute an original handbag to be auctioned at The Bag Lunch charity event of PS, a non-profit dedicated to improving children's lives through arts education.

Bag made of leather and ash veneer wood. Sidney had been invited by celebrity stylist Elizabeth Stewart to contribute an original handbag to be auctioned at The Bag Lunch charity event of PS, a non-profit dedicated to improving children’s lives through arts education.

Wood detail

Detail of wood, cut and engraved with the ShopBot Desktop

The sketch

One of the first sketches for the bag

“I first became familiar with ShopBot Tools while living in Brooklyn,” Sidney explains. “I saw an ad in MAKE magazine for the Desktop tool and was intrigued to see the power of CNC being offered in a small package — potentially just right for the work I envisioned. I looked at some competitor tools, but what led me to decide on the ShopBot Desktop aside from its affordable price point, was that I saw that it is a heavier, more robust tool than others, and I like that it functions at 110 volts so it truly can be a small studio-based / home-based tool. I can easily say that I wouldn’t be able to bring my products to life without the ShopBot!”

Using the ShopBot Desktop in shoe design and fabrication.

Sidney explains, “I use the ShopBot in various ways to make my sandals. For instance, one necessary element in making a shoe or sandal is the shoe last. The last is a mechanical form that has a shape similar to that of a human foot —  you use the last as a mold around which to create the leather upper portion of the shoe.”

“Shoe lasts are expensive, and so thanks to CAD and digital fabrication with a ShopBot, I can now make my own lasts for use in shaping the leather straps for my sandals” says Sidney.

Creating a digital probe of a shoe last on the ShopBot Desktop

Creating a digital probe of a shoe last on the ShopBot Desktop

He continues, “I use the digitizing probe to scan the bottom of my existing shoe lasts. I then bring the information into Rhino 3D and I’m then able to design the outsole for my sandal wedges around the exact geometry of the bottom of the last. Once I finalize the design, I then use Cut3D to generate the toolpaths and then I machine the walnut blanks into finished outsoles on the Shopbot. And thanks to the accuracy of the initial probing, the machined walnut outsoles fit perfectly to the bottoms of the existing lasts.”

“In Rhino, I also use the digital info that the Shopbot made of my existing lasts to design the bottom and top halves of the mold for the bent veneer laminations that form the outsoles of my Dumela and Phepa sandals.”

Machining a mold segment for sandal

Machining a mold segment for sandal

A completed outsole laminating mold

A completed outsole laminating mold

Carving a footbed prototype

Carving a footbed prototype

Machining the walnut outsole for the Tlou sandal

Machining the walnut outsole for the Tlou sandal


Take a look at some of the finished work. This is the “Tlou” sandal.

Two views of the Tlou sandal.

Two views of the Tlou sandal.

Tlou 2

This is “Phepa”

Phepa sandal, two views.

Phepa sandal, two views.

Phepa 2

Sidney explains that all of the leathers used in his designs are vegetable-tanned, with no chemicals such as chromium sulfate.  He continues, “I design templates for the leather patterns in Rhino and then I create the 2d toolpaths in VCarve Pro, which I then run on the Shopbot. I cut the templates out of 1/4″ birch plywood with an end mill bit. I then manually cut the leather patterns using the templates. I had planned on buying the Donek drag knife, so that I could cut leather directly with the Shopbot…..but I never got around to making that purchase… maybe in the future!”

In addition to using his Desktop to engrave his logo on clutches and show outsoles, Sidney will engrave the lid of the shoe boxes. Here’s the one he made for Jessica Chastain.

Shoe box for Jessica Chastain's sandals

Shoe box for Jessica Chastain’s sandals


Molepo has also created Mopedi Body Balm, a hand cream made from beeswax and food safe mineral oil. “I use the ShopBot to machine the birch lid for the bottles. Also, the logo on the lid was printed with a rubber stamp I made on the Desktop, using a v-grooving bit.”

body balm 1 Looking ahead, Molepo is hoping to have his work discovered by more high-end clients, and is working to pitch his unique creations to small retailers.

“That ShopBot has created these tools that are so precise and powerful, and made them affordable to a small business like my own just starting up, is a blessing!” To learn more about Sidney’s work, visit Learn more about the ShopBot Desktop here.

