It Shouldn’t Take a Master’s Degree to Become a Maker

May 7, 2015

9:00 pm

“Who is a maker? What’s a maker persona? 97 percent of makers have a college degree, and 80 percent have a post graduate degree. They’re all engineers and software people who do this as a hobby. The people doing business around it aren’t really makers, they just have the technical knowledge needed to be proficient in these systems. Not everybody should have to spend that amount of time becoming experts.”

Water jets, CNC routers, laser cutters, and 3D printers: they’re all very capable machines and constantly evolving to be better than ever before. The only problem is that not that many people know how to use them.

“Come on…”, you might say. “How hard could it be to 3D print something, honestly?” It’s very difficult, honestly. The team over at Obrary would even go so far as to say that learning the end-to-end process on fabrication machines is comparable to getting a Master’s Degree. Think about it:

  • you need to learn multiple, complex software packages like CAD and CAM;
  • you need to learn how to do product design;
  • there’s a lack of available designs to start with and iterate on; and
  • there’s a lack of documented best practices, tips, and tricks.

Obrary, though, has a three-pronged solution for this issue. They build software that automates the digital workflow, they’re creating a library of open designs, and they’re bringing together a community of manufacturers and makers.

After seeing their presentation at the EvoNexus Demo Day, I got in touch with CEO and cofounder of Obrary Scott Austin for a more detailed look at how they’re doing this. Read his responses below:

Tech.Co: What does “Obrary” mean?

Scott Austin: “Obrary” is a mash up of “open library”. We’re big fans of the open world, and there’s a huge benefit to supporting an open ecosystem. Open has done wonders for the world of software. We want to bring that same collaborative innovation to the world of product design. We opened our library of designs in the summer of 2014. We want everyone to have open access to a library of products designs they can use to make products instantly without having to spend months learning all the steps to create a product from scratch.

We have designs submitted by makers from across the globe. And these designs have been downloaded by makers from over 125 countries. And an added bonus was that the Obrary.com domain was available.

Tech.Co: What’s your specific focus with Obrary?

Austin: At Obrary, we are making it easy to make. We’ve all heard of the maker movement and the promise it brings of democratized manufacturing. The machines for making are great and getting better every day. From 3D printers to laser cutters to CNC routers and more. And these machines are becoming more accessible to more people. Libraries are installing them and giving everyone access. High schools and colleges are creating fabrication labs.

And there are plenty of Maker Spaces that people can join like the one we work out of here in San Diego, MakerPlace. So access to the machines that make is becoming democratized. But the software is not advancing at the same pace as the hardware. And that’s our focus, the software for making. We are building software optimized for digital fabrication, a different name for making. We’re automating the processes that makers are doing manually today and changing the way products are designed.

Tech.Co: What was the motivation behind this idea?

Austin: My cofounders and I have all worked together at previous companies. We like solving big problems and making the world a better place. Eric, our CTO, participated in one of the early 3D printing Kickstarters. We were fascinated by the capabilities that this machine gave us. We could think of a need, design it, and then have the machine create it right then. So we saw the promise that digital fabrication provides – the ability for a single person to go from idea to product on their own. But we also realized that the whole process was too complex and could be greatly improved. There was real pain in this space. We knew we could solve it and provide everyone access to the promise of the maker movement.

So we left our previous startup and dove full-time into Obrary. We’ve become even more skilled at making. We’ve designed a bunch of products and learned a ton about the capabilities and limitations of today’s tools. We want personal manufacturing to be approachable but realized it is just too hard today.  Our big breakthrough came when we realized that today’s software tools are optimized for mass manufacturing and digital fabrication is a different beast.

Tech.Co: Can you elaborate a bit more on that point?

Austin: In mass manufacturing today, the software tools are divided into two big buckets, CAD, Computer Aided Design, and CAM, Computer Aided Manufacturing.  In CAD, you define the geometry of a product. And in CAM, you tell a specific machine how to make that geometry. So today, a product designer will spend a lot of time in CAD designing the product just the way they want it without any knowledge of how it will be built. The reason for that is that in the world of mass manufacturing, a product can be made by different machines over its lifecycle. So once the design is complete, it is exported to CAM.  And in CAM the design gets adjusted to account for how it will be created by the machine.

Here’s an example of the intelligence that is added in CAM: let’s say we’re making a circle that has a radius of 5 inches. If we are going to cut the circle with a 1/2 inch router bit, the machine needs to cut at a 5.25 inch radius to create the desired 5 inch circle. That’s  5” for the circle and a quarter inch for the radius of the bit doing the cutting. The CAM files knows this, but the CAD design does not. This model works well for mass manufacturing where design and manufacturing are serial processes – in mass manufacturing, the product design is fairly static.

But one of the promises of digital fabrication is an iterative product design that rapidly evolves and changes to meet new requirements. So having to go back to CAD to edit a design, then re-exporting it to CAM, then re-creating the CAM intelligence becomes a barrier to efficiently using digital fabrication for things like custom manufacturing. The CAD to CAM process takes time. And that time is fine when you are making very large batches with mass manufacturing because the time expense get amortized across all of the units made. But with a custom product, the CAD to CAM cost all gets applied to the small batch being made. This is one reason why custom products are so expensive today.

So using mass manufacturing tools for digital fabrication process is expensive and complex. CAD and CAM packages are very complex software packages that take a great deal of time and practice to master. We’ve all heard about the promises of the maker movement, but unfortunately, it is not accessible to everyone yet because of its steep learning curve. Make: and Intel researched makers and found that 97% of them attended college and 80% have a post-graduate degree.  Additionally, a third of makers have a technical job description.  This is because one must be highly educated and/or highly technical to master mass manufacturing’s tools.

Making can be easier.

Tech.Co: How are you going to solve this pain point as you continue down your path?

Austin: We’re focused on building software optimized for digital fabrication. At the root of that is changing the design paradigm. We are combining CAD and CAM. In digital fabrication the product design needs  know how the product is going to machined. That way, the design can be updated and the machining files are just a click away.

Also, the designs of yesterday were geometric, but our designs are software or algorithmic. This way, one product design can be used for a wide variety of uses. For example, we have an algorithmic design for a box.  It’s a double walled box that uses a feature called a living hinge to have rounded corners. So it makes a great high end box. I hold my business cards in one of them. Our design allows the design to be changed along a number of variables like the interior or exterior dimensions and the thickness of the material. So this one design can make an infinite number of different products.  We have made boxes for rings, watches, shirts, shoes, doghouses, business cards, chocolates and more. To create the machine files for a box of new dimensions with our algorithmic design takes a couple of steps where before our tools, it would take a few hours.

It used to be incredibly hard to learn how to use “maker” hardware like 3D printers, water jets, CNC routers, and laser cutters and the software that runs them. Our software and designs greatly reduce those barriers.  So when you want to use the laser cutter at your local library to make a unique gift, Obrary’s open designs and easy software make it easy for you to make it and feel the pride of making something that is uniquely yours.

Remember, at Obrary we make it easy to make.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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Will is a Senior Writer with Tech.Co, based out of America's Finest City: San Diego. He covers all territory West of the Mississippi river, digging deep for awesome local entrepreneurs, companies, and ideas. He's the resident Android junkie and will be happy to tell you why you should switch to the OS. When he's off the clock, Will focuses his literary talent on the art of creative writing...or you might find him surfing in Ocean Beach. Follow Will on Twitter @WJS1988

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