O’Maley 3D Printer Make-a-Thon, An Endurance Event for Nerds
by Jim Dowd
Photos by Martin DelVecchio
Here’s the scene: I’m sitting at a table in my daughter’s middle school with a pile of neatly laid-out parts that look like IKEA decided to make electronics. I’m surrounded by dear friends and fellow community members along with teachers and administrators. We’ve all visited the elaborate coffee station set up in a corner and have consumed enough caffeine to make our pupils vibrate at the rate of purely theoretical particles. The atmosphere is, to be honest, tense as there are 27 such piles on tables distributed at regular intervals around the library. Our job is to transform them into cutting-edge technology for the students. Also, there are pastries.
Dave Brown oversees our team with understandable concern
The machines everyone is going to try and build are 3D printers, something hardly anyone in the room has ever seen before. It would be like grabbing a random selection of people from the sidewalk bazaar and saying, “Lets go up to O’Maley and build two dozen flying waffle irons!” But besides stacking the bench with a few tech-whiz ringers, School Technology Specialist Dave Brown and Science teacher Amy Donnelly did essentially just that: they put out an open call to the public to build 27 of these babies over the course of a weekend.
No experience necessary.
The parts and instructions are here, take a look. Sound like a risky plan?
There are no printed instructions. On each table there is a laptop. We’re told to click on the videos and do what the narrator says, but it’s loud in the library and the built-in laptop speakers suck. The video narrator/instructor is a dude named “Colin” …How does one say this? He sounds sort of like that guy in high school who could make his own electric guitars, but kinda sorta spent a lot of time in that one bathroom with “Bob Marley Lives!” carved into the door, if you know what I mean.
Colin is not the most concise of fellows and occasionally does essential tasks offscreen and apparently does not know how to edit his videos. Each one is an exceptionally long take of him going, “Uh, OK, that was sort of wrong, so undo that last part…” He’s like your college roommate on Saturday night after you’ve been studying all day and he’s been “hanging out” and now he’s trying to explain Kirkegaard to you. Colin is a genius to be sure and you love the guy, but you and he are on different planes of reality right now.
Maggie and Joe listen to Colin with earned skepticism
We sixty-odd caffeine-buzzing volunteers lean into the laptops and follow as best we can, trying not to screw up, because we’re building the printers for a new lab at the O’Maley Innovation Middle School (motto: Yes, innovation!) and these are notoriously finicky beasts. The kits were donated by the Gloucester Education Foundation [give them moneyz!]. The assembling was donated by local educators, administrators and community members. Food donated by local restaurants and bakeries. Ironic T-shirts worn by many participants courtesy of the Internet.
Amy and David are the Field Marshals trying to make all this happen and work. They have taken a tremendous risk in the community-build approach and bear an enormous burden as the hours tick too quickly by and we’re all holding up parts going, “What the crap did Colin say about cutting away extraneous plastic on the extruder gear axle assembly?” They dash about, distributing advice and trying to allay fears. But by Saturday afternoon, 11 hours in, only two of the kits are laying down plastic. The rest of us are tangled up in wire harnesses, “Z-axis motor stops” and fretting the tension of our belt drives. Long light starts to shine in through the windows as the sun descends.
WAIT, BACK UP. WHAT THE HELL IS A 3D PRINTER AND WHY SHOULD ANYONE CARE?
As Scruffy McNerdman testifies in the vid, 3D printing is technology overturning the way we make and use things. It will have massive implications as we move from the crude printers of today to cheaper and much higher resolution devices of tomorrow, where it will be possible to print standard objects but also food, medical devices, electronics and even human organs (there are over 100 people today with 3D printed soft tissue organs).
A quick example of how a future version of this technology will impact every one of our lives:
There are things I hate about my minivan. Not just that it makes me look like a khaki-wearing suburban soccer dad who owns a ride-on lawnmower and the Billy Joel boxed set. What I really hate about it is that the interior is clearly designed for the boringest people on Earth. First of all, the beverage holder is designed for a ‘Big Gulp’ sized soda and is thus so vast any normal-sized drink I put in there is bound to spill and create a disgusting crust resembling the interior of the spaceship in the movie Alien. It also has a built-in soda cooler because of course more soda (there should be space for a portable dialysis machine with all the soda infrastructure this car has). It has carpets for people who apparently enjoy lounging around in their car barefoot. It has all of one USB charging port. On long car trips our daughter Rebecca is designated DJ and she has to run a cord from the dashboard to her back seat so she can run the music system from her tablet because the makers of this vehicle assumed the adults in the front are the ones who should be picking the music for a van full of tweens and teens. The people who designed this van are not from this planet.
