Architecture and the Othercutter

Since we started putting the word out about the Othercutter, we have gotten phone calls and emails from curious individuals from all different disciplines. We can definitively say one thing about our machine: architects are interested.

We decided to make our own architectural model this week to understand the process and get an idea of the applicability of the Othercutter. Martine Neider, in charge of content creation for the Otherlab:MENTOR team, chose Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Martine followed this process for creation of the model:

1. Get the plans and elevations.

2. Import the pdfs into illustrator or inkscape and rescale them if necessary.

3. Draw over the floor plans and elevations to create the svg file for all of the pieces of the model.

Drawing over the plans and elevations to create the pieces of the model

4. Send the svg file to the Othercutter and cut out all of the pieces.

5. Glue all of the pieces together.

Fallingwater Architectural Model

The model turned out great, and by going through this process, Martine discovered a few things that should make the architecture students even more excited. The first one is that it only took 20 minutes to cut all of the pieces for this model. The Othercutter she used to do the cutting isn’t even the latest of our designs, so our estimate is that it may take half that time with the machines we are producing now. It’s true that if you are fortunate enough to have a laser cutter, you could cut this faster. BUT even if you had a laser cutter, you couldn’t cut this out of foam core or corrugated plastic, which are two very common architectural modeling materials. The last feature that Martine observed was that she could quickly iterate through parts that needed to be changed. She could make cuts, see that a piece was too big, change her cut file, and spit out a new part in seconds.

What we want to know is: what happens when every architecture student has one of these on their desk? What happens when the complexity of a model is not limited by the amount of time it takes to cut out every part? We have some pretty satisfying hunches about what the future of architecture education can look like.


Reblog: NPR Story on the DARPA MENTOR Project

Students Blake Jamar (from left), Ryan Clifton and Gregory Gonzales take apart a bicycle that generates electricity at Analy High School in Sebastopol, Calif.

This post is a reblog of an NPR story about the DARPA program in which Otherlab is participating: What’s The Big Idea? Pentagon Agency Backs Student Tinkerers To Find Out

Investing In The Future

We’re thinking about this as the shop class for the 21st century,” says Saul Griffith, a MacArthur genius grant recipient whose San Francisco engineeringfirm is helping to launch the high school hackerspaces.

“It doesn’t matter what sphere of enterprise you’re involved in today, whether it be biotech, whether it be software, whether it be robotics, whether it be manufacturing,” he says. “All of these things are becoming increasingly automated, computerized, and we’re trying to help those kids that want to be involved in the new technological economy and digital manufacturing get involved.”

When Griffith refers to digital manufacturing, he’s talking about computer-controlled machinery that cuts material or builds something from scratch, such as 3-D printers. The workshop at Analy High School is one of 15 in Northern California receiving DARPA funding.

The Pentagon’s research agency has committed $10 million over four years and hopes to expand the program to 1,000 high schools nationwide by 2014. Lt. Col. Nathan Wiedenman of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office says the investment is in the national interest.

“We think it’s important enough to support a program that gives students an opportunity to engage with these technologies, use them, play with them, give them a chance to design something themselves, and manufacture it right then and there with a desktop programmable piece of manufacturing equipment,” Wiedenman says.


21st Century Shop Class

Otherlab believes that students will design their future.

The 21st century will be filled with opportunities and challenges.  To seize those opportunities and meet those challenges, we need a new generation of problem solvers who are enabled with the best skills for design, prototyping, and manufacturing.  These problem solvers will need to be well versed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fundamentals, with a depth of creativity enriched through knowledge of history and the humanities.

Shop classes are disappearing just when our country needs them the most. We feel that shop class has the potential to be the most relevant class in school. If we establish shop class as a place where you can design and make anything you imagine, we can resurrect this vital resource and make it part of every class in high school. Like the school library, shop class can enrich the curriculum of technical classes by enabling the construction of moving machines and models, just as it enriches art class through empowering people to create sculpture or architectural models.

To bring shop class to the front of people’s minds and establish the relevance of shop class as a school-wide resource, we need to embed the latest computer aided design tools, fast and intuitive computer aided manufacturing software, and a suite of computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines (3D printers, mills, cutters, plotters) that can precisely build and render the dreams and creativity of the next generation into reality. On the back of every project that a student chooses to create, lessons in the basics of STEM education can be communicated with them in a language that they care about: let’s take your ideas and teach you how things like basic math, engineering, and design can help you realize them. Further, we can accelerate this revolution with a suite of collaboration tools that encourage sharing of ideas, solutions, and creativity in the way we have seen digital music enable greater participation.

