Andrew 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.
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
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
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” 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:
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…
“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.
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
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.
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
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.
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”
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
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
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
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: “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.”
Organic Transit’s ShopBot Tool
“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 100kGarages.com 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 ElectricBikeReview.com:
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.
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 7.62x54r.net 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, SketchThis.net 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.
Architect, designer and educator John Thomas Heida relaxes in his retro, flat-pack chair
John Thomas Heida is an architectural designer, a furniture designer, and a digital-fabrication specialist at the School of Visual Art’s Visible Futures Lab. He teaches at the New York School of Interior Design, School of Visual Arts and at Pratt Institute in New York City.
Serving the NYC and SF Bay Area for over 8 years, John has worked with Architecture Firms (& related industries), Jewelry Designers, Furniture Designers, & world class Branding Agencies in various capacities. He brings a toolkit packed with software, construction, and fabrication knowledge which helps him to provide cutting edge solutions to the most demanding clients.
John teaches Furniture Design and Sophomore Studio at Pratt Institute and Rhino software at School of Visual Arts in NYC. He has previously taught architecture studio courses and has been an invited design critic at Columbia University, UPenn School of Design, RISD, UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, and Parsons The New School for Design.
Besides being well versed in construction technologies and methodologies, John is also fluent in many digital fabrication techniques, including 3D Printing, CNC Milling, and Laser Cutting. John is currently the Digital Fabrication Specialist at SVA’s Visible Future’s Lab in NYC.
I caught up with John by phone recently:
MB: Several people at ShopBot found your article in Popular Mechanics and were excited to see the retro chair design recreated (or more correctly, created anew) with the help of CNC technology. How did this project come about?
JH: The editors at Popular Mechanics came to me with what was basically a proposal/challenge, “Can you CNC this?” “This”… being a classic American chair which features the bending of wood to make a one-of-a-kind design. The impetus behind the assignment is the magazine’s initiative to delve deeper into CNC and other digital fabrication technologies and share its potential with their readers. So of course I said YES!
Photo by Reed Young
The trick here was to find a way to pay homage to the classic curved design using ‘2D’ pieces.
As John notes in the article: “I built this chair without touching a single traditional woodworking tool. No, it’s not because I’m some kind of Luddite. I just love the immediacy of rendering a chair with 3D modeling software and then cutting out the parts with a CNC machine. Everything snaps together like flat-pack furniture, but without the cheesy fasteners—just mechanically sound through tenons and lap joints. The manufacturing process takes 2 hours.”
John found that he was able to get material for making two chairs out of a single 4 X 8 sheet of plywood.
The Popular Mechanics article provides a link to the files, so you can get to work making the chair yourself. John notes, “Download all the files for this chair and open the 3D model with a CAD (computer-aided design) application. I use Rhino ($995, PC/Mac beta), but if that’s too expensive, use the trial version or Autodesk’s free app, 123D.”
ShopBotting the parts at the Visible Futures Lab at School of Visual Arts, NYC. Photo by Reed Young.
MB: Can you talk about your work at the School of Visual Arts?
JH: Sure. The Visible Futures Lab was created about 2 years ago; it’s integral to the graduate program at SVA for Industrial Designers and Fine Arts students. This Lab supports all of their work. Basically it’s a maker space furnished with all of the traditional and digital fabrication tools that you’d expect, including a laser cutter, 3D printers, and of course a ShopBot CNC router which we used to make the classic chair.
MB: Can you share some detail about your work with the students?
JH: Well that is interesting because at SVA I have the opportunity to work with students with varying interests. I work closely with Fine Arts students, who are thinking about design very differently than industrial designers. With Fine Arts students, they are using the CNC and other digital fabrication equipment to help them visualize and create often very fluid sculptures and other structures. Altogether there’s a “freedom” from the rigid requirements of architecture; you’re trying to make an emotionally provocative piece of work, and are less concerned with getting exact tolerances down to the 1/100th of an inch.