A Day Without “Bells”


Whether it is woodworking or robotics, one of the challenges of teaching in a public high school is that the bell rings for the next class just as the students/teachers have really settled into their projects. So it was a privilege to have 3 students from Kelvin Hasch’s woodworking program at Greely High School in Cumberland, Maine, work with their ShopBot™ CNC machine for an entire day: 8:45 to 2:15.  The contrast became evident when most of the students from the first period class had to leave for the next class just as they were beginning to grasp the possibilities of their ShopBot.

moving the ShopBot with the computermachining the first parts

The morning started with explaining how the ShopBot was set up, and having the students give the computer commands to move the cutting head to the next X, Y and Z location (Quote: “How cool is that!”)  Using the V Carve Pro™ CAD/CAM software, they designed new files, placed them on the material where they wanted to cut them out, created toolpaths to cut them out how they wanted them, and machined the parts.  By the end of the day, the team of students was working independently, only relying on Mr. Hasch or me when they couldn’t come up with the answer themselves. The students represented three classes: Senior, Junior, and Sophomore, so the knowledge they acquired doesn’t have to be lost when a single student graduates. Rather, it can be sustained as the rising students mentor younger students.adjusting the Dust Skirt machining a part machining duck and panda puzzleparts post tuneup

working together

If you measure success by smiles and enthusiasm, everyone got an A. If you want to assess tangible outcomes, you can measure math skills, reading technical documents, perhaps writing technical documentation, entrepreneurship. One student said he had missed a quiz in math, but he was going to tell his teacher that he had been doing math all day when running the machine. More global skills such as design thinking, problem solving and working together as a team are not as easy to quantify but can have a huge impact on a student’s future.

The Program: Kelvin Hasch runs a traditional woodworking program, with all of the standard power tools. He runs an afterschool program where kids in traditional classrooms and those with special needs work together to create crafts. They donate the money they earn from selling the crafts to a charity that they have decided is worthy.

the shop 2 the shop 1 carfts for sale 1 crafts for sale 2

The tool: Mr. Hasch’s ShopBot PRT is a “legacy” tool, built in the early 2000’s, and once swamped by a leaking roof.  With a bit of tuning, it will be in fine working shape for years to come.  Problems with “step down” in the cut parts were fixed by securing the router more firmly to its bracket, and the plate that allows you to automatically Zero the Z was wired into the Control Box.  ShopBot has sent a replacement for the cable that had dry-rotten after sitting in a bag for 10 years. The Porter Cable™ router will be replaced with a more powerful and precise spindle (already purchased.)  While the CAD/CAM (Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Machining) software has been updated, upgrading to Aspire™ could allow the kids to design in 3D, or take models designed for 3D printing and machine them on the ShopBot.

pre-troubleshooting_edges of parts not square_bad cable other students regular class town of Cumberland maintenance department

The Future: Mr. Hasch’s operating budget has been decreased over the years, so he relies on donations of wood and other materials to provide supplies for his students.  He often does in-kind exchanges to supplement the program. For example, the maintenance crew from the town of Cumberland visited while we were working, and came away with a whole host of ideas of how they could make use of the ShopBot in their work.  The gym recently replaced its bleachers, and Mr. Hasch and his students are planning on creating products from the wood recycled from the old bleachers to sell and purchase a laser cutter for the program. With a bit of communication, students interested in robotics and engineering (STEM), and those interested in art, will learn that they have an incredible digital fabrication resource hanging out in the wood shop.


Meet Gustavo Bonet. To the NYC design world, he’s becoming known as “the Fixer.”

Gustavo Bonet, architect and designer. He helped out at the ShopBot booth at this year's Maker Faire NYC

Gustavo Bonet, architect and designer. He helped out at the ShopBot booth at this year’s Maker Faire NYC


Gustavo Bonet is a traditionally trained architect who started making furniture in Florida before moving to NYC to get his Masters in Architecture from Columbia University. Gustavo says, “During my time at Columbia,  I developed an interest and skill set in digital fabrication and parametric workflows. That drive came as a result of needing and wanting to understand how 3D digital designs are made.”

“It started with an elective course in casting plaster, where I began to dive into digital fabrication. The desire to design for digital fabrication has since then driven the direction of my professional career as an architect here in New York.”

I spoke with Gustavo recently to learn more about his work. (You can see a lot of it at his Instagram site.)

Gustavo says, “The best way to describe the work I do with my studio is, we are the ‘fixers.’ We serve our clients (architects, interior designers, artist, private clients) with tangible design solutions for executing/ materializing their designs.”