It is Otherlab’s mission to create the hardware, software, and quality project materials that are the seeds for re-establishing shop class as an educational fundamental. We want to bring the design, prototyping, and manufacturing skills of the next generation into alignment with our 21st century economy.


Design Make Play – Making + STEM

The MENTOR project is part of a movement in education. People want to know if we move away from more traditional lecture/quiz educational models towards design/make models, will we still be producing students with the skills necessary to be successful in life?

Joel Rosenberg, Chief Epistemologist at Otherlab came across a report from a meeting that was held back in January 2012 at NY Hall of Science.

This report is all about STEM. Joel attended a post-Makerfaire assessment meeting after the recent NYC Makerfaire and found that there was much STEM discussion and people focused on the relationship between making and STEM. We are curious about this connection and focus and excited that the value of making in education is receiving high-level thought and consideration.

Here’s Deputy Director for Policy at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, Tom Kalil on p5 of the report:

“To what extent should we use ‘making’ as an end in itself, and to what extent should it support other goals? Expanding human knowledge is an end in itself, and involving young people in making is core, because it awakens curiosity, expression and sharing. Yet there is also a strong case to be made for helping more people to lead healthy productive lives, or figuring out how to transition to a low carbon economy. Can we feed millions of people in an earth that will be warmer? Can we create more jobs for the middle class? Making is one of the more powerful tools we have for accomplishing these goals.”

Kalil challenged Design-Make-Play participants to consider whether making can be used to reduce dropout rates among high school students who are intensely bored, or increase the numbers of young people excited by STEM and prepare them for the 21st century workplace. “Making broader claims is a key part of inspiring a movement, and establishing the evidence base is key to ensuring that our work is credible.”















The whole report is worth a glance if you have some time (it’s short). Here is the main “Framework” from that report (p20), distilled from responses at that January NYSCI meeting to the question: “If these design-make-play experiences are a key to unlocking the potential of the next generation of STEM innovators, what are the key learning goals?”

  1. Curiosity, engagement and motivation. The pursuit of a passion, an intrinsic reason for participating, taking initiative, overcoming barriers, persisting, looking for problems to address, seeking opportunities and being resourceful.
  2. Creativity. The capacity to expect a diversity of solutions, acquiring a vocabulary for innovative thinking and innovative doing, thinking in divergent ways, going beyond the directions, improvising.
  3. Relevance. Redefining science and engineering so that science is everywhere and helping students to recognize that their personal passions fit into a larger framework, is key to building a science identity and persistence in learning.
  4. Collaboration, communication and community. Learning from and with others, feeling a sense of belonging, building off other people’s ideas, sharing results and sharing results beyond what they made, believing that everyone on the team has something to contribute, tapping networks and joining a community of practice.
  5. Skills and knowledge. Skills in tools and technology, materials literacy, cooperation and collaboration, communication, entrepreneurship and knowledge of content that transcends disciplinary lines and encourages interdisciplinary learning.
  6. Meta-cognitive learning strategies. Putting the power of learning within the kids’ hands, ability to self-assess and teach yourself, making the results of your thinking visible, transferring knowledge and skills to other situations.
  7. Agency and efficacy. Taking pride in ownership, being comfortable with being uncomfortable, willing to fail, having confidence in your capacity to figure things out, becoming a connoisseur.

We feel that the MENTOR: Makerspace program is key to this list of learning goals, especially item 3. Relevance, and item 5. Skills and Knowledge. We want to show students that they can already participate in designing the solutions to real world problems. We are working over the next three years to provide the best tools for connecting them with the skills and knowledge they need to implement those solutions.


Team Member Profile: Saul Griffith

The Otherlab folks who work on the MENTOR:Makerspace project would like to tell you the story of why we care so much about this project. We decided to each write an article about what drives us on this project, why it matters to us, and how we plan on using our talents to make the best contribution that we can. Not one of us accidentally decided to spend every day working on the task of putting modern design, collaboration, and manufacturing tools in the hands of students. Having the support and the opportunity to make meaningful change in the school system is huge. We have also been entrusted with one of the scarcest commodities that teachers have: their time. We intend to respect that trust by creating tools and projects that augment their existing curricula and allow them to explore ways of teaching that might previously have been out of reach.

