Interview with maker Jim Spencer

Jim Spencer's quadcopter


 Editorial Staff

 27 July 2015

Learning, experimenting, developing… while having fun! That’s the maker spirit of Jim Spencer

Interview with Jim Spencer, eclectic maker from The MakerHive community in Indiana, USA: “None of it would have been possible without utilizing other open source projects, so it was only fair to give back my creation”

Jim Spencer's quadcopter

Jim Spencer’s 3D printed and carbon fiber quadcopter. Photograph: Jim Spencer on imgur

Jim, you are a 3D printing hobbyist, DIY enthusiast, and a “maker”. What brought you to become passionate about digital fabrication?

I think I’ve always been a maker. It’s a part of who I am and how my brain works. I remember sketching and designing things at a very young age, so I believe that I was born with a mind for design. I grew up tinkering with everything I could get my hands on and had hobbies like building models, woodworking, model rocketry, and engine/mechanical work.

My family was supportive of anything that I wanted to try. My father, who is also a born tinkerer, was an excellent teacher who helped me every step along the way. I was drawn to the technical and hands on classes at school and chose as many engineering, drafting, CAD, technology, and manufacturing electives as I could.

I was lucky to go to a high school with great facilities like a wind tunnel and a metal shop because I got to try a lot of things that most other kids would never have the chance to. High School was also my first experience with CNC machinery.

I’m not an artist, and I don’t have a steady hand for skilled craftsmanship, so the idea of having a computer make perfect cuts for me was instantly attractive. After that, I’d picture a machine cutting all of the things that I designed in my head.

Jim Spencer's quadcopter

Jim Spencer testing his quadcopter. Source: imgur

I first saw a stereo-lithography machine as a High School senior touring Purdue University – my first encounter with 3D printing! – A few years later, when the RepRap project brought additive manufacturing into the public arena, having a 3D printer became an inevitability for me.

I knew that I had to have one! I first met my good friend John Oly from SeeMeCNC at a Startup Weekend event when he brought his new delta style 3D printer prototype. I was hooked, and I knew that was the machine for me! The Rostock Max went through a crowd-funding campaign a month later and, shortly after that, I bought one of John’s kits and built my own!

Since then, I’ve printed miles and miles of filament, modified just about everything on the machine, and had a great time designing and printing my own creations as well as some jobs for local businesses.

You are a member of The MakerHive in Elkhart, Indiana. What does it offer to people and why do makers need such places?

The MakerHive is a very special place. It’s like other makerspaces in that we all bring projects to work on and we call on and learn from each other’s expertise. But there’s something about the MakerHive that feels more exciting than your average makerspace.

MakerHive logo

The MakerHive, Elkhart, Indiana. Official logo.

There’s a very unique mix of people and skills, and the brain-trust there is just electric to be around. It seems like we have people on the cutting edge of several different fields. MakerHive members are involved in a lot of popular and innovative products and brands like RotoMaak, TrickLaser.com, MakerJuice Labs, YellowJacket Concepts, SeeMeCNC, and many more.

There’s a creative spark at the Hive that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Every week you’ll hear someone yell “You just got makerspaced!” when there’s a breakthrough.

The MakerHive puts a lot of energy into education and benefiting the community. We hold classes and workshops on topics like electronics, Arduino and microcontrollers, 3D printing, etc. We participate at the local Maker Faires, attend local festivals, and have even been asked to speak about technology at schools and events.

This year we partnered with Startup Weekend Michiana and co-hosted a maker themed event. We had 6 printers running all weekend and almost every team created a model or prototype to go with their business plan before the weekend was out.

We’re also in a great location. Our region is perched on the edge of the “Rust Belt” and has a lot of technically skilled workers and craftspeople that mesh perfectly with the maker movement. We’ve got a local 3D printer company, SeeMeCNC. We also help host the world’s largest RepRap fest, the Midwest RepRap Festival or MRRF.

Exciting things are starting to take root and grow in our community, and The MakerHive is proud to be an important part of them!

You recently designed a 3D printed and carbon fiber quadcopter. This project is amazing for how it is detailed and customizable. How did you come up with the project idea and why did you share it on the web?

I’ve always been fascinated with things that fly. I remember drawing my own space shuttle with forward swept wings out of crayon. I grew up playing with paper airplanes, and it was always an experiment in design.

I’d test different shapes and folds, seek out interesting elements from other designs, I would even make multiple copies of the same plane out of different types of paper and card stock to see which combination would work the best. I even tried a few made out of weird materials like aluminum foil and transparency sheets.

My fascination with flight mixed with my need to tinker and design gave me the desire to build my own quadcopter, and being able to draw and 3D print my own parts is what made it possible. Deciding to do it myself was the easy part, and prototyping it was the fun part. Figuring out all of the pieces and electronics to make it actually fly was what required some research and legwork.

This project wasn’t just to design my first quadcopter, it was my first foray into ‘real’ RC vehicles (Radio-controlled vehicles). I didn’t own a radio set or flight controller or anything before I began, so I got to learn about everything.

I chose to share my project (click here for the whole project) because of how much fun it was to build. Not only did I have an underlying desire to share that fun with other makers, but I felt a responsibility to open source my project.

Jim-Spencer's quadcopter detail

Jim Spencer’s quadcopter detail. Photograph: Jim Spencer on imgur

I designed a project that used off-the-shelf parts, an open source flight controller, and made it all on an open source 3D printer… I really just assembled what other people had created and added my own shape to it in the process.

