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Fab Academy Weekly Reports

Each week we focus on a new skill or technique to paractice and explore.

Week 1: Web and Git

In the first week of Fab Academy I dedicated a serious amount of hours to finally complete my website and push it to my gitlab repository. Even though git initially seemed intimidating, interfacing though the command line, I ended up finding it pretty simple after getting aquatinted with it and having a reference for the available commands. Git is fun because it makes me feel like a hacker. It was getting the actual site designed and working locally that proved to take the most time.

After spending a day or two designing the layout and styles for the site in Sketch, I got some help converting my visual mock-up to an HTML/CSS template. This helped a lot, but I took over fairly early on so that I could practice using mark-up and styling myself. The template was integrated with Bootstrap and I referenced documentation to use a 12-column grid and reference certain styles and functions like mobile break points and a navigation that automatically collapses to a menu for smaller screen sizes.

Because I also wanted to incorporate some badass looking videos I have from my collection (haha), I familiarised myself a lot with compressing images and animations in different ways to try and reduce file size. Throughout the site I use a mix of jpg, png-8, and gif. I actually like the aesthetic of some of the GIF and PNG-8 images and I spent time with the somewhat old school Photoshop Save for Web legacy tool to play with the look of the images themselves.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the design and what I managed to do, have a good understanding of how to keep the site maintained, and went to build on it over time. That said, I know there are some obvious flaws especially navigation issues on mobile.

Week 2: CAD

Computer aided design is not new to me as I’ve used a lot of these tools for graphic design work and communication stuff in the past. Along with the work to create the site, I was able to refresh myself with Photoshop and Illustrator and experiment with tools I don’t always use regularly. It also helped to know that we are tracking toward preparing to create some files for computer controlled cutting the following week so I started going about making an Illustration I thought could be useful for screen printing with the vinyl cutter. Beyond the Adobe suite.

I finally got properly set up on Rhino 7 and started to get familiar with how it works. From a 2-D perspective, it is not too distant for me to think about it like a more precision focused Illustrator, but from a 3-D perspective, I have a long way to go before it all makes sense to me. Rhino seems to work best when you know all the commands to use in the text bar and I’m still feeling very green there. That said, for the purpose of preparing for computer controlled cutting, I was able to get comfortable with bringing designs I made in Illustrator into Rhino and going from there to join and split curves, extrude, and play with boolean operations. I think I know enough to generate files for the machines but the work of getting comfortable enough to make 3-D forms in Rhino from nothing will need to continue in the coming weeks. Rhino seems important to me because we are using it for the cutting machines, 3-D printing, robotic arms, CNC milling, etc. so it really seems like a place to invest more energy into.

Week 3: CCC

In Computer Controlled Cutting, I got familiar with and brought files to use the laser cutter and vinyl cutter. I have worked on projects where laser cutters were used and I helped prepare some files for them but I have never actually operated the machines myself. I really appreciate that we are being given the trust and agency to actually set up and use the machines on our own. Everyone is being super supportive and patient and encouraging us to go through the steps ourselves to make sure we’re being safe and careful with the machines.

Both the vinyl cutter and the laser cutter are super satisfying to watch and use and have some similarities. It’s important to do tests, see how the cutting affects the material you are using, and be mindful of the material dimensions relative to the position of the head and the size of the artwork. On the laser cutter it’s important to focus the laser’s head relative to the material being used and always make sure the extraction is on. Finally, determining the order of operations and setting the speed and power is very important on the laser cutter and needs to be considered each time a new material is used.

For practice, I made two stickers on the vinyl cutter and both plywood and foam stamps on the laser cutter, of course with help. I abandoned my original idea of making a screen print with an illustration I made in the previous week because it ended up being too complicated for the vinyl cutter from the perspective of then applying it to the screen without losing any of the details. If I had access to transfer paper that could help, but overall, if I ever really want to make that graphic, it might be better to use an emulsion/exposure process to make a silk screen print. I’m actually really happy with the stamp though and have been using it for my MDEF project.

Week 5: 3D Printing

I appreciated learning about and seeing demonstrations of the various kinds of 3D printing technologies. Previously, I had heard of the different acronyms like FDM and SLA but did not realise just how differently those technologies as well as the SLS method are from each other. While they are all additive methods to create an object from a digital file, the way they work, the process it takes to use them, and the resulting object quality and resolution are all varied for each technology. I had previously been exposed to FDM machines and these are still the most cost-effective and easiest to use from what I saw this week. SLS, with the powder bed, doesn’t seem very accessible at all at this point and while I see the resolution and tactile quality improvement of the SLA prints, choosing that route would really need a justifiable reason. This is simply because with SLA, the additional steps and effort required to treat and cure the object after it is printed is not negligible. I have to say, it is very sci-fi and somewhat creepy to grow things upside down in a liquid akin to some kind of creature being grown in a womb.