Saul Griffith is, among other things, the leader of the MENTOR:Makerspace project at Otherlab. Here is his story:

Saul Griffith, PhD

I had a great childhood.  I didn’t like school, but I do think it served me well.  I went to public schools in Sydney for my whole life.  The last was Sydney Technical High School which had an “Industrial Arts” department, probably known here as shop class.  My favorite classes were Art, Industrial Arts (It was known as Engineering Science as a subject), and Physics.  The classes were project based and tangible.  They were like the things I enjoyed learning from at home – things I could make and do and feel.  All of this led me to study engineering and science subjects culminating in a PhD from MIT’s Media Laboratory.  Even at MIT the only classes I enjoyed were the project based classes which were largely self directed and required learning the science and math you needed to know as you needed to know it in order to finish a project.

I’ve been championing this type of learning ever since, in projects like Howtoons where we teach hands on skills to 8-12 year olds, and in my column writings for Make magazine.

When the original RFP (Request For Proposals) for MENTOR came out from DARPA I was extremely excited (though I didn’t think that we had much chance of winning the contract).  It is a worthy experiment in engaging more students in hands-on learning that supports building an intuition for STEM (even STEAM) subjects.

I see a future that is already here where most engineering becomes about the design and the automated manufacture of things with CNC.  This could be called `digital manufacturing’, ‘CAD/CAM/CNC’, ‘Advanced Manufacturing’, or any number of things, the reality is that it is exciting and it is happening and there will be more computation in engineering and design and more robotics in prototyping and fabrication and manufacturing.  Let’s teach these things in an engaging way, but not only that, let’s use these robots and design tools in classrooms to support the teaching of every subject in schools.  Physical examples to demonstrate all of the schools activities, much the way the xerox machine or photocopier became such a utility tool for teachers preparing class activities.

As a founder of Instructables I have seen how powerful communities sharing their ideas can be, and how creative.  Having seen the delight on student’s faces at Howtoons events tells me that this mode of learning can re-engage the disengaged student.  I couldn’t be more excited that to participate in this great, creative experiment in learning-by-doing.


Othercutter Update: Speed and Quality Control Testing

The first ten Othercutters are just about ready for schools. Otherlab is now going through the process of doing quality control on our machine. We want to make sure that we have done all we can to vet this machine before we deliver the first ten to high schools. In addition to putting more hours of cutting time on it, we are also doing tests to determine optimal speed and motion settings for each type of material that you can cut. Here is the first video that we’ve released on the Othercutter. It gives you just a taste of what this machine can do. The shape that we cut was for one of those cardboard bins that we usually order from McMaster. Our visitor was pretty excited by what he saw…


Cardboard bins – made on the Othercutter

Designing a physical tool for consumers isn’t something that Otherlab has done before, so we are learning a lot of things as we go. We’ve already found a few areas of wear that we didn’t expect. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see a tiny burr of plastic between the two white parts. We diagnosed and solved the problem this week by changing the materials and slightly modifying the design.

A point of wear, discovered during quality control and solved by Jonathan Ward

We will do a last revision of the machine after our quality control testing in order to combat the issues we find during quality control. Thankfully, the machine is incredibly simple and we have made most of the parts ourselves. Because of this, we can iterate design changes much faster than a larger production team. Our goal is to provide a machine that is robust enough to stand up to being heavily used and simple enough that it can be maintained or repaired with minimal effort. It looks like we are well on the way to that goal.


Software for MENTOR Part 3: CAM Software

If you have a digital file of a shape, and you want a CNC machine to cut that shape for you, you need something called CAM software. CAM software takes a file of a shape and translates the file into a path that the CNC machine will cut. Our CAM for the Othercutter does this by taking an svg (scalable vector graphics) file, translating the path into G-code instructions for the motor controllers, and then sending the instructions to the motor controllers on the Othercutter.

Traditionally, a person needed to have fairly in-depth training to use the CAM software for CNC machines. The reason being that the software was complicated and difficult to use. You might only have spent the time to learn the software if it was part of your job. Because we aim to put CNC machines in the hands of high-school students, we are reimagining and redesigning what CAM is. We feel that the experience of running a CNC machine can be visual and intuitive. In order to make CNC machines ubiquitous and integral in the educational experience, we need to reduce the barrier to entry. The user interface for the machines (part of the CAM software) is one of the most significant ways of lowering that barrier to entry.