“Usually clients contact us because they can’t find anyone to execute a design due to cost, lead time, or complexity of the work. For every project we work on, we provide solutions that include digital fabrication. This has led us to always be working on a range of items from products, custom installations, and modern furniture. The studio is fully equipped with a ShopBot PRT, all the tools of a modern shop, and a team that can parametrically or traditionally design really anything presented to us.”

The studio is run with the help of his project manager, Diego Rodriguez, who was a student of Gustavo’s at Columbia. One of their recent projects is the design and fabrication of custom dishes. The studio was contracted by a hospitality designer to collaborate with the chef of a famous NYC restaurant (sorry, it’s apparently a secret), who wanted a custom butter dish and dessert dish…

Corian beurre dish prototype

Corian beurre dish

“I created designs working in Maya, then imported the work into Rhino. We sourced dark and cream-colored Corian and began to prototype. After the prototype stage, we’re now working with 3/4″ Corian and are CNCing them in batches of 20 dishes. It takes about 20 minutes to first cut the top of the dish, then we flip the material and cut the bottoms.”

Another recent project involved fixing a white oak credenza that was suffering from poor shelving design, leading the piece to begin sagging. “We re-did the design of the interior shelving and shelf slots in order to make the piece sound. Digital design and CNC saved the day!”

White oak credenza project

White oak credenza project

Detail of CNC'd shelving for credenza

Detail of CNC’d shelving for credenza

Below are Gustavo’s interior furnishing designs that were commissioned by Public Supply of Brooklyn, NY. Public Supply is a for-profit company that produces responsibly sourced and well crafted writing, art, and office essentials.  From their site, “We channel 25% of profits from every sale to a teacher in a high-need classroom, who will use the money for a project that drives creativity. All design work on our products is done in Brooklyn, New York, and all products are sustainably sourced in the United States.”


Public Supply furniture

Public Supply furniture; counter of Baltic Birch, naturally stained. 1/4″ marble top

Shelving of Baltic Birch

Shelving of Baltic Birch

Finally, here is some of Gustavo’s parametrically designed work, creating a water ripple effect for CNCing 6 X 6″ MDF panels, for a civic project in Queens.

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finished panel

finished panel

In addition to his studio work, Gustavo teaches “Intro to Digital Fabrication and Parametrics” at CUNY in Brooklyn, where he works with 3rd and 4th year architecture undergrad students. I asked him to give me the “Parametrics for Dummies” quick explanation of the concept of parametric design. He says the way he begins to explain it is with a metaphor of Pixar’s animated filmmaking. “Basically, think of it as working in 3D geometry. To create a face for instance, you begin with writing the code to create the spheres that together form the pieces of a face. You start with code and ‘work outward’ to the finished idea.” Works for me as a starting point!


Andy Pitts to other fine woodworkers: “Don’t be afraid of CNC!”

andy pittsAndrew Pitts of Heathsville, Virginia, is a self-taught studio furnituremaker with 38 years experience. His beautiful, detailed furniture has been featured in numerous exhibitions and garnered more than a dozen awards.  He is an active member of several local Virginia artists’ associations and the national Furniture Society. With his many years of experience, Pitts only recently added CNC technology to the mix, with his purchase of a ShopBot Desktop CNC router about a year-and-a-half ago.

For Pitts, the reasoning behind adding CNC to his extensive workshop was a practical business decision. “I view the Desktop as just another tool in my shop, and it’s perfect for certain tasks that make my work easier. One of the ways that I make use of the Desktop is to make small items —  that I traditionally only hand-carved — a more efficient process.”

Among the many offerings that are displayed on Pitts’ website, are small customizable plaques, many of which sell for less than $100. “Quite frankly, the carving with the Desktop is wonderfully precise, and its efficiency enables me to make more plaques quickly,” says Pitts. “These plaques are conversation-starters with my customers. If I can interest someone in visiting my shop to discuss a $49 plaque, then that opens the door for me to give a tour, show my larger pieces, and who knows, end up talking about a commission for a $4900 credenza.”

Here’s one of those $49 plaques, made of cherry wood.

The Deer in the Forest. This piece is individually carved to order on hardwood by a computer numerical controlled (CNC) routing machine, touched up with hand carving gouges, sanded, then finished.

