Five Must-Haves for Your Makerspace
Are you setting up a Makerspace or Innovation Hub in a school or university? I’ve set up and worked in school Makerspaces for four years now and am excited to share with you five machines to help get you started with unleashing your creative genius.
- The cutting machine
The vinyl cutter such as the Cricut or Cameo ($150–$300) is a great starter machine since it fits on a desktop or small table, is not dangerous, and is easy to learn. There are also plenty of Youtube tutorials if you get stumped. You can design a cutting file in the Cricut Design Space or in Silhouette Studio and then connect your computer to the machine with a USB cable or Bluetooth, depending on the model. Then, you prepare the cutting mat by pressing onto it the material you wish to cut: vinyl for stickers, cardstock for paper cutouts, or fabric for iron-ons. In some machines, you can load a pen or Sharpie into the carriage and also program the machine to draw a design you created.
After pressing your material onto the mat, you load it into the machine and watch the blade cut out the design. This cutting machine is a great option for schools with a lower budget Makerspace or with younger students who want to create something simple, but unique, quickly. It is also a cheaper alternative to a laser cutter, which is approximately 10 times more expensive. However, note that the laser cutter can cut much thicker wood and acrylic than the small cutting machines can.
2. The 3D printer
3D printers are a great way to quickly bring custom designs to life. You can model CAD (Computer Aided Design) on sites such as TinkerCAD, which is free for everyone, or with software such as Autodesk Fusion 360, which is free for educators and schools. One benefit to the web-based CAD sites such as TinkerCAD and Sketchup for Schools is that they work on Chromebooks as well as Macs and PCs. I used web-based programs while working in a lower-income school that only had access to Chromebooks, and upgraded to the more advanced Fusion when I moved to a school with more resources. However, simple is not always a drawback, and I recommend TinkerCAD for all beginners due to its easy drag and drop interface. I also recommend getting a mouse, since it is much easier to navigate the modeling software with the left and right click shortcuts, as well as the scrolling wheel for zooming in and out.
The most common 3D printers in schools (such as those made by Makerbot or Sindoh) are in the $1,000 — $2,000 range. They use spools of PLA, or polylactic acid. There are also SLA 3D printers that use fused resin rather than plastic spools, but they tend to be at least $2,000 more expensive. Fused resin printers can make beautiful, intricate copper jewelry and strong metal robotics components, but your school will need to decide if the extra cost is worth it. And a workaround to save yourself from buying the expensive printers is to print a mold with the PLA printers and then pour a liquified metal into it. Or- as my class liked to do, use the PLA printer to make a plastic mold that then makes a silicone mold that can be used to make custom shaped chocolate. Yum.
Or you can 3D print a hand-stamp. Note that to work on paper, you would need to make a plastic stamp mold and then a silicone stamp, or else the ink doesn’t want to stick.
For PLA printers, you load a spool into the back of the printer, push the filament tip through a tube and into a nozzle, which heats up and extrudes (squeezes) out a melted piece of plastic onto a print bed according to a pre-loaded design on a USB drive or one sent over a wireless connection. The designs build layer by layer out of a tiny (~4 mm) nozzle, which is why prints can take hours, or even days, to complete.
Yet, the wait is worth it: students and adults alike love creating a design on a computer and watching it come to life in front of them. Just be ready to try a design and then need to rework it, because prints don’t always come out as you intend. You may need to finagle with the breakaway support settings or re-level the print bed. Tip: it is 100% worth it to buy a 3D printer that has an assisted leveling process, because it will save you many frustrating hours of trying to make sure the bed is completely level; this makes up for the added expense. This iterative method, though time-consuming, is a perfect opportunity to teach the Design Thinking cycle.
3. The embroidery machine
I would start simple. Step one: Get needles and thread for hand sewing and embroidering. Step two: Bring in a sewing machine and get comfortable winding and loading the bobbin and threading the needle. Step three: Bring in the embroidery machine, and now your students will appreciate how the technology speeds up such a slow process, though there is obviously still beauty in the craft of hand embroidery.
In my Makerspace, I have the Brother PE 800 and have made many embroidered towels for weddings and birthdays. Students also love to create the designs on the screen and then watch the needle go up and down at an astonishingly fast speed. The most time-consuming part is changing the thread, and luckily the machine has a lever that helps thread the needle.
A few notes: the embroidery machine does not sew. Also, the needle can get jammed if you try to embroider a fabric that is too thick. If you want to create a design with a custom image on it, the only way I found to do so was to buy a VERY expensive and old piece of software (PE Design +) from a third party seller. You know the software is old when it has a card that must be plugged into my laptop drive for the software to work. However, it uses a pretty effective “Autopunch” method that converts an imported image to stitches. You will learn by trial and error which types of images work well. Then, the software allows you to export a .PES file to a USB drive which you then stick into the embroidery machine. And voilà! You can embroider Peppa the Pig on a dish towel. Or St. Michael the Archangel.
4. The soldering iron
Small, simple, and reasonably priced ($100-$200), the soldering iron is powerful for melting metals to connect electronic circuits. One of our students used one today while to fuse wires that had come disconnected on a drone. I use the soldering iron frequently when I teach a Self-Driving Cars with Arduino course; we needed to solder the motor wires to a wire that could be plugged into the breadboard. You will need to buy some soldering silver to melt with the tip. You should also have a fan handy, because it isn’t good to breathe in silver fumes.
5. The laser cutter
While laser cutters are expensive ($3,000+), they are precise and powerful. You have to consider how you are going to filter the exhaust, though. You can punch a hole in the wall to filter the air to the outside without letting the exhaust in. However, if people are walking near that outdoor area where the air pours out, they will be breathing in (and smelling) the exhaust, which can either smell like a campfire for poplar or like toxic waste for plastics. Since the hole-in-the-wall did not work for my Makerspace setup, we invested in a BOFA Oracle iq filtration system (~$5,000 with a hefty shipping fee) that passes the exhaust through a tube into 6 filters. This releases the filtered air into the space, but by then, the particles have been caught in the filters. The filters need to be replaced every three months or so, but the price of the filtration system is worth it to not breathe in toxic particles.
We have used the laser cutter for everything from jigsaw puzzles (painted by students) to a robotics chassis. We’ve made coasters and Ferris wheels, engraved plaques and camera obscuras. So if your school can afford it (AND the filter) I highly recommend investing in a laser cutter. Warning: when the laser cutter is on, with the industrial chiller and filtration fan, it can be quite loud. Especially in the age of teaching in a mask, it can be hard to be understood, so I would frontload instruction before turning on the machine.
My last piece of advice is: don’t get all the machines at once. That can be overwhelming for the person in charge, especially if things begin to break and you have to repair them. And note that I haven’t even ventured into woodworking. The dremel, drill press, hand drill, and hacksaw are all useful as well and will merit another article. So, take it one machine or tool at a time, and be open to learning along with your children or students. And don’t forget that you can always call on Google, the company, or me (I can at least try to point you to the right resource). It is a lot of work at the get-go, but the headaches are all worth it when you see the creative genius that is unleashed thanks to the *Makerspace*.
Note: I have not been bribed. None of these companies paid me to list their products here. They are simply products I have found, used, and decided to keep using as an educator.