In the current incarnation, we want users to be able to drag a file into the software, choose the size of the material they are about to cut, and press “go” to start cutting. They will see the machine, see an image of the material they are cutting, and watch a preview of the cuts that will be made. Here is a peek at what our prototype software looks like now:

A Screenshot of the Current Othercutter User Interface

We have some ideas about what types of user interfaces will work well for high school students, but just like any of the other research and design we do, we need to test our theories. We will be putting this CAM software out there with our machines this year and watching what happens. Integrating the feedback and experience of students and teachers who use these tools will help improve the experiences of all of the students and teachers taking part in the program over the next three years.


Cardboard in the Wild – Marty Morales

I was on the subway and a man sat down beside me. He opened his bag and took out something shocking. It was this:

…a cardboard spine.

Lately at Otherlab, we have been thinking a lot about cardboard. We have all these ideas about what makes it an amazing prototyping material. We have ideas about how to incorporate projects into the classroom. When I saw the cardboard spine prototype of Marty Morales, it was a validation of a lot of the hunches we have about the applicability of what we are doing. So, I got super excited and invited him to come to Otherlab.

Marty’s spine is an example of exactly the type of thing we want to enable with the Othercutter. He told us that he made this spine because other standard models of the spine are small, expensive, and too complicated for most of his students to understand. Marty teaches people about the mechanics of the spine. He uses the model to demonstrate common physical ailments and what motions you need to correct them. He says that people understand him better when he has something that they can grab and manipulate with their hands.

He also has plans for his next version of the cardboard spine. He wants to have one that shows the faceting on the ends of the vertebrae. He wants one that is giant and six feet long. His was really surprised when I showed him just how possible that is.

1. I found a $3 3D model of a vertebra on the TurboSquid website. I paid the small fee and downloaded the 3D obj file of the vertebra.

2. I opened up 123DMake and imported the 3D file of the vertebra.

3. I selected Construction Technique -> Stacked Slices.

4. Minds were blown. 123DMake created the assembly instructions and templates for making a cardboard spine with facets. You can also scale the size of the model and get templates if you want to make a giant version.

So with $3 and some free software, Marty can have his six foot long spine with faceted vertebrae.

We need to keep showing people that there are tools to design and build anything that they want. There is an important place in our lives for objects that people can hold and from which they can learn. Marty is just one example of a person who is out there creating these objects and teaching others.




Software for MENTOR Part 2: Collaboration Platform

A major focus of the MENTOR Makerspace program is collaboration. We want students to understand that to tackle the engineering challenges of the future, they need to work together. It is Otherlab’s job to design a web-based platform for project documentation and collaboration. The grand idea for how students and teachers will be using our platform in several years starts with a very simple foundation:

1. Get students to take a photo and write a sentence about what they are doing.

The concept of documenting your work is an old one. Pencil and paper is still the main way that people are taught to record their work in school (even in college), and it works for the people who are passionate about it. But there is a significant barrier to widely sharing the work that you have recorded with a pencil and paper. Your options for using pencil and paper are to always write neatly and then scan, photograph or type up what was on paper. Unless you choose the third option of transcribing it all, you add even further complexity if you want to edit and revise your record. In summary, you have to really really want to share your work in order for it to exist outside of your notebook. We need to eliminate this barrier.

What if, instead of using a notebook, you could just create a little note or snapshot of what you are doing and then get back to your work? With the widespread use of text messages and sites like Facebook, it is obvious that people are documenting more of their lives than ever before in human history. The barrier to taking photographs has been lowered to the point that you no longer have to stop what you are doing for very long in order to make an easily distributable digital record of it. Our goal is to leverage the tendency that makes someone stop eating and take a photo of their meal, stop riding their bike to record the sunset, or lag behind a group of friends to snap a shot for that friend who couldn’t come. The evidence supports our natural inclination towards, “hey, look at this thing I saw!” If we documented our making and learning process in the same way, the results could be spectacular. With a record of your work, you no longer have to relearn things that you have forgotten about a project, and the most powerful thing is that other people can look at your learning process and pick up from where you left off. They can create variations on your work and you can learn from them too. …but it all starts with a photo and a handful of words.

We’d like to enable an alternate universe where you can text a photograph and a sentence to your online digital project notebook, and the text automatically updates the project you are working on. Your digital notebook is shared with your teacher (if you’re a student) and anyone else who is working on your project. And that’s it. You can get back to designing and building. This is our aspiration for the basic operation for the collaboration platform. We have many more features that will be publicized as they become more formalized. A bunch of the members of the Otherlab MENTOR Makerspace team can’t wait to start using this collaboration platform to document our work for the MENTOR project.


