Alright, here’s the grand report from the World Maker Faire NYC! As previously reported, I journeyed down with a pile of undergraduates and a tower of Chibis:
On another note, everyone who came with me have blogs full of fun build reports and pictures: Ben, Banks, Cynthia, Nick. Also technically in this picture, but buried behind everything and forming the basement and ground level of Chibi Tower is Nancy’s Giant Hexa(rideable)Pod.
We actually loaded 2 large cars to the brim with creatively tessellated things and people for the trip. I’m a fond fan of floor-folding seating for minivans, to the point that the Chrysler Town and Country is actually one of the very few cars I would actually buy (you know, instead of build).
The only things I ended up bringing and showing were the two Chibikarts. While Kitmotter came along, as reported initially, I never took it out for the weekend save to show someone what was inside a hub motor. RazEr Rev also did not make it into the pile. Overall, I think not spamming projects contributed greatly to me being able to… actually look around the faire and enjoy it and stuff.
Here’s everything, and everyone, unloaded and unfolded/reassembled. Let’s count: 6 scooters, 3 go-karts, 4 multirotors, a hexapod, plus DGonz’s robots. In terms of highly mobile electric powered objects, I’m gonna say that MITERS pretty much dominated the field. And that’s just what came down with us – after the day got started, the oneTesla crew and Team Blindlead, among others, also arrived.
One thing I was kind of tired of from last year (and demos in general) was answering the same questions over and over again. I don’t mind it to a certain degree – however, the same trends inevitable crop up: What batteries does it use? How fast does it go? ….is it solar powered?
Out of interest towards answering more in-depth and meaningful questions, I made these cute little stand-up signs with a few minutes on the laser cutter. The local stationery stores tried to charge me $10-$15 for a bent piece of acrylic that holds a sheet of paper, which I was less than enthused about. The signs have basic info on the project.
I estimate that they deflected about 50% of people who were superficially interested, and the questions that remained were somewhat more high-level, asking about how the motors worked and what controllers I used, as well as if I sold kits or plans. You people are really going to make me do this, aren’t you?
The placement of the MITERS table this year might have coupled significantly into the spread of questions, though. Last year, we were in the “big tent” where many kid attractions and organized Maker Faire events were taking place. This year, we were in the mishmash of hackerspaces and individual maker groups on the other side of the event. Many kids and parents, I think, were diverted towards the ‘tourist’ events. Only the more brave parents and fellow hackers/makers tended to peruse the hackerspace groups closely, it seems.
Alright, I could post a pile of pictures about what a Maker Faire is, but it would be duplicating the many other photo galleries on the Internets (including the official). If you haven’t been before, then I recommend finding a maker faire (or mini-maker faire) around you. I’m going to instead focus on the things which I took away from this event.
3d printers and open source hardware
The first thing I noticed was there were alot of 3d printers.
Like, way more than last year.
Here’s some that look to be half-Ultimaker and half… Hey, is that a un-shelled SuperMake-a-Bot?!
By the way, that’s a never-before-seen picture of the design. That is as far as I got on it before it was abandoned, and I never made the final post regarding it. I *almost* want to keep going now…. Pretty much everything was figured out at that point, but the project was dropped due to lack of originality or improvements on the previous generation, and for being ass-expensive.
Alright, you people are just fucking with me now. From a Shenzhen operation is the Weistek WT2, which seems to be either creatively-restructured MaB or a larger, metal shell-less Thing-o-Matic (which is basically what MaB is anyway). The guys at the booth didn’t really speak English – what info I could extract from them in Chinese basically confirmed my theory that it ran all OS stuff including Makerbot’s Gen4 electronics.
I’m clearly not the only person to notice that there were a whole lot of 3D printers. Here’s an entire Make post dedicated to them. There are, if I haven’t made it clear, a lot of 3D printers!
What I found more interesting and more distressing was the fact that so many of them were making the same open-source thing. In a few cases, they are clear derivatives and straight up knockoffs being marketed as originals with no acknowledgement to prior work. Like that pile above. I really did a double take when I first saw that table, and had to ask myself if I was in fact in the Makerbot camp. Nope – Makerbot was behind me at the time demoing Replicator2s, and these were clones of the MK7 extruder and their related components.
Part of what spurred my interest in checking out the guts of many of the demo machines was the controversy over Makerbot going quasi closed-source with their new Replicator 2. If you missed the near-riot that occurred on the Internet as a result, there are plenty of strongly worded letters and appeals to Open Source that are definitely worth reading and thinking about. The OSHW community is basically being forced to recognize the existence of ‘design freeloaders’ now that Makerbot, one of the champions (or former champions, whichever you prefer) of high-value and high-complexity OSHW systems that are commercially available, has embarked on a seemingly more conventional entrepreneurial path, and that perhaps it’s time for the Unspoken Rules of Open Source to be publicly discussed. There’s alot of sides to the story, but I’ll take this moment to discuss my own perspective as someone who generally throws everything he designs up on the Internet for your amusement.
