An engineers desk full of tools

Pies, pumps and products

An engineers desk full of tools


It was only a matter of time before make-studios made the headlines, (or catch-up TV headlines at least)!

BBC’s current series, “The Big Life Fix” has lifted the curtain and gone behind the scenes of a make-studio for the first time. They focus specifically on life-style assistance for the vulnerable, the series has pulled on many a heart-string, but the technology is by no means limited to the medical field.
How did this happen? Aren’t medical devices the preserve of global corporations, with design and manufacturing capacities which boggle the mind? What has changed which allows a team of tech-hipsters to produce a device which meets a highly bespoke requirement, includes functionality which is not compromised, and do it all in a matter of days or weeks? Read on…

The traditional methods of manufacturing have not left us and there is no substitute for knowing your way around a tool box. Make-studios use lathes, hammers and swear words just like any other workshop. Replacing at least some of the manual skill however, is 3d design skill. Digital manufacturing methods (such as 3d printing, laser cutting etc) require only that the user has the skills to design the shape correctly, not that they posses the skills to sculpt or carve it. Digital manufacturing methods are not a religion, and they do not replace traditional work methods. They augment them. They belong together. There should have been a ceremony.

Humans making strong bonds and links

Making something move, have a function, or light up etc is a simple matter of adding the hardware. So the crane model needs to work. No problem, we split the join, add the bearing, a gearing arrangement and a small motor. We get these items from the shelf, they are inexpensive items. We don’t, (contrary to the thoughts of some), 3d print the bearing. Ref comment; ‘it’s not a religion’!

So how to we control the motors, pumps and lights which we’ve added to the model? If it’s a simple arrangement, then so is the solution. A battery pack and discrete switches may be the answer. Prefer something a little more rock ‘n’ roll? That’s where PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) come in. They can be programmed to perform certain tasks in a logic-gate fashion. They can also measure certain parameters and alter their behaviour accordingly. For example a lamp can be turned up or down depending on the local light levels measured by the PLC.

So the model is pretty dumb, as are the motors and PLCs to be quite frank. What’s needed is a miniaturised platform which can support the running of bespoke software and provide a dynamic interface to the PLC. Enter stage right (for example): the ‘Raspberry Pi’ or the ‘Arduino’. Now we’re getting somewhere. Think of it as a laptop (with no screen, mouse or keyboard) squished to the size of a wallet. This allows us to interface with our hardware in any way we choose provided we have (or can write) the required software.

Electronics and components, PCB boards
So what have we made? We’ve created a customised product which can move, display and react in any way we want it to, using any interface or source we choose to give it. We can control it through a phone, tablet, with our voice, our movement, through the internet, or the IoT. We can infer any piece of digital information and translate it to produce an effect in the real world. We have copied the basics of any control system deployed the world over, industrial or otherwise. Ten years ago this would not have been feasible, mainly on an economic basis. Today, we pull these things from the shelf or create them with precision in a very cost effective way.
So when you’re local make-studio tell you they can make pretty much anything, believe them. They’re not being vague, they just don’t have your brief yet. Tell them carefully what is needed. Examine what they propose. Wind them up and watch them go. Be sure you’re available to accept deliveries, they’ll be finished sooner than you think.
At Form 3d Services, we’re delighted that the spotlight is being shone on our industry. There are no big players in what we do. You won’t find us running TV Ad campaigns or swamping the internet with videos. We’re more like a well buried truffle…

Truffles UK hunting with pig