Personal: TechShop is AMAZING!!!
Posted on 2013-11-27 @ 23:18:16 by r00t

What happens when you go to Desert Code Camp, then decide to leave early to head over to the Gangplank after-party, but find out they aren't ready for an hour, so while wandering the Chandler Rock-the-Block, you stumble across an odd sign with an arrow pointing down a side-street reading "This Way to TechShop"? Well, I guess you end up becoming a member...

How it started:

On November 9th, my friend Chris and I had just finished up with Desert Code Camp 2013.2; we had decided to leave early and head over to the after-party held at Gangplank in Chandler; basically anyone who went to the DCC is invited to a catered dinner and beer (courtesy of SanTan Brewing Company - awesome beer, awesome food, BTW).

We drove over there, and found detours all over the place; we couldn't just drive up Arizona Avenue - it was all blocked off - for a block party! Fortunately, my friend has great driving skills, and knows the area pretty well, so via some wierd turns and trips down alleyways, we found ourselves at Gangplank without much issue. However, we were early...

Like an hour early. Food wasn't even delivered yet - they were still setting up tables...

So - we decided to check out the block party. As we walked around, we passed a sign on a side street (Chicago Street) that had an arrow pointing down the way, reading "Come Visit TechShop". My friend and I looked at each other, nodding sagely, and proceeded away from the hub-bub of the block party...

There it was: Arizona's TechShop! We boldly walked in (honestly, it didn't even look like it was open), and were told that they were having an "open house preview" - plus free beer and pizza! Could it be? Free beer, free beer, pizza, SanTan food - all FREE! Awwwwyeeeaaahh...

We headed back to Gangplank, got our grub and beer, ate, then got a bit more grub and beer, ate some more - then left and went over to TechShop - and got some more grub and beer. We were treated to a tour, allowed to wander around, listened to a great presentation about what TechShop was all about, and what people have made (for instance, did you know that the Square card reader started in a TechShop?). I was friend was hooked.

How they hooked me:

Where else could you go and get access to CNC plasma cutters, laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC mills, CNC water-jet cutters, a wood-shop, a metal-shop, plus all the training for software and hardware, and more:

TechShop Mig and Tig Area
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TechShop Machining Area
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TechShop CNC Waterjet Cutter
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Unless you were fairly wealthy, you couldn't hope to own and use even a third of the technology they have available. You might be able to get some access to some of it at a hacker-space, but really nothing on this kind of a scale. I have a lot of fun tools in my home shop, but certainly nothing like a laser cutter or 3D printer (yet).

They told us the official open house was going to be the following weekend, on the 16th. On the 13th, I purchased a membership, and also purchased the SBU (Safety and Basic Use) class for the Laser Cutter which was going to be held after the open house on the 16th. You have to take this kind of class for any tool where there is a possibility of injury or other damage, before you can use the tool. It covers the basic dos-and-don'ts of the tool, enough to get you started.

My first class:

I drove out on the 16th, activated my membership, then hung around until the class started.

The laser cutter that the Chandler TechShop currently uses is a Universal Laser Systems (ULS) VLS4.60 laser cutting system, with a 24" x 18" cutting bed. I have to say, this system is far easier to use than you would believe; basically, you draw your image in a vector art program (at TechShop, you can use CorelDraw 6, Adobe Illustrator, or Inkscape), then click "print" (just like if you were printing it out); it dumps the file to the control software for the laser cutter, where you can do some basic manipulation (move the image around, verify some rough measurements, laser position, material settings, etc), then you click "go" and away it starts to etch and cut! By the end of the class, each of us had created a simple etched dog-tag:

Laser-etched Dog Tag
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I didn't have any other projects in mind - so I hung around with this other guy who took the class (I think his name was Lee) - and helped him cut various examples of a drink coaster for his company:

Lasercut Drink Coaster
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Expanding my skills:

When the week of Thanksgiving rolled around, I needed to take some vacation time, so I decided that I should try a laser-cutting project of my own - something simple, yet something that would teach me some more skills.

With some research, I found that I might run into some issues, so I needed to come up with some way to sort that out as well; basically, since I use Linux at home, my only real option for vector drawing is Inkscape. Unfortunately, Inkscape only supports 90 dpi internally - while the software at TechShop assumes a 96 dpi; in other words, if you just send your file to the laser cutter as-is, it will come out smaller than you designed! Fortunately, I found this great tutorial that helped me out.

So - I made up my design. Basically, it was meant to be a "base plate" for mounting on a small robot chassis, to hold an Arduino and/or a breadboard, plus have holes to mount sensors and things to it. I decided to base the hole sizes and positioning on the "Meccano" standard, which is generally recognized as a hole spacing of 0.500 inches (center-to-center), and a hole size of 0.160 inches. I drew everything up, threw it on a thumb drive, and took it down to TechShop.

I only had a half-hour to play with my drawing before my time-slot started, but I found that I had "lost" the copyright wording I had put in place, so I had to re-do that (I think I need to convert the writing to vectors or something next time). I also found that my scaling in Inkscape didn't translate over properly, so I had to re-do the scaling in CorelDraw (fortunately I had followed the advice of the tutorial, taking multiple different copies of my work with me to play with). Ultimately, though, I managed to get things worked out to determine that my drawing, properly scaled and such, should (crossing fingers!) cut out properly. My time for the machine was at hand. So I walked over, sat down, and began...

It proceeded to cut out pretty nicely - in cardboard, at least:

Laser Cutting Baseplate
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Those large nuts are there to hold down the lightweight cardboard; inside the machine, there is a vacuum draft of air to suck out any smoke or vapors, plus the laser head itself has a compressed air nozzle to blow away debris and smoke. If your material is too lightweight, it can shift around due to the air currents; the nuts add weight to keep things in place.

The final product in cardboard (with a piece of Meccano for comparison):

Completed Lasercut Baseplate
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Sweet! I went on to cut it out in hardboard, as well as acrylic; all came out perfectly! In the end, I learned a lot about the materials I was using, plus some more about the speed of the machine. For my (relatively) simple design, it took about 15 minutes or so to cut and etch. Next time, I plan to reduce the number of holes cut, plus turn everything into a vector representation (raster etching takes a fair amount of time, and isn't really needed for most things I plan to make).


Ultimately I had great time turning a simple idea into reality; my next goal is to try something I can "put together"...a part with slots and tabs and such, that can be easily assembled into a single item. I already have a good idea what it will be, I just need to design it.

I encourage anyone reading this to check out your local TechShop (if you are lucky to have one nearby) or hackerspace; honestly, these resources are an amazing way to get ideas out of your head and into reality. While many things you can do by hand, having access to these tools and knowledge means going from virtually "nothing" to something in a matter of hours. That alone has certainly been worth the price of my membership.

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