1. I support Makerbot’s decision to become more consumer-focused and to create better products
In product design, especially machines-that-make-products design, one of the worst things you can do is involve end-users in the manufacturing process. That opens up an entire world of manufacturing variations that could make your machine not work or work so shittily that people think it doesn’t work anyway. The goal of most industrial processes is to produce 1 part with 1 machine operation with zero variation between parts which last 100% of their designed lifetime and no more. Many studies have been done, papers been written, and theses been founded on manufacturing variability and waste/reject management.
But that’s no fun at all, IMO – the infimum limit of this function, in my mind, is Apple products. It’s not something that I think anyone should ever aspire to become, because not being to make your products fixable at all is just not cool. The other side of the coin is all the do-it-yourself 3D printer kits on the market these days which require many hours of assembly and fumbling small parts, in which the end user can introduce so many variations in both assembly and operation.
I’ll venture to say that 75% of the Repraps and Makerbot Cupcakes / Thing-o-matics I’ve seen are poorly tuned or built and as a result return only mediocre prints. It took me days of poking to get MaB to perform on-par with a well-built ToM. In Makerbot’s own words, it takes 8 to 9 hours of their support to build an average ToM from kit. When you sell to everybody, you no longer have the security of your audience being all highly-skilled hackers and modders who will take circuitous routes around a design or assembly problem. I was perfectly fine with performing 2 hours of tuning and software changes on our allegedly tested and working Replicator 1 and still calling it reliable and ready-to-run. The mentality is different for those of us who have a long hacking history versus beginners or people who saw someone else with an assembled kit and figured they could wing it.
To make your product work for all the possible combinations of things that could be put together wrong or not quite tightened enough, you have to compromise the functionality of the design. Things have to fit loosely so anyone with a laser cutter that may or may not have a fried lens and is running an inch out of focus can still cut it successfully. You have to use generic parts which are available at at hardware vendors, which may involve an indirect path of functionality to accomplish a relatively simple task (the many different 3D printed carriages for RepRaps come to mind). Kinematic coupling really only works if your base material isn’t prone to warping due to humidity and temperature (*cough* plywood) because it has to be easily obtainable.
Sure, it’s no fun to us as hackers if someone makes a product so streamlined and customized that it can barely be modified or chopped to our content. But that’s not going to be what 99% of people want. We are not the 99% when it comes to finished products, we are the 1% that is willing to suffer a bit of hammering for a chance to learn how the product works or to satisfy curiosity. But then the hacker market is necessarily constrained and easily saturated with similar products, which is why you have to keep moving and innovating. I’ve noticed that the OSHW community also takes “innovating” to be a rather constrained ideal of making the next new cool thing. Which it totally is, but making the current thing better or the past thing up-to-date are entire other axes which I think are underappreciated.
I’m not saying that building good product is entirely orthogonal to making it have hacker appeal, but to minimize your support time for every working machine involves taking out the end user as a source of errors, and this in part leads to the proprietization of hardware because it’s simply easier to accomplish the task (building working machines) that way. Especially if it’s not just you hacking away on a weekend, but a company that needs revenue to keep on rolling.
So that’s the long part of this polemic. I’m a fan of newer and better things from 3D printing companies even if I don’t get to directly build them. So long as Makerbot doesn’t start gluing their motors in or using pentalobe screws, I’m chill with them. As someone who maintains a handy database of mechanical engineering skills, I’m still more liable to building my own than paying 4 figures, but hey, I’m not part of the intended market.
2. I believe that the hardest part about designing a new product is the origination of the idea.
Everything else is derivatives, refinement, tweaks, and little variations. As someone who has generated dozens of original projects, I will say that 90% of the effort is spent grounding the design at a single point (deciding where to start the damn thing) and then building the first iteration. The rest of the time, provided you don’t just straight up start over, is spent making the thing actually work and not blow up when you plug it in.
I understand the frustration, then, when you see your project and work cloned by someone else without consideration for any of that initial design thrust. I’m not talking inspired works or even my undergrad and high school aged peers building variations of my projects. That’s for their own learning and amusement – recall that Make-a-Bot was a straight up cleanroom clone of a Thing-o-matic after I saw one at Maker Faire NYC 2010 and wanted one.