The Deer in the Forest. This piece is individually carved to order on hardwood by a computer numerical controlled (CNC) routing machine, touched up with hand carving gouges, sanded, then finished.

Pitts’ prior career was in the Navy as a nuclear engineer, and he says that the Navy unexpectedly prepared him for success as a designer. Pitts explains, “The discipline necessary to command three warships over the course of my career, and operate aircraft carrier nuclear reactors, translated into an astute attention to detail and pursuit of perfection in my wood work.” Inspired by his time of service, Pitts designs and crafts many service-related pieces:

Officer's Sea Chest and Shadow Box. Materials: cherry, white oak, red cedar, holly. Ebonized oak with shellac polish finish. Brass hardware. 16"H x 32"W x 20"D

Officer’s Sea Chest and Shadow Box. Materials: cherry, white oak, red cedar, holly. Ebonized oak with shellac polish finish. Brass hardware.
16″H x 32″W x 20″D

ofcrs chest 2

Andy Pitts explains that the precision afforded by the ShopBot Desktop enables the construction of the drawer openings and other openings that you see on this Officer’s Sea Chest. “Precision is astounding,” Pitts remarks. “I visit the ShopBot Forum quite a bit for tips, and have found people talking about using 1/64-inch ballnose bits on the Desktop. It’s quite remarkable what this tool allows you to accomplish.”

Naval Surface Warfare Officer Insignia Box. Walnut with Brass Hardware, Lacquer Finish 12"W x 10"D x 3" H

Naval Surface Warfare Officer Insignia Box.
Walnut with Brass Hardware, Lacquer Finish
12″W x 10″D x 3″ H

naval ofcrs insig box 1naval ofcrs insig box 2

Here are some of the furniture pieces that Andy Pitts designs and makes:

"From The Bay" blanket chest. Cherry, walnut, white oak, red cedar, tulip poplar Shellac Polish Finish 36"H x 51"W x 20"D. Finalist, 2011 Niche Awards  

“From The Bay” blanket chest. Cherry, walnut, white oak, red cedar, tulip poplar
Shellac Polish Finish
36″H x 51″W x 20″D.
Finalist, 2011 Niche Awards

"From the Bay" chest, open view.

“From the Bay” chest, open view.


The ShopBot Desktop is likely the smallest tool in Andy Pitts’ “arsenal” of woodworking tools, especially when you consider that he has even milled his own lumber — with enough wood to last for many years of projects. Here are photos of his lumber sawmill, which he recently sold, and his solar lumber kiln:

lumber sawmill and solar lumber kiln

A committed steward of the environment, Pitts uses pre-fallen hardwoods local to the studio, harvesting, milling and drying them himself. Pitts explained that he “wants to celebrate the wood’s inherent beauty, respecting its imperfections and variations. I use only clear finishes, avoiding stains that might mask the grain.”  One can recognize a Pitts design by the grace of its curves, exquisitely matched grain patterns, exacting joinery and meticulous finishing…

bow front showcase“I admit that I put off adding digital cutting technology for a few years,” says Pitts. “A lot of traditional woodworkers frown on CNC as ‘cheating’ somehow. When I bought the ShopBot, some furniture making colleagues told me I’d gone over to the ‘dark side,’ — I think they were only half kidding! I have to say, that throughout history furniture makers have adopted the most efficient tools of their time. If CNC technology was around 100 years ago, professionals would have used them then. It’s just another tool!”

Pitts says he was heartened to see some very well known furniture makers in attendance at the Furniture Society conference in Washington State who have adopted CNC for precision carving. “I think we’re starting to turn a corner, where more and more furniture makers who consider themselves to be artists are unafraid to integrate CNC into their processes.”

Andy has a very full library of YouTube videos in which he shares his work process; they’re not “how to” videos but rather allow you to watch as he works. Here’s just one of them, in which he gets going on one of his first projects on his ShopBot Desktop. Andy says that the YouTube channel has been very helpful in spreading the word about this work.

Introducing the Standalone Indexer Tool

ShopBot Standalone Indexer Tool

ShopBot Standalone Indexer Tool


ShopBot is known for making high quality CNC tools at levels of complexity and cost that are approachable to individual users. These tools perform full 3 axis CNC machining operations on a wide range of sizes and types of material.   Adding an indexing head, often called an indexer or 4th axis, increases these capabilities even further.  With the indexer installed, the ShopBot can be set up for turnings, multisided operations, and full 4 axis machining.  With these capabilities, the ShopBot can create parts that would have been time consuming, or even impossible with conventional 3 axis machining.