None of it would have been possible without utilizing other open source projects, so it was only fair to give back my creation. When standing on the shoulders of giants, you at least ought to scratch their backs, right?

 

The quadcopter has created high expectations for you. What are the projects you are currently working on?

My most impressive projects right now are probably a 100w CO2 laser cutting table and a delta 3D printer of my own design. I’m also working on a smaller 250 class FPV racing quadcopter, an industrial style ultrasonic cleaner, assembling a LittleRP resin DLP printer, working on some miscellaneous speaker and audio projects, and several other things.

I’m very good at starting projects, so I’m sure that the list will grow before any more get crossed off.

The laser cutter is based on a ShapeOko 2 CNC mill that will be enlarged to cut a full 2’x4’ panel. I’m designing my own laser tube chiller, so I’m currently learning all kinds of things about active and passive cooling with radiators, peltier elements, water pumping systems, and all of the sensors needed for safety interlocks, equipment protection, and temperature control.

I’ve also got to design brackets and fixtures for the laser tube itself and the mirrors and cutting head. There will be a smoke exhaust system as well as a little bit of pneumatics to apply positive pressure to the cutting head and protect the focusing lens. When it’s all together, I will have to learn about the CAM software to operate it and, luckily, I’ll have some expert help from TrickLaser on that one.

My printer design is basically a crossbreed between the elements that I like from several other models. Overall, it will have an overbuilt and sturdy laser-cut wooden frame that can hold up to transport back and forth to The MakerHive and be a dimension that is convenient to fit in my car.

I also have an idea for enclosing the build chamber to protect the printed parts from wind gusts and drafts, so the overall shape of the machine will cater to that design concept. I’m using electronics that I don’t have previous experience with, and I also want to build in a RaspberryPi for remote control and monitoring into the system from the design phase, instead of adding it after the fact.

I’m doing a lot of things that I haven’t tried before, so it should be a blast!

In your opinion, why is the maker movement having such a visibility nowadays, and how is it influencing the mainstream production concept?

I don’t think that the maker movement or the open source philosophy could exist without the Internet. The movement is founded on the sharing of information, and it just wouldn’t have been possible in the same way 15 or 20 years ago.

Now you can browse thousands of projects on Wevolver, Instructables, Hackaday, Make, etc from anywhere that you are. If there’s something that you want to learn how to do, there’s a video to show you how. If you want to build a specific thing, there’s a build log and a parts list. You can find just about anything that you want, and that’s a very powerful thing.

What the Internet has done for information, 3D printing is doing for manufacturing and hardware. Several 3D printing processes were created and patented back in the mid 80’s. Large industrial companies who owned the rights sold large, expensive machines that were only economical for large companies with high budget R&D departments.

RepRap and Adrian Bowyer

The RepRap project leader, Dr. Adrian Bowyer. Photograph: Simon Bradshaw on Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

When the patents expired and the technology became public domain, the RepRap Project got to work and designed simple, low cost machines that everyone could own. They also designed the machines to use printable parts, so you can create printer parts for your friends!

3D printing wouldn’t be a household term or such a juggernaut in pop culture without being so available. Now almost anyone can afford a printer, and 30-year-old manufacturing technology is seeing new life in a market that its creators never dreamed of.

The open source philosophy is also spreading. The idea of working on projects for the good of everyone is becoming attractive. The RepRap Project was based on this sort of concept, and many people in the 3D printing community are following suit.

Dozens of websites have thousands and thousands of free digital models that you can download and print, and they were created by people like you and me who just wanted to give a little bit back. It’s amazing how powerful this has become with thousands of contributors crowd sourcing the progress of different projects.

Things like the OpenHand project are enabling disabled people around the world, the OpenRC project is taking the RC hobby by storm, the InMoov project is tackling humanoid robotics. It’s truly amazing to see the groundbreaking projects out there.

OpenHand project: Liam Hands Out

OpenHand project: Liam Hands Out. Photograph: Joel Gibbard on openhandproject.org

The maker movement is influencing industry in several positive ways. Most importantly, it’s inspiring the next generation of inventors and innovators. Whenever I’m giving a 3D printing demonstration, kids are instantly drawn to the technology. There’s something about it that just sparks creativity, and that’s priceless.

Second, 3D printing is revolutionizing product design. A designer can create a prototype more affordably than ever before. You can think of a new idea, draw it up, and have a prototype in your hands in a few hours without having to spend thousands of dollars on molds and tooling and waiting several weeks or even months to get it. Companies can afford to revise their designs over and over again until they’re absolutely perfect, and we’ll all see better products as a result.

I think that we’ll also see companies start using 3D printing to market their products. What if you could print out your video game avatar, or you could earn exclusive badges and achievement objects that your friends didn’t have?

Action figures could come with QR codes for printable accessories, Barbie could have custom printable shoes, matchbox could have custom rims… People would buy these products just for the novelty of 3D printing.

The Testors model company should release a model with printable parts, you could create your own custom LEGO bricks, you could make new Estes rocket nosecones. The possibilities are practically endless, we just need to think of them and make it happen.

As 3D printing technology continues to progress, the processes will start showing up in production. Right now, printing a part is relatively time prohibitive, so it’s best suited to prototyping, and one-offs. New technologies like the CLIP printer and top-down resin processes are exponentially faster.

When these technologies take hold and make printing more time economical, it will be a more common production manufacturing process. That will have an amazing impact on the world. Less shipping and warehousing, more customizable products, on-demand supply, etc. I can’t wait!


 

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