MB: And the industrial designers…
JH: Well of course they need to be concerned with getting the tolerances right!
John has been building an impressive and varied portfolio of work. Here are just a few samples:
The Leonard House in Tiburon, CA. Walker and Moody, Architects. The sculptor who lives here provided the architects with small plaster shapes and said, “I want to live in these spaces.” John notes: “To realize the forms, the artist’s clay molds were 3D scanned, imported into Rhino and then given a technical ‘make over.’
John was contracted to handle all 3D modeling, as well as to coordinate with the multitude of contractors enlisted for the project. The model was first used as a tool to gain client and city approval. Once this was accomplished, the model then became the drawing set for all parties to reference. Boat makers were hired to create the complex forms out of FRP (Fiber Reinforced Plastic). John modeled all steel components in Rhino and then exported the model to a steel detailer. The steel shop drawings were then sent back as a 3D model and checked against the Rhino model. Concrete form work was made in the model as well. It was milled by a fabrication firm and then used to create the complicated foundations, sills, and walls. Glazing, handrails, and composites were all extracted from the model as well.
Highwood Square project, New Haven, CT. Graftworks LLC. Awarded First Place, Housing, in the Connecticut Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Excellence in Construction Awards for 2011.
Highwood Square is a 45,000 sq ft low income housing development with an artistic bent. Applicants must not only qualify financially, but they must also submit a portfolio of artwork to be considered for housing. Once accepted, the applicant is housed in a One, Two or Three bedroom apartment. Each unit is also given a designated studio space located on the first floor. The studios are arranged so that art openings and gatherings build and sustain a sense of community, while allowing the artists to sell their wares.
The complex is situated on an old perfume factory site. Two of the existing buildings were retained and have been incorporated into the new design. Bright colors are used to suggest the characteristic creative nature of the site, and to bring some visual interest to the inexpensive and generally mundane, off-the-shelf building materials. The units are designed in ways that lock them together vertically and horizontally, offering some unexpected double height spaces, nooks, and exterior decks.
John notes, “My primary responsibilities included design, drawing set management, 3D modelling, detail drawings, coordination with consultants, and materials research.”
Locust Projects, Miami. Graftworks LLC. John: “Three years after our PS1 Young Architects Competition entry, a gallery in Miami, Florida commissioned us to build our project in their outdoor space. Located in the Wynnwood Art District, this commission afforded us the opportunity to test our proposed system of building.
“The parasitic nature of the structure creeps from the roof, over the main outdoor space, and into the parking lot located next door. Shade, seating and a bar became the main programmatic elements that guided the form of the installation.
“Construction of the assembly was completed in three weeks, thus affirming our position that our kit of parts could be an economical (under $10,000) and efficient method of building. Built from over 500 pieces, the assembly is based on four standard parts.
“My responsibilities included building the 3D model, coordinating the milling, producing construction drawings, and managing the build on site in Miami.”
Learn more about John’s work and see samples from furniture to jewelry to architectural projects, at his website.
Hi, I’m Ryan Patterson, head of Production Support at ShopBot Tools. One important aspect of our company that I think sets us apart is the way we work with people to customize solutions for their production needs, from helping them to choose the right tools or tools, to assisting them with the configuration of tools to meet their changing needs. I’ll be blogging here on a semi-regular basis to share examples of this.
In this situation, we took someone’s old AXYZ-brand CNC tool and brought it back to life with a new ShopBot controller…
Once we replaced the older controller with a new ShopBot controller, this AXYZ tool was ready to go… “Powered by ShopBot”!
We received a call from an owner of an older AXYZ-brand CNC machine. The machine had gone unused for several years and was stored in a warehouse, gathering dust. Unfortunately, this warehouse was also home to rats, and they’d used the CNC’s control box for a nest.