Often, when people first see an indexing head setup they think of it as a lathe.   The indexer setup has two significant differences from a standard lathe.  First, the spinning bit provides cutting force instead of the rotation of the work stock.  With the bit performing the cutting action, the turning axis is freed to move at any rate needed.  It can be programed to move in the reverse direction and stop at any defined point in its rotation.

The other improvement over a lathe is that the ShopBot is able to move in 3 directions relative to the turning axis. Because of this, standard 3 axis cutting operations can be performed on any side of a work piece.


A case study application

Recently, a customer came to ShopBot Production Support seeking help with setting up to cut custom rifle stocks. Rifle stocks are a great example of parts that can be made more quickly and simply with a 4 axis tool.   They require cutting operations on at least three separate sides.  On a standard tool each step would require careful tool and material setup.  The piece would have to be picked up, rotated and, precisely repositioned after each cutting operation.  This process takes time and invites error.  With an indexer, a file can be made that performs all of these steps with no stops to reconfigure the workpiece.

While working to create a procedure for this specific application, we found that there was an opening in our lineup for an indexer specific version of a ShopBot. We developed this tool in parallel with the application project.  We were able to identify many issues that the increased complexity of a fourth axis brings up.  These lessons heavily influenced the development of the tool and future indexer applications.

Machining a rifle stock

Machining a rifle stock


Big capability, Small footprint

The intent of the Standalone Indexer Tool was to provide full 4 axis machining capability in a tool with a much smaller footprint than the conventional 96 by 48 inch setup. At first the plan was to build a CNC lathe with only three axes.  These would be the turning axis, the longitudinal axis, and the vertical axis. This resulted in a machine with great turning ability but did not allow milling work to happen on any specific face.

Adding the fourth transverse axis allows an end mill to extend deep into a part and create precise 90 degree milled pockets, and important feature for inletting metal receivers into rifle stocks. The extra axis also allows the tool to be used for conventional 3 axes routing when an optional deck is installed.

Milled pocket

Milled pocket


Low backlash gear head

Chucking up a large piece of stock revealed a limitation with the existing indexer gear head. The backlash in the head was 15 arc minutes.  At 4 inches off center this movement resulted in approximately 0.020”.  In continuous turning operations with pressure exerted in one direction, the backlash was not an issue.  However, when doing two sided machining the slop created an issue with tolerance error.

Citing this issue, a low backlash gearhead was selected. This head reduced backlash to less than 3 arc minutes.  The side to side movement reduced to below 0.005 inches.  This change allows multi-sided and multi-direction machining.

In addition to the gear head we developed procedures to speed up the zeroing process.     Zeroing the tool with a set routine allows fast and repeatable setup for production operations.

Indexer head and tail stocks

Indexer head and tail stocks

Custom tool configuration

The modular nature of ShopBot tools allows a great variety of customizable configurations. The Standalone Indexer is one example of this capability, and uses only a handful of specialized parts.  If you have a need for a tool that doesn’t quite fit into our advertised lineup feel free to contact ShopBot.  We will discuss your needs, offer some suggestions, and issue a quote on a tool that exactly meets your needs.



Foot Print

L36” x W96” x H67”


Nominal Cutting area

L20”x W60” x H6”


Actual Full Motion Area

L21” x W62” x H8”


Maximum Turning Area

Maximum Radius 4.75”

Maximum Length 48”

Square Stock 6”x 6”

Organic Transit’s human-powered transportation: good for people and the planet

The Elf by Organic Transit, outside of their headquarters in Durham, NC

The ELF by Organic Transit, outside of their headquarters in Durham, NC

If you’ve been walking or driving around the revitalized and thriving downtown Durham, North Carolina, in the past year or so, then sightings of a colorful, pedal- and sun-powered trike called the ELF won’t surprise you. As described on Organic Transit’s website, the ELF is the company’s first product and already a big hit: “The ELF is a solar and pedal hybrid vehicle powered by you and the sun. It’s a revolution in transportation and gets the equivalent of 1800 MPG. Hand built in the USA, the ELF is legally a bicycle, so it can travel on bike paths, park on sidewalks and requires no gas, license, registration or insurance. It can travel up to 20 mph on electric power only and up to 30 mph when combined with pedaling. It can hold more than a dozen bags of groceries and can handle an amazing 350 lb. payload.