FabLearn Conference Summary

Mike Estee and I (Martine Neider) went to the first day of the FabLearn conference last week. Neither of us are professional educators so it was incredibly useful and important for us to hear what teachers (and these are the very enthusiastic ones) have to say about the difficulties and challenges of using new fabrication technologies in the classroom.

The three things we need to be the most aware of are:

1. Teacher training and support is the #1 need and stumbling block
2. The technology has to be incredibly simple to use or it won’t be used
3. Content quality and alignment to curriculum is a huge concern

Basically, it comes down to this: teaching is hard and time consuming. Anything that makes it harder or more time consuming will be ignored.

Simple self organizing storage solutions at Stanford's FabLab

Simple self organizing storage solutions at Stanford’s FabLab

I took a lot of notes while at the conference, here are some highlights:

General points:

We are training people to live in a highly technical world, not necessarily to become engineers/mathematicians/scientists. Knowing about technology has become as important as reading or writing.

The people who will have a difficult time learning the technology are the teachers trying to teach it. The students will learn fast. They’re already knee deep in tech.

FabLab itself is trying to figure out how to privilege tinkering and experimentation over prescribed tasks  — This is coming into some conflict with teachers who need to teach the curriculum

Students will need reassurance because they are used to a certain grading method (and are good manipulators of that system), they need to know how they are being evaluated, especially on open ended projects.

Encourage shameless self promotion, get the kids to be excited and to show off what they’ve done

Technology Thoughts:

  • All tech (website, UI and machine) must be extremely simple to use: no logging on, no complicated buttons. Can easily take up a whole class period with getting started on a machine (remember they probably only have 45 mins at a time) “I’ve seen classes where the teacher spends half their 30 minute class just trying to get everyone logged in.”
  • The users manual matters a lot. Complicated machines with complicated maintenance schedules and needs being used and serviced by non-experts. Should be simple, comprehensible, comprehensive and easily searched.
  • Machine should need as little maintenance as we can possibly get away with
  • Website tiered by subject, or easily filtered by subject
Basic settings cut into the appropriate material sit next to the laser cutter at FabLab

Basic settings cut into the appropriate material sit next to the laser cutter at FabLab

Content thoughts:

  • Teachers said over and over that projects and skills need to align with the curriculum or at least be defendable from that angle or they won’t be able to get the time
  • Start with the aspiration not the skill. Long term projects will teach themes and skills. The goal is the long term project, not the skills, students will learn the skills to get the goal. If the project is interesting, students will learn what they need to know to do it.
  • It’s okay to make the projects “stupid hard,” again if they are interesting, students will be interested.

Personnel thoughts:

  • Teacher training and retraining will be the hardest and single most important part of integrating fabrication into classes.
  • Teachers are overwhelmed by the thought of having to deal with another set of technologies they won’t necessarily understand.
  • Teachers need time to learn/explore how to use the machines and figure out how to integrate the material into their existing curriculum. Need inspiration, need assistance teaching the tools. Without teacher buy in we’ll get nowhere.Teacher play time? Training over the summer?
  • Administrations are spending lots of money on equipment that sits idle
  • Teachers won’t get excited about the lab without a FULL TIME person taking care of it and helping them teach the tools.
  • Non-STEM teachers are extremely skeptical of the efficacy of these methods for their classes. Will have to inspire non-STEM teachers. It falls to us to give ideas of what they can do, how the tech works within the curriculum and why they should use it.

Thoughts on space:

  • Machines need to be lockable, both to the table and so that they can’t be turned on
  • Separate safe and unsafe equipment and have a way to lock unsafe equipment. Mark safe zones within the space
  • We are more flexible because a laser cutter must have ventilation, it can be hard for teachers to find that space.
  • Space should be clean and organized, shouldn’t look like a hackerspace, garage, etc. The mess turns off more people than it turns on. FabLab used a lot of colorful Ikea storage items.
  • Needs a public display space, if students know it will be displayed they’ll put in more effort
  • Design the space for self organization, a space that communicates how you should behave (these can easily be starter projects: labels, tool holders, etc)
  • Build in a way for students to communicate tips on how to use certain tools or build certain things
  • Fabrication labs don’t scale well, only a certain number of people can work in them easily. Scheduling is really important or it becomes the domain of one group of kids/teachers and no one else feels comfortable using it