The owners cleaned out the control box, and found the rats had chewed through a lot of the wiring. We started by going back and forth with a couple of phone conversations and emailing of pictures to determine what would be the best control system for this machine and what existing components could be reused. You’ll find an overview of ShopBot CNC controls and drive systems here.
We found the VFD and the motors to be in working condition. With the AXYZ’s motors being open loop, and a higher amp motor, we determined our RBK system would be the best match.
Old AXYZ tool gets new ShopBot controller
Once the machine was delivered we started with a good cleaning and removed all the non-working components. Just a couple of hours later we had ShopBot’s RBK system installed and powered by ShopBot’s control software. Nothing like making an older tool useful again!
How can we help you? Just give us a call and we’ll see what we can do to make your tools work productively for you.
photo (c) 2014 The Field Museum, photo by Emily Krakoff
Look closely and you can see John Zehren in The Field Museum’s Production Shop, just behind the shop’s full size ShopBot PRSalpha CNC router. John is the Exhibitions Productions Shop Supervisor, and has been with The Field Museum in various capacities since 1997. In addition to John’s expertise in cabinetmaking and case-making, he is an experienced sculptor and welder. More broadly he views his role as an educator as well, to production designers and technicians at the Field, as well as to school groups he visits around the country.
John Zehren with museum lounge benches he created
What exactly happens in the museum’s Production shop? In John’s own words, “It ain’t complicated. This is where we make stuff; metal stuff, plastic stuff, wood stuff. I always tell people facetiously that this is where everything in the museum comes from. But it’s not exactly untrue; the Production shop is where we make everything from benches to play structures to installations. We construct as much as we can right here in the shop, so we are conserving resources and not outsourcing our work. This is just a more responsible practice. It saves us money and recycles materials. Our line of thinking comes from George Washington Carver, who advocated for problem solving with the materials you have at hand. We have that here.”
As described on its website, Chicago’s Field Museum’s mission is to “inspire curiosity about life on Earth while exploring how the world came to be and how we can make it a better place. We invite visitors, students, educators and scientists from around the world on a journey of scientific discovery.
- Our exhibitions tell the story of life on Earth
- Our collections solve scientific mysteries
- Our research opens new vistas
- Our science translates into action for a healthy planet
On display now are featured exhibits such as “Biomechanics: The Machine Inside,” where visitors can “find out why every living thing—including humans—is a machine built to survive, move, and discover, and explore the ways in which these marvels of natural engineering have inspired ingenious man-made mechanisms.
“Biomechanics: The Machine Inside” a unique exhibit on display at the Field Musuem through Jan. 4, 2015
I caught up with John by phone recently to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes to make the Field’s exhibits so dynamic and interactive.
MB: Can you talk a bit about the Biomechanics Exhibit as an example of using CNC in your production process?
JZ: Absolutely. There are dozens and dozens of great examples; we use the ShopBot as well as 3D printers in almost all of our work now. For Biomechanics, one of the coolest installations was the Heat Theater. The initial idea here was to create some sort of immersive, almost 4-dimensional theater world that people could walk through, in order for visitors to experience what it feels like for animals and humans to live in every different climate on Earth. I built the wooden-framed structure that the Theater would “hang” onto…you can see here it’s a cave-shaped, 30 foot long by 20 foot wide arching structure.
It’s sort of a warped quonset hut that needed to go together and come apart easily. The joints snap together and come apart very easily — and it’s the CNC technology that really enables us to do this kind of structural design and build. You want to be able to take it apart, put the entire framing into one crate, and send it off to its next location. Ideally, it’s best that one person be able to construct and deconstruct the installation; it’s possible with this kind of designing for CNC cutting.
MB: And the Brain Scoop video?
JZ: Yes, you really HAVE to watch this short “Brain Scoop” video (below). It’s the behind-the-scenes story of the Heat Theater from conception to reality, and lets everyone involved in the project tell the story…
JZ: Building this Heat Theater with the ShopBot is a good example of how digital fabrication has really changed everything about museum production. Traditionally, a lot of museum production work has been at its essence about cabinetry: figuring out the best way to house whatever it is that you are displaying — “building boxes” if you will.