What’s also cool is that this innovative company has been collaborating since the beginnings of the ELF “project” with another forward-thinking Durham company, ShopBot Tools. More on that relationship in a moment; first you really need to take a look at the ELF in action. This is a good piece from UNC-TV from June of 2013; the design of the ELF has evolved some from what you see in this news story, but take a ride…

As noted on Organic Transit’s site, the ELF features: “a beautiful Trylon composite body combined with rugged carbon fiber provides weather protection, visibility in traffic and is much safer than a bicycle. Advanced LED headlights, brake lights and turn signals make the commute, trip to the grocery store or coffee shop fun and safe. The 100 watt flexible solar panel assures charging assistance anywhere the sun shines.”

“Because of the radically efficient design, the ELF is the cleanest possible mode of transportation for the environment. If the ELF is used regularly, it can prevent as much as 6 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere each year. That is the equivalent of a 100% solarized home at a fraction of the cost!”

“The healthy, efficient, economical, weather protecting, cargo carrying ELF is perfect for commutes, resorts, shopping excursions, gated communities, college campuses and urban living. It is indeed a revolution in urban eco-mobility.”

How it all started.

Rob Cotter, Organic Transit Founder and CEO

Rob Cotter, Organic Transit Founder and CEO

The concept of the ELF is the brainchild of Organic Transit’s Founder and CEO, Rob Cotter — and the idea has been stewing for a long time. Rob started out in California working on Porsche and BMW race cars. Not far away, Dr. Paul MacCready built the Gossamer Condor, a pedal powered aircraft. Rob become fascinated with the technology and built a 60 mph pedal powered trike. Highway speeds at fractional horsepower became an obsession. Rob became VP of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association and directed the first solar car race in the US. With support from GE and DuPont to develop composite and thermoforming technologies, Rob built or contributed to numerous innovative vehicles. After consulting on Bike Sharing technology for NYC, it became apparent there was now a viable market for an ultra-efficient vehicle that was between a bicycle and a car. That was the beginning of the ELF.

The ELF gained serious traction as a Kickstarter project meant to create buzz, early interest, and funding for a first production run of ELF vehicles. Rob expresses his team’s early passion for this project on the Kickstarter page: “We dreamt of a world in which people and goods could move from place to place cleanly and efficiently. We pictured a vehicle powered by humans and the sun that would revolutionize transportation as we know it. We called on a hugely talented group of friends to get involved; between us we have more than 100 years experience designing and building solar cars, bikes, and other human powered vehicles.”

Early renderings for the Elf

Early renderings for the Elf

Rob says, “Together we set about putting ideas to paper. Over the course of a year, we came up with a design that was both stylish and efficient and brainstormed ways in which such a vehicle could change the world.”

Rob describes some of the early process, where the ShopBot first played a role in prototyping the ELF. “Making a model out of foam core and wooden struts is one thing, but making a body that can be used on a moving, functional vehicle is a whole different story. Once the team had convened and constructed and adjusted and tweaked it was time to turn the refined design into something more substantial.”

“We hired an industrial designer named Ermanno who took advantage of his membership at Tech Shop Raleigh-Durham to turn the CAD renderings into a full sized foam plug on a ShopBot CNC tool. Hundreds of hours of shaping and sanding later, the plug was coated with auto body paint to give it a smooth glossy finish that would be easy to pop out of a composite mold.”

Ermanno and the coated plug, cut on a ShopBot

Ermanno and the coated plug, cut on a ShopBot

Fast-forward to today: the Kickstarter is successfully behind them, well over a hundred or so ELFs have been shipped out to customers worldwide, and Organic Transit has moved a few blocks away from its original location.  We caught up with Rob to talk about his vision of the company, its ongoing collaboration with ShopBot Tools, and his ideas for the future.

