Design Thinker: Shapeoko 2

The Design Lab has has a broken 3D printer longer than it’s had a working 3D printer.  Her name is Moira, she’s a first-generation MakerBot Industries machine… and I have no idea how to fix her.  My friend @paperbits, who built Moira, has several times come to try to fix her and bring her back to operational status.  But he hasn’t succeeded, and neither have I.  Frankly, I’m stumped, and there’s not much I can do about it. She’s a beautiful machine, but she’s also effectively a black box that I don’t understand at all.

(Click through to see a Vine of the working motors in their first test run).

Which means, I have to learn how to fix Moira. But frankly, I didn’t even know how it worked.  I didn’t know how to trouble-shoot it, or even how to identify likely problems.  And the last thing that anyone should do is take apart a machine that belongs to a school (even if it’s broken) in order to learn how to fix it. Asking for trouble, really.

On the other hand, I need to know how these types of machines work.  It’s not enough to be able to fix one, I need to know how they work at an even deeper gut level.  And I can’t do that if I can’t fix one.  Sadly, the first-generation MakerBot Industries kit-design of 3D printer we have isn’t available, so I can’t just start over from scratch, and work my way up.

Shapeoko2 motor assembly
After two hours of stripping wires and screwing them down to the terminal blocks, the lights come on.

But the DesignLab could really use a CNC milling machine, too. And those are available as kits, particularly this rather nice one from Inventables, called the Shapeoko2.  So I bought one. And after two hours of fussing around, I’m happy to report that the motor systems are up and running.

This is exciting to me.  In a week, I’ve gone from not understanding much about electronics at all, to making Squishy Circuits, to building a working set of XYZ motors.  OK, those motors don’t actually do anything right now.  But they will.  And even more importantly to me, I’ve just learned some critical lessons about software-machine interface.  I’ve learned a few important lessons about wiring up motors to an Arduino and a gShield.  And I’ve got a better sense that this is probably not what’s wrong with Moira.

By the time I’m done, I’ll know about building wheels, and assembling frameworks, and troubleshooting systems.  And I suspect that I’m going to be a far more skilled designer as a result.  It turns out that building things with your hands, more than anything else, is what trains the designer to think about the world, and about the work of being a designer.

Build Notes

Shapeoko2 motor assembly
The X- and Y-axis lines attached, and getting ready to attach the Z-axis lines.

From time to time, as I work on this project, I’ll be posting my Build Notes. The folks at want me to contribute to a forum and a wiki, and I get that. But this is about learning in public, and I’m afraid that if I don’t post this stuff to my own blog, I’m not going to finish the machine. Which scares me a lot. It’s a lot of work that I have ahead of me, and I don’t want to leave this pile of screws and gears and bearings on the floor of my office for months.  So I have to build in public, I think.

The first part of the build went well.  I haven’t done any wire-stripping in a good long while, and I’m definitely out of practice.  The attaching-up of the Arduino to the gShield was pretty easy; I didn’t risk breaking the pins or other components at all, but even so that went smoothly.

Attaching the wires from the motors to the terminal blocks was a little dicier.  This is not something I’ve done before.  It got harder when I attached the heavier-gauge wires from the terminal blocks back to the gShield on the Arduino.  Big learning experience: trim the wires before you try to attach them; it’s way helpful to have the wires all cut, stripped and ready to attach before you start attaching three banks of four wires each to some tiny holes in a fragile computer chip!

The testing process was fraught with a little peril for me.  I started up the software that runs the Arduino and will eventually run the CNC milling machine.  And it didn’t work.  I had a small panic as a result.  Yikes, what’s wrong? The thought of going through three banks of four gray wires, and four banks of motor connections, was not something I really wanted to do. That scared me.  However, I realized that I was trying to communicate with the CNC router through a Bluetooth connection, and there wasn’t one.  Once I switched from Bluetooth to USB, everything ran smoothly.

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