When it comes to building those boxes, CNC has enabled us to make huge leaps in terms of constructing near-perfectly airtight display units — on its own a big achievement and I can say more about that. But CNC also expands the possibilities for installation design creativity. As you can see in the video, the nature-inspired shape of the Heat Theater was made so much easier to pull off with the technology of the ShopBot.
MB: How long have you been using the ShopBot?
JZ: We purchased the ShopBot tool in 2010. And it’s fascinating because adding the CNC cutting station to the shop allows for two processes to emerge. On the one hand, it helps to eliminate operator error and reduce material waste… a person can be trained to run the tool to make the needed cut AND… this same person, if they’re intrigued about the technology and where it can take them, can start to learn how to alter and improve the DESIGN of what they’re working on. So it’s not just about “pushing a button” and stepping back. It’s about learning how to grow as a designer and builder.
Assembly of display case, cut on the ShopBot
MB: Tell me about your work on improving display case design and construction.
JZ: This is an area we’re quite proud of. When it comes to case-making, your goal is to eliminate acidity from the air inside the case, and reduce the speed of air exchange — the time it takes for the outside air to fully replace the air inside the case. All of this is in service of preserving whatever artifact you have placed on display.
For many years, wood has been the material, and it is deadly to artifacts because of its natural acidity. The acid leaches into the air and harms the artifact. So we’ve been designing cases with aluminum sheeting facing inwards, and making lots of advances in making more perfect seams. This is enabled by our use of CNC technology.
I’ll brag a little. We’re now able to build cases where the air exchange is slowed to about 10 days, whereas the typical rate of air exchange is around three days. And we’re able to create these cases for substantially less cost than is the norm. We’re sharing this knowledge too! I’ve written a paper about our work, and we’ve been sharing our work with colleagues around the country. Every musuem is on a budget — so we’re trying to help others benefit from what we’ve learned here at The Field.
MB: We’ll close by sharing some photos of John and his team doing the installation of “Opening the Mummies,” a 2012 exhibit at The Field. This exhibition features two ancient Egyptian mummies in Field Museum collections, displayed in their coffins. These mummies were formerly displayed in the Yate exhibition Opening the Vaults: Mummies.
Without unwrapping them, the Field’s CT scans and the 3D imaging in 2010 made clear that these mummies were not merely objects #30007 and #11517 but real persons who lived and died thousands of years ago. The Field learned that one mummy was a woman in her forties with curly hair. The other was a teenage boy, who was buried in a coffin too big for him.
Setting up and leveling the rails which support the case deck prior to installation.
Display case for mummy 30007 is a tad small for John.
Finishing touches prior to installation
Placing the mummy
Pretty cool for a day job, eh? And we didn’t even get to John’s work welding on dinosaur skeletons!
John Murray Productions of Oakland, California, is a full service event planning and production company specializing in scenery and stagecraft for corporate clients, focused on designing and producing innovative, memorable, and cost effective special events. Just a brief glance through their gallery of work and you see that John and his crew of 12 graphic artists, carpenters (doubling as welders) and producers have taken the notion of creating “signage” to an entirely new level. Here are a few snapshots of their installation at The Host Analytics World 2014, at the SFO Marriott.
John Murray Productions worked with Seamless Productions to produce the set and lobby branding environment. The event’s theme title – engage, empower, evolve – served as the focal point of the 15′ x 80′ graphic set, with glo walls flanking the 9′ x 16′ screens. The hotel’s escalator repeated the theme with a branding treatment that covered the entire 4 sides, as well as a custom registration area, all printed on JMP’s large format eco-friendly latex printer.
I spoke with John Murray by phone recently about his company’s work.
MB: John, give us an idea of what your production shop is like.