Rob Cotter with Elf

Rob Cotter with ELF


Rob: “As I mentioned we used the ShopBot in the early prototyping of the ELF, and since then we’ve acquired our own full-size ShopBot CNC tool and are using it in a variety of ways. We cut several of the flat panels for the inside and outside of the ELF; these tasks alone, cut on the ShopBot, save us hundreds and hundreds of hours over performing the cuts manually.  We are also using our ShopBot to quickly create less-expensive molds for the vacuum-forming process, and also to cut quick dimensional models of our new product ideas. We’re looking forward to continuing to collaborate with ShopBot; their production team is really good at helping people improve upon various steps in the manufacturing process.”   factory floor good_sm

Organic Transit's ShopBot Tool

Organic Transit’s ShopBot Tool

panels hanging up_sm
















“We’re more a design firm than a manufacturer” When asked of his vision of the company and the possibilities for other new transportation solutions, Rob responds, “We view our business as designers; we’re driven by a passion to come up with useful new products for people and planet, with an eye toward how we can help people live healthier, reduce their carbon footprint, and ultimately save money along the way by using a more efficient form of transportation.”

When it comes to manufacturing, Rob says, “I want to do my part to enable local manufacturing. For instance, if you view this in a more traditional sense, scaling up might for example involve investing in a million-dollar vacuum forming tool, or outsourcing manufacturing overseas. But why go these routes when you can buy a used tool sitting idle in Ohio for 15 thousand dollars, bring in an expert to set it up, and find a space for it in a town that could use the economic boost. Right now we’re looking to do just this in North Carolina, and bring some good new jobs to a rural area.”

Ted Hall, ShopBot’s Founder and CEO, is excited to work alongside Organic Transit and is a big believer in this forward-looking view of manufacturing. “Our mantra at ShopBot has been to make the power of digital fabrication technology more readily accessible and usable by anyone. We make affordable tools that empower starting and growing a business. We love to see new technologies being put to work in innovative ways, and helping create new jobs.”

One possibility for the future of the ELF is to see it utilize the distributed manufacturing model. Rob notes, “I could envision one day soon shipping the pieces and parts of an ELF in a crate, along with an instruction manual, to someone participating in the network who owns a ShopBot tool. They could build their own ELF.”

Ted added, “You could also one day start to ship the ELF parts overseas to a FabLab in a less developed area of the world. FabLabs are outfitted with ShopBot tools and a whole array of digital fabrication tools, to help enable local manufacturing globally.”

This video is a good summation of Rob’s view of how Organic Transit can contribute to people and planet…

And finally here’s a recent review of Organic Transit’s latest model, the ELF 1.5, by

Learn more about the management, research & development, and design team at Organic Transit at their website. To find out more about ShopBot’s full-size CNC tools, click here.   As mentioned in this story, ShopBot Tools provides custom production support services for manufacturers; learn more about how we can help you here.

International Woodworking Faire was huge!


The 2014 International Woodworking Faire took over two of the buildings at the Georgia World Congress Center August 20-23rd. Building B, where our booth was located, pulsed with activity. “There was definitely more traffic than in the past few years and we’re seeing more cabinetmakers looking to automate their businesses,” Ryan Patterson said.

Cutting and carving on the tools generated interest and questions from cabinetmakers, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, and soon to be retirees looking for second-career opportunities. Some attendees saw the machines in action and wanted to know more about how our tools can fit into their work flow.


Our booth showed a variable range in size and set-up of tools: the 4×8 PRSalpha ATC, a large indexing tool, and the ShopBot Desktop. We cut everything from logos, impromptu signs, baseball bats, to gun stocks, Swedish-style carvings and more.

The Handibot Smart Power Tool came with its own fan club, and allowed us to tell the story of where we see the Handibot’s development going and its supporting ecosystem,  as well as share Handibot’s unique ability to “go with you” to the job site and to the material.

We were so happy to visit with the many Shopbotters who stopped in to chat, had a few questions and some that are considering adding another ShopBot to their productive operations. Nate Zellmer noted, “Over and over we hear that people use their ShopBots to help make money and that their machines have paid for themselves time and time again.”


Habitat for Bats makes bat houses and stays busy with selling and producing that product year round.


Wright Elevator Solutions uses their tool primarily to make parts for custom elevator car kits.


Ted Derryberry of makes Plywood gunstocks, and during downtime makes intricate wooden bracelets on his ShopBot.


KidsFit Manufacturing makes ­­furniture for kids that incorporates kinesthetics.

Shout-out goes to John Zehren of the Field Museum and Eric Schimelpfenig, who were a tremendous help in the booth sharing their experiences. Eric’s impromptu SketchUp and Handibot advice was much appreciated. John brought with him models of animal skeletons and mummy cases from his work at the Field Museum in Chicago, as well as his infectious excitement for digital fabrication.

johnZehryn-IWF EricSchimelpfenig