Our family is not being optimally served by the current setup. The one USB port is a hassle for a family who won’t go the other side of town without enough smartphones, tablets and laptops to run a mid-sized advertising agency. Everything we do seems to involve mud, snow and dirt: beach, soccer, hikes in the woods. We have bikes, boats, a collie who likes to roll around in any disgusting thing she finds and my wife goes to Aprilla Farms weekly and loads the whole interior up with some kind of gourd or beet or root or dirty brown knobby thing that’s supposed to be good for you. We basically need a combination of a Subaru and the US Army 2.5 ton utility truck with its own IT infrastructure.
In not too long (sooner than you think) I will go to the dealer and she will sit me down and I’ll tell her all this and they will build a car to suit for the same cost as a car today. Printing and finishing a custom vehicle will incur no penalty on the manufacturing process all due to the advances being made on crude looking jumbles of wood and wire like the ones now sitting on tables around the 3D printing lab in our very own middle school.
The vid below is some dudes actually doing this and they finally have a proof of concept prototype. I hung around with them at a tech show a couple of years ago and we got drinks. They are really cool save for the fact that they insisted on wearing aviation flight suits everywhere. I was worried we were going to get our asses kicked when we went out, but we wound up at ‘Miracle of Science’ on Mass Ave in Cambridge where the menu is based on the periodic table of elements, so no worries in that department.
3D PRINTING OBJECTIONS, MADE BY IDIOTS
Online I saw a few objections to this technology from people who probably were the same folks who used to leave long, rambling messages on your answering machine back in the day saying things like, “Hello? Hellooo…oh, gracious. I really don’t like talking to a machine. Jimmy? Are you theeeeere? I have to tell you something about Thanksgiving, the address changed. Call me and I’ll tell you [Click].”
- “Oh mercy! I saw on the Internet you can make a gun! Right there in school! Won’t someone Pleeese think of the children?” OK, sure, with a much more expensive and higher resolution printer than the ones we have, if you took a month of dedicated time and a variety of tools and some additional highly complex finishing you can make a very, very terrible gun. By the time you finished this gun it would have about the accuracy, quality and effectiveness of a Revolutionary War flintlock pistol but with way less likelihood it would actually fire even once. You can make pretty much the same “gun” from stuff at Ace Hardware.
- “Consumer 3D printing is all hype, you can’t make anything useful” As a guy who deals with technology adoption every day, I agree from a current market standpoint. But these machines at O’Maley actually produce something much more useful than little plastic figurines: educated people. Little model Yoda heads are not, in and of themselves, worth anything. However individuals who can go from raw concept to software model to an actual thing are, however, invaluable considering where everything is going.
- 3D printing will lead to atomic scale nanofabrication, transcending capitalism and creating a post-scarcity utopia just like in Star Trek The Next Generation. All I have to say is: “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”
3D PRINTING COMES TO GLOUCESTER
The GEF grant could have bought eight pre-assembled printers and a small group of students would have been able to use them on a limited basis. But what we’ve come to understand about technology in schools is that it only works well when everyone has full access. This was the logic behind getting the entire 8th grade Chromebooks, which has been nothing short of transformative.
The better option was getting 30 kits and then assembling them. They take somewhere between 12-20 hours to put together and as I began to explain above the assembly requires, among other skills; soldering, wiring, hooking up a circuit board, installing motors and belt drives, gear assemblies, setting up and correctly installing fragile heat sensors called “thermistors” along with more tiny little screws and nuts than individual cereal bits in a “Family Size” box of Rice Krispies from The Basket.