JM: Well if you think about it, this exhibition business that we are in really boils down to being a combination cabinetry-and-signage business. You’re either creating “boxes” of some kind to mount things on, large areas on which to project videos and other graphical elements, or a combination of the two. So our scene shop is really a cabinet shop at its core, with all the traditional tools you’d expect — table saw, band saw, drill press, chopsaw. Plus in recent years we’ve added our ShopBot 96 X 48 PRSalpha tool with a spindle, and we run the [you know what!] out of that tool day and night… We also have invested in an 8ft-wide latex printer, and have a complete backdrop painting facility. This is unique to Northern California. Actually the space we’re in was built back in 1928 as a scene shop for local theater companies.
MB: Can you describe your work process?
JM: Well it depends on what stage the production is at when we come on board. We’re often referred by companies that do video development and projection, and they’re in need of a scenic source after the video/lighting/sounds pieces of the project have already begun. Sometimes we’ll receive highly detailed CAD files, other times just pencil sketches.
In nearly every case we have to create build drawings. We prepare the details in Vectorworks, and ultimately bring it into CAM, but along the way there is a lot of back and forth collaboration between us, the rigging crew, the lighting crew and projection crew. In this special events/corporate theater world Vectorworks is the go-to program. It has plug-ins for lighting designers so they can use it for their conceptual drawings.
MB: What’s a recent highlight to share?
JM: Well this one is pretty interesting, as you’ll see. Immersive Audio Visual approached us with a pixel mapping project for the 2014 Kaspersky Cyber Security Summit. We were hired to create scenery on which a video from Kaspersky Cyber Security would be projected. The video was designed to dramatize the technological process of image-mapping, and made use of multiple focal lengths to create its images. So they needed a projection surface which itself was multi-dimensional! With just 10 days to accomplish the design-build, and the provided Sketchup drawing, our work was cut out for us. First just check out the video, it’s pretty cool….
JM: The set consisted of a 75′ wide by 13′ high flat wall with a center screen, and flanking walls covered with boxes of varying size that the projection team masterfully used as a backdrop for their set. The challenge came in building such a detailed projection surface within a very short period of time, but our crew managed to build the entire set in 2 days. The result was fantastic! Here are some stills of the projection set…
MB: I understand that you’ve been involved with Chevron’s efforts to support STEM education?
JM: That’s right and actually it’s a project that’s near and dear to me. I earned my B.A. in Biology, and assumed when I got out of college I’d be combining my love of science with my passion for building to go to work in a museum creating educational installations.. Well, about 8000 corporate logos later… I’m having this tremendous opportunity to build STEM Zones.
This started about three years ago, when we were approached by Chevron to help them re-make their golf sponsorship events into STEM awareness events. Typically at golf tournaments, there will be corporate hospitality areas for hosting clients and educating them about the company. Chevron wanted to make it a highly interactive area where they’d clearly promote their interest in supporting STEM education.
The first STEM Zone installation we did was to create a TV studio environment that showed people all about the technology behind creating a TV broadcast. The place looked as though it was built by kids as a cross between a clubhouse and mad scientist’s lab!
Since then we’ve created “STEM behind sports” installations, demonstrating the physics behind golf, and now we’re working with the NBA on the Science of Basketball, the Giants on the Science of Baseball, the 49ers on the Science of Football. And most recently we attended the USA Science and Engineering Festival which had presences from Chevron, Project Lead the Way and FabLabs. So it’s a very exciting time for us, getting involved in supporting STEM.
Chevron STEM Zone installation
John Murray Productions uses a full-size ShopBot PRSalpha tool. You can learn more about it here.
We’d love to hear about new and different applications for ShopBot Tools. Add your comment or get in touch using ShopBot’s Contact Form.
Cheryl and Kent Wille of Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, are embarking on an exciting new chapter in their lives: taking their first steps in launching their own business together. KNC Woodcrafters offers its customers a variety of original, eye-catching home products made of quality woods, such as cheese slicers and cutting boards. They are currently working on new designs for puzzles and games, and small furniture. From their Facebook page:
We have the ability to customize our existing product line with monograms, scripts, logos, and graphics. Or when additional customization is desired, we work directly with you to create your own unique wood and sign creations for any occasion.
