For those of you who have read some of my previous blogs, particularly “Preparing to Stretch,” you may be aware of the “lull” time that occurs in my work flow. It is the time shortly after a new set of activities goes out on the floor and the next set of activities is more than 3 months away. During the lull period I spend time exploring topics, tools, and techniques that will help me create future activities. My most recent lull period occurred during mid-April. This time the lull was a bit more of a push, though an enjoyable and exciting one.
For around 6 months we have been working on researching, pricing, and selecting a tool that would help us produce consistent interchangeable parts for use in our space and at our Spark!Lab National Network sites. For the past 3 years, we have been creating 3D printed components for some of our activities. There are limits to what you can do with a desktop 3D printer, however. We wanted a way to produce highly interchangeable parts out of wood and various types of plastic sheeting. Our early research sent us in the direction of laser cutters. A machine with a 16” x 24” working area would meet our needs. As we explored this topic further we ran into barriers, such as cost and filtering, thickness, and types of materials that could be used. Although it was a difficult decision, we concluded that the laser cutters on the market at the time would not be feasible for our space. We began steering our search toward a computer numerical control (CNC) router. It is a lot like a 3D printer or laser cutter but with a Dremel or trim router attached. A table top size CNC would allow us to cut wood, plastic, and any nonferrous metal. We would be able to set up one in our workspace with little additional equipment. We decided to invest in a moderate size tabletop CNC. As the order for a CNC was processed, I began to think of a useful and creative way to test the machine. We would certainly put it to use for producing consistent parts for our Spark!Lab National Network Sites, but I wanted to find a good test project for our Spark!Lab here in D.C.
We have an area in our Spark!Lab called the “Thinking Spot.” The initial intent for the space was to be a contemplative reading, sketching, and exploration space. As we have observed visitors in the space, we have seen that the Thinking Spot is currently underutilized. As a team we have had discussions about what could be done to better activate the space and entice visitors to explore it. In my mind the solution came down to furnishings. Many on our team agreed that we needed to set a tone with interesting and useful furnishings. Given that the physical space is small (it narrows to the width of a standard automobile, and is on an arc traditional furnishings are not a good option.
I set myself the task of designing a piece of furniture that would work in our Thinking Spot and allow us to make good use of the capabilities of a CNC router. The prime focus of my design was on a place to sit, read, think, or sketch. A desk made the most sense, but with our space constraints in mind, as well as the ethos of Spark!Lab, it needed to be something that was unique. After surfing the web and industrial design books for inspiration, I found the Mobi folding desk from Yanko Design and took inspiration from it. I began a design of my own to meet some of our specific needs and worked out an idea that could be made with our new CNC machine.
Within a couple of days I had produced my first one-fifth scale 3D model. My design concept was to allow this one piece of furniture to work as a desk, a sketching table, a wheelchair accessible work station, a stool, a chair with a back, and a free-standing table. The stool should sit at the height of the current stools in our space. The table should sit at the current height of the tall tables in our space. After multiple iterations, along with exploring build hardware, I honed in on a workable and properly-proportioned design.
Shortly before my lull period began, our CNC machine had arrived. The CNC we chose came as a kit. I wanted us to assemble the machine so that we would also be able to maintain it and really understand what makes it work. This meant that we had a great big orderly box filled with lots of parts. I began the task of assembling the machine that would give me yet another tool to use as I create for our visitors. It took one full day to assemble the CNC. It took another 2 days to learn the software well enough to run our first cut. I knew that using a CNC would be a little different than 3D printing but I wasn't fully prepared for how much my thinking about the construction process would need to change. The next week was spent exploring the software that we use to set up cutting files as well as the computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software that runs the CNC itself. It also took another couple of days to discover how to best transfer files from our computer-aided design (CAD) software, where we draw and create our designs, to the cutting file software.
My lull period has passed in earnest and I am still in the learning stages with our CNC. My big stretch now is becoming comfortable with setting up speeds, feeds, and cut depths for different materials. This is likely to be the longest part of this learning process. As part of this exploration, I have managed to cut out a few parts for a full scale version of my desk design. I have also spent a lot of time testing various materials, tuning our machine and troubleshooting hardware and software disconnects.
I am continuing to stumble through the process of using our new machine. As of this writing, I am waiting for a replacement part for the machine. Once it arrives I have a small stack of plywood lined up to be cut and shaped into what I hope will be a highly effective and interesting piece of furniture for the Spark!Lab Thinking Spot.