But never did I try to pass it off as something I designed and made from scratch, and hell if I tried to sell it. That’s not the case with the 3d printing outfits I saw at Maker Faire. The greatest offender to me was pictured previously with their pretty much straight knockoffs of MK7 extruder parts. I chose to not ask them the hard question (“Hey, this design looks kind of familiar – any other machines similar to these?”), but I think I really should have.
It may be true that they figured out how to make the extruder body from a cheaper plastic (UHMW, instead of ABS) that was easier to machine, and outsourced production to China for lower price. And it may be true that instead of a custom hobbed drive roller they literally took brass gears and cut a little groove in them, but that is skimming the 10% of effort away from the 90% that went into designing the original MK7.
So many other designs were blatant pulls from the Reprap project (Josef Prusa himself had 1 table, away from the 3D printer village, on which was parked 1 Reprap. Guy couldn’t even speak because he had lost his voice) with no attribution whatsoever – pretending that they were totally novel developments – that it was indeed very disappointing.
I’m totally aware that Reprap’s OS nature lends itself to this kind of thing, which is why I’m not entirely okay with the idea of open-sourcing everything. In my opinion, the core technology that forms the foundation of your product should not be shared freely unless you really were not in it for the money. Alot of people say they are not, but when these clones start arriving and they get hissy, it’s clear what the main motivator is because at that point they are either drawn by the lucrative market or too heavily invested to just let knockoffs slide. Speaking of investment,
3. Open-source software people and open-source hardware people work in essentially disparate domains, and even then, a 3D printer is a far cry from an Arduino board.
I have always had a beef with open-source software people. There’s tons of them around MIT, trust me. Oh, and all open source software sucks. Seriously. All of it. Generally they try to replicate the function of a closed-source software but with harder to use interfaces (no, I am not going to diddle with a command line, and don’t even get me started on OpenOffice) and inconsistent documentation mostly made of “run this linux script in a shell”. It’s usually made by 1 dude and his friends, and hosted on Git. When it comes to software, I *am* that 99% of end users and I will not put up with mostly-working bullshit.
But enough about me, and more about the software. Software is cheap and easy because you just need a computer (a generally mass-produced item whose manufacture involves no end users, because damn if the computer you bought doesn’t work, right?), knowledge, and time. This explains why at the MIT Career Fair this past month, a solid majority of companies present were software startups and established software companies in some way. Software is so cheap and easy, in fact, that MIT’s EECS department is starting to complain that no students want to do hardware any more, they just all want to work for/start the next Facebook.
What is different about hardware? Hardware needs to have a physical embodiment. Something needs to get made, and something else needs to get appended to it in order for the thing to work. As of right now, I cannot wish an object into existence, though the Replicator comes pretty close. But even that had to be manufactured and assembled somewhere, and the ABS filament it extrudes came from some oil well in the ground and had to be refined many steps before it could become my (unit linear) quantum of solace. My point is that the amount of resources that are irreversibly committed to a hardware project is much, much greater than a software project. With software, at worst you lost on the opportunity cost of pursuing a failed project. While that could certainly lead to doom, if you bust money on hardware that fails or doesn’t sell, you have immediately lost physical resources. The level of commitment of hardware is far different from that of software, and from my reading of the poetic floor wax of the recent OSHW debates, it is something that OSS people do not seem to understand.
The strongest opinions on Makerbot seem to be coming from the software end of things. Much comparison has been made to the Arduino project staying open source even in the face of clones from China and “-duino” derivative projects. But here’s the thing about such comparisons – it’s way, way easier to stuff a board than design a mechanical product (nevermind mechanical products with integrated electronics).
An established chain of tools exists for stuffing a board: Generate a set of Gerber files using your favorite design program, send it to a board house where a magical machine (with decades of history) uses your files as an image as a mask to etch copper where it shouldn’t be. The copper is washed and cleaned (automatically), holes and drilled and vias are packed (automatically), and the whole thing is dunked in a bath of solder to plate it. After that, provided that you’ve supplied the board house with your bill of materials and ordered the parts, the board is automatically filled with components by a pick-and-place machine and then automatically soldered in an oven. And this works, 99.9999% of the time, or else Foxconn would be out of business.
You cannot do that with a mechanical part. Take this picture of a simple motor mount for Segfault:
It’s a plate with holes in it. How simple can it get?
I can think of 3 different ways involving 3 different machines which can be used for this part if I wanted production, and that’s only in the time I wrote the last sentence:
- I can use a waterjet, like I did above. Waterjetting typically costs $120/hour, a machine is usually a cool quarter-to-half-mil, and I’d need a commercial 3 phase 480v electrical hookup to use it in the first place, and that ain’t cheap. This would make some sense for low quantities, like 1 to 10. By the way, Big Blue Saw is totally a thing.