With Kent’s 30 years as woodworker and general contractor, and Cheryl’s background in IT, the two started to daydream about a new, creative challenge that they could embark on together. Cheryl said that they “brainstormed a lot of ideas, including opening a restaurant, getting into real estate upgrading and selling homes, and toying with CNC technology to design and make their own products.”
The couples’ complementary skillets seemed the most natural approach and led to their decision to start KNC Woodcrafting. One of their first investments in the business was a ShopBot Buddy CNC tool.
KNC Woodcrafters has a growing line of cutting boards and cheese slicers
Cheryl explained it this way: “My husband and I are a team in this world. He is the experienced woodworker and I have a computer background; so the two of us are forced to work and learn from each other. I didn’t know collets; and he didn’t know vectors. He works in fractions; I work in decimals. I’m intimidated by the table saw; but with my computer background, running the ShopBot is second nature.”
The Willes recently attended a ShopBot training class at the company’s headquarters in Durham, N.C., which they said was very helpful to their growth as new ShopBotters. “We both learned a lot from TJ at the ShopBot Training — he made it fun and interesting for everyone there,” Cheryl noted.
The Willes’ sent TJ Christiansen, their ShopBot instructor, a special present after training. The note reads in part, “Your training (both in person and web) gave us a great start in the CNC world…I know you’ll appreciate the process in creating this Mexican Vase cutting board. The machine cut the pieces flawlessly to provide tight, curved joins.”
“Starting this new project is making for a very interesting change in our marriage,” remarked Cheryl. “We actually are forced to communicate; without it, the result is doomed to fail. Overall, it is very positive and we are no longer just two different people that happen to live in the same house; it has given our marriage a new definition; and hopefully we can figure out how to make some money too!”
Computer technology is getting both less expensive and easier to use all the time. So if you’re even just thinking about the idea of making a product yourself either as a hobby or as a business, there’s little or no barrier to entry for anyone at any age, to take advantage of computer-driven design and fabricating tools.
To browse the many types of items you can make with the help of a ShopBot Tool, visit the Applications page.
The Willes have installed their ShopBot Buddy in their garage. Learn more about the tool here.
Here’s an overview of the tools and guide to helping you choose. Give ShopBot a call or use this form to get in touch. We’ll be glad to assist you.
DID YOU KNOW? There’s a great, supportive network of digital fabrication businesses at 100kGarages.com. Check it out and join the community for free.
Guest ShopBot blog contributor Dennis Michaud is an architect and was one of the founders and leaders of the highly successful California company, Blu Homes. Michaud’s new venture, Homebuilt, is more than a company; it aspires to also become a new business model for home building. In this post he shares his vision for Homebuilt: “to empower absolutely anyone, regardless of prior experience, with the knowledge and materials to modify an existing residential building or build a new home – themselves.” Dennis writes:
Eight months ago, Homebuilt set out to do something at once radical and unnoticeable. Inspired by the successes of Larry Sass’s digitally fabricated buildings, including the Digitally Fabricated House for New Orleans (MoMA NYC 2008); Robert Bridges’s and Bill Young’s Shelter 2.0 ; Timberply (also by Young and Bridges); and the Wikihouse project, we aimed to springboard from the proven ability to make buildings out of CNC cut parts, to bring this technology into the realm of a code-compliant building system. Here’s a look at some of its pieces and parts….
Homebuilt’s easy-to-assemble construction. If you can lift 23 lbs., you can build your own house.
Homebuilt construction pieces cut on a ShopBot full-size gantry CNC
Our successes to date have been very exciting, not only in the technical ability to use Shopbot’s CNC tools to facilitate some of the most challenging and expensive aspects of stud-framed and wood-finished construction, but also for this technology’s ability to integrate seamlessly into the existing homebuilding industry while simultaneously offering an alternative business model to innovate within it.