So, especially for the FDM prints to look nice, but also with the other methods, the key seems to be striking the right balance of layer height and material thickness in terms of getting the resolution right. It’s important to note that there is no easy way to get more “quality” out of the printer but a combination of factors have to be considered to get it right. If one just reduces the layer height to a really low number, there will be a moment where the print quality doesn’t seem to improve but the printing time will be exponentially longer. How one positions their model in the slicing software and the use of supporting material is another key thing to pay attention to. I’ll need to make sure I am aware of and paying attention to material overhangs and how that affects the additive method—these characteristics also change depending on the material used.

Finally, there is the infill. There seem to be few reasons why one would want to print solid objects in a 3D printer, other than water-tightness, and it’s nice to know that the machines make it very easy to save material by automatically generating different types of infill structures. I suppose this is another thing to pay attention to in terms of considering the goal I have for a particular object and how the inner structure may or may not need to be stronger to support that. There is no shortage of parameters to play with when setting up a file for 3D printing and a lot of the examples we have seen seem to have gone through a heavy process of trial and error.

Overall, I think these machines are a great tool to have access to and I could imagine sourcing one of these Prusa machines for in-home use at some point. That said, I think like any of these tools, I don’t feel like I want to use them just to use them—but when the need arises there is no simpler way to manufacture a very specific thing for any use case one can imagine very quickly. I’m still on the fence about the look and feel of 3-D printed objects but they are growing on me as representing a kind of culture of do-it-yourself and small scale making.

Week 6: PCB Design

After our week of milling and soldering PCBs, the question remained about how we design them to begin with. In many ways, the actual files that need to be produced for the milling are very simple. Essentially, any vector tool can be utilised to make the pads, holes, and electrical routing for placing your electrical components on the PCB. That said, imagining how to position those components in relation to each other and making them fit elegantly in a small amount of space requires some help. For this, we used a PCB design tool, KiCAD to identify the specific components we are seeking to use, assemble and route the electrical components in a CAD model, and then generate vector files for sending to the milling machine for physical production.

Making your own PCB allows you to take the functionality and components that we are used to prototyping on a breadboard using Arduino and convert it into a more permanent and dedicated solution that is more reliable and much more compact. In the example we made in class, we made a simple PCB featuring an LED for power, and an LED that is set to on or off with a button press. We all know how big and messy a breadboard prototype of such a simple device would be, but making our own PCB allows us to scale it down to a self-contained board that is 3x3 cm. Working at this scale is new to me, and likewise I am still struggling to understand the basic electronic fundamentals well enough to look at what I created and even assess if it would work effectively or not. At the very least, being a total newcomer, my literacy of this is infinitely more than when I started Fab Academy.

Week 7: Bonus Project and CNC

Using the skills learned in the computer controlled cutting week, I decided to embark on making my girlfriend a present for her birthday. I dedicated a couple of days to this and it just goes to show you that when spending more time learning and fine tuning the capabilities of any given tool, you can push the boundaries of the level of quality that you achieve. I created an advent-calendar type box using heavyweight paper printed on a laser printer and the vinyl cutter to cut a box template along with folding scores.

There was a learning curve and some experimentation (and failure) in the process of aligning the already printed artwork with the vinyl cutter’s software and get the cutting lines to be aligned within 1mm of the printed lines. Having created the artwork in Illustrator, I kind of hacked the registration marks in Silhouette Studio into my artwork. By creating a dummy file with the exact same dimensions and copying the registration marks exactly, the machine recognised them without any issue. I did, however, have an issue with how Silhouette was scaling my artwork somewhat randomly and my first cut was off. After verifying my dimensions across the two files, I was able to produce pieces for 2 boxes.

Reflecting on the laser cutter, vinyl cutter, and CNC milling machine, I am now starting to think better in 2D and how that these tools can be used to create dimensional objects out of flat-cut instructions, each machine respectively increasing the cutting-depth that it can manage and also the required file set-up time and need to secure our material properly. I see how there are people that focus solely on operating CNC machines, but I also see how spending more time with the vinyl cutter has helped me learn the fundamentals of the 2D fabrication tools that do translate quite a bit across.