- I can hire out the part to be 2D profile milled using a conventional CNC mill. The finish on the side would probably be way prettier and I can light the resulting chips on fire for amusement. 20-30 parts can probably be tiled into a single plate of aluminum and the machine would probably pop them out in under an hour with modern high speed machining. The machine can be fed by a technician and so maybe 200+ parts is reasonable for a day. We’re not talking exotic high-speed 5-axis CNC here.
- If I needed to make 10,000 a day, then I would have tooling designed to be used on a progressive punching machine where literally 1 cycle can produce 1 part. That tooling, again, can be made in many ways depending on who I contract it out to exactly and what machine that have, and what tolerances I care about, and what material I really need (can I get away with a softer metal to ease on tooling wear?)
What I’m trying to say is that hardware is way more involved than software – again, an issue of resource commitment. I can’t hit recompile on that motor mount after the $150/hr CNC technician has finished half the run of my parts on a machine which costs the company another $200/hr just to keep running. Part of the wonder of rapid prototyping tools lies in the fact that it is wholly within reason today to make exactly 1 part and be done with it. This explosion of design pathways is part of the reason why automatic quoting systems for 3d conventional machining have been much more difficult to make – I’ve yet to see anyone pull off a Big Blue Saw-like interface (FirstCut is pretty damn close, but look at that pricing. Upload a solid model of a cylinder and see!) for CNC machining.
So I disagree with the attacks on Makerbot using Arduino and other OSHW boards as examples. It takes many real revisions and failed hulks of prototypes to make a working machine on this scale, and therefore you have far more to lose when the resulting effort is cloned 1-for-1.
What’s the message I’m trying to send with this hopefully perspective-enhancing piece? I’m not aiming to swing the Internet Backdraft towards any one direction, but hopefully the opinion of somebody who deals mostly in machine design and hardware design will add to the discussion which seems a little one-sided towards software and electronics hackers right now. I hope that will help solidify what OSHW stands for and aims to promote. As a closing statement, I direct you to the useful stuff section of my site.
Anyways, onto more fun things, like…
One novel event for this NYMF is a run of the Power Racing Series which took up a fair chunk of the NYSCI parking lot.
I’d been contacted by the event organizers beforehand asking if I wanted to run Chibikart as an exhibition, since they weren’t expecting many entries. With pretty much all the silly MIT vehicles in tow, we couldn’t resist taking a few runs at the track. Above was an impromptu “2 wheeled race” that happened on Saturday.
I had a little too much fun with Chibikart 1. It’s now sporting two completely toasted motors as a result of my drifting antics. The left side wheels are also pretty much ground down to the plastic. I found that the combination of a slightly wet ground (It was raining for some part of the weekend) and actually heating the tires up through turns made Chibikart very easy to controllably put into a lift-off oversteer induced drift. Pretty sweet, but unfortunately it doesn’t really have the torque to follow through, so it’s still more of a powerslide.
Chibikart 2 faired substantially better, and was actually more squirrelly – I spun it out a few times in the turns. Both of them also got disgusting because the rain had turned the usually quiet dust and debris on the parking lot surface into a nice liquid grime. Everybody who raced looked like they were actual open race car drivers by the end – covered in crud.
Chibikart 2 and tinykart tag-teamed an entry for the long endurance race on Sunday, which was essentially both of us running batteries to empty repeatedly because we never figured that these things were going to go more than 10 minutes at a time. On one occasion, I attached a tinykart battery to Chibikart and actually just held it in my lap for those laps. In the end, Team-unofficial-MIT finished 122 laps and was “4th place”. Now, we couldn’t actually win anything because the vehicles were totally not to spec and were entered in the event at the discretion of the organizer because they were in need of cars to fill the track.
So I must therefore officially protest the abundance of “We won over MIT!” chest-pounding that seems to be found in the highlights videos from several teams, including the official race promoter video. We challenged someone?!
While I recognize that being from a place like MIT inevitably means that we are viewed in psychological competition every time we do something in a large crowd (Georgia Tech gets similar heat, especially at Robot Battles), and that drumming up a little hype is not bad for an event, come on man. I’m totally into the idea of building a to-spec Power Racer after watching and participating, but the reaction from fellow competitors when we enter unofficially doesn’t bode particularly well for an official entry, nor is it particularly welcoming and liable to making me help promote the sport.
We conclude with a picture of Fort MITERS, constructed in about 5 minutes when it suddenly started pouring on Sunday.