Technological advances in US homebuilding: a history of unfulfilled promises
This history of technological advances in homebuilding, as for example highlighted in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2008 mega-exhibit “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” in New York City, has been one of false starts and unfulfilled promises. Whether they involved advanced materials, new production processes, or new ways of “delivering” a house, almost nothing substantial has changed since the first use of dimensional lumber studs in 1830’s Chicago.
What I feel has been missing from the, albeit technologically laudable, innovations from 1850 onwards has been a deep recognition that homebuilding is a fervently local endeavor. As such, it is difficult for any process not immediately and easily repeatable anywhere in the US to gain traction against the tidal flow of cross-continental standardization within this very mature industry, with its established, slow-moving supply chain.
Whether for the philosophical or architectural desire to work with the genius loci (“spirit of the place”), the ecological importance of minimized transportation costs, the economic benefits to local business, or simply the market demand to “know your builder,” attempts to industrialize housing have either failed or failed to integrate within the mainstream building industry.
However, centralized, non-local industrialization is not the end-all and be-all of technological advancement, or even of off-site building production, both of which can operate on a local level. Indeed, what is most incredible about Shopbot itself is its having yanked one of the most important tools of modern manufacturing – computer controlled fabrication – out of centralized factories and into the realm of local fabrication.
The possibilities of distributed manufacturing
Whereas previously only the most highly capitalized – and therefore centralized – fabrication outfits could afford a CNC behemoth, Shopbot’s tools are able to be housed, well, in almost anyone’s garage. What this has meant and will mean for the small-to-medium scale wood and metal-working industries cannot be understated. Many of us take for granted that a custom sign or beautiful cabinetry can be shipped from someone in our own state at little more cost than the off-the-shelf Made in Who-Knows-Where variety. Technology like Shopbot’s CNC tools may indeed not only create the possibility for a more localized model of manufacturing, but as a result help save American manufacturing in general. It would be too lengthy to get into why this is so important, but in the specific case of homebuilding, in light of its inherent local-ness, such “localizeable” technology is fundamental to any attempt for real innovation of American homes.
If properly designed, the pre-fabricated component of a digitally-fabricated house can be completed by anyone with a Shopbot or similar CNC router. This can be in a local millwork shop, someone’s garage, or even on-site, as conceptualized by Larry Sass’ YourHouse, and made possible by tools such as ShopBot’s Handibot® Smart Tool. This is because, unlike other forms of automation, CNC digital fabrication uses standard formats and well-established, open methods, file types, and tools. If you have a Shopbot, regardless of its size or age, you can start making digitally-fabricated houses.
What does this mean for a company like Homebuilt?
We have designed a building system, and with the help of Shopbot a series of tools, that enables us to work with local fabricators to build local houses. It means that Homebuilt doesn’t need a huge, centralized factory, or the associated costs thereof. Neither do customers need to pay for shipping from that centralized factory. Homebuilt is instead able remain lean and nimble, collaborating with local, equally nimble fabricators to modernize the way we think about housing production. All the while, the efficiency of the tools as well as the distributed manufacturing model enable equitable sharing of profits, not only between Homebuilt and local, distributed fabricators, but also with the buyer, for whom efficiency of production leads to lower prices.
We believe that the Homebuilt concept – the reduction in the cost of housing through localized, distributed manufacturing – is truly innovative, even if we are still using 2x4s, 16” OC, and no one will even notice the difference.
Here are some of the projects, mentioned at the beginning of this post, that have inspired the Homebuilt concept…
Digitally Fabricated House for New Orleans
Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (MoMA, 2008)
Larry Sass, Daniel Smithwick, Bill Young, and Dennis Michaud (author)
Sponsors: Shopbot Tools, Boise Cascade, eFab Local
Robert Bridges and Bill Young
(image from npr.org)