Science Teacher Amy Donnelly schools Haig on his wiring
So, rejoining our story in the O’Maley library, now it’s 8pm on Saturday and 16 hours have elapsed. I’ve cranked down part of a BLT all day because our laserlike focus has been bringing our machine to life. At my team’s table KT Toomey and Steve Brosnihan and I are surrounded by a low tide of wires, parts, tools and 63 empty tiny little cans of Mountain Dew. We’re sweating it. Even though our build is technically done, things aren’t moving as they should. Our printer is sputtering around as if possessed by unclean spirits.
Besides the two machines brought to life earlier in the day (Props to Joel Favazza and those two engineer/machinist dudes who sneezed out their machines while the rest of us were still giggling every time Colin said “nuttrap.”), nobody is getting any plastic through. At the coffee station secret doubts are expressed. The tone is of a hospital drama in the middle of a mass-casualty triage: “I’m not sure mine’s gonna pull through. We’re doing everything we can. I don’t know how I’m gonna face the family if it doesn’t make it…”
Ours, which we quickly dubbed with the sci-fi robot villain name “SCULPTRON” (All Hail SCULPTRON!) is in critical condition. Every time we power up it makes a loud noise that resembles what I imagine C3PO’s farts would sound like. Servos are flitting around randomly as if to signal, “Help! SCULPTRON has been built by idiots! Why do you let me live like this! I beg you to KILL SCULPTRON in the name of mercy KILL MEEE!!!!”
SCULPTRON sounds and acts nothing like the two smoothly humming machines at the front assembled by students over the summer. These are happily tended by the clever teens and are cheerfully cranking out well-formed plastic doodads at a regular pace. It turns out these teens are the secret weapon of this whole project.
This kid saved our nerdy behinds.
Over the summer they did a week long session with some students and a few of the kits. They were taught how to build, program and use the devices culminating in a huge Mexican feast on the last day. Catch: you could only eat with utensils you had designed and printed. Those kids were undisputed heroes this weekend. They popped around to different tables, helped readjust parts here, gave advice there. They knew how all the wiring worked and could tell you what was wrong. One of them took a sidelong glance at SCULPTRON, who was now lurching around clumsily as if someone had served him the robotic equivalent of a half dozen scorpion bowls.
“Your mechanical parts look fine. Redo all your wiring.”
Huzzah, kid, you were exactly right! We found a mis-wired connection and reinserted one of the control motors on its pins from the motherboard and suddenly SCULPTRON was efficiently zipping around like his robot brethren at the front of the room (and no doubt thirsting for revenge against his human defilers).
Can I tell you the joy I felt when SCULPTRON first laid plastic? It wasn’t holding my kids for the first time (hey ladies, you are 3D printers too!) but it was in that direction. There will be those who claim I cranked up the speakers I’d brought to better hear Colin’s mumbling and danced about the room capering wildly to the 80’s pop hit “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. That, people, is a lie. It was actually “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. C’mon, Survivor? Really?
“It’s working! Have you ever seen something so beautiful?”
On Sunday the rest of the kits started to come to life. One by one we spun the tunes as a new table started making objects to the cheers of its builders and suddenly the room was filled with little fish, aliens, plastic cubes, frogs and other test items. An increasing number of kids, most of them elementary schoolers who could no longer be kept away by their parents, showed up and just took over. They instinctively began printing objects as we adults worked on getting the remaining kits up to speed.
How many did we get working you ask? 22, compadres. We got all but 5 printing and even those that weren’t completed are being finished off this week. After the immensely patient custodian finally kicked us out late Sunday night, I crashed on our couch at home, depleted. It took about three minutes for me to start getting texts, emails, IMs and messages from a few folks wondering how the machine they’d put hours into but had to abandon for parental responsibilities turned out. Also were elevated thank-yous, virtual high fives and literally teary well-deserved shout-outs to David and Amy. It really was a community event like no other I’ve ever been a part of. People were deep in this project, way deep. We’re still coming back to reality.
I want to say that I don’t think there a lot of places that could have done this. Where else do you find 600+ hours of competent volunteer time from people who will give up a whole weekend, and who have the DIY chops to throw together a complicated piece of hardware like this? To me it speaks of the best of Gloucester, the stuff that makes it impossible to consider ever living anywhere else. Fanatical devotion to each other, the unrepentant love of a crazy plan, dedicated visionaries to make it all work and a railtanker full of coffee.
Dear God we drank so much coffee.
To see a bunch more pics of the build click here