The tools of an adult makerspace define what projects will come out of that space. In education, it is difficult to tell what will be popular or utilized from year to year. So, providing diverse options is key to sustained involvement and continued utilization. Also, don’t worry about tools which sit for years. Good tools last for decades when properly stored. That tool will find a user when the time is right.
Understandably, funding might not be available to get the best in every category, but simply having a certain tool to say you have it, is not the same as having a tool which will be used. Adversely, don’t order something shiny because a shifty salesman pitched it well, consult your makers before big purchases.
Spending more money up-front on a tool can save “sweat-equity” on the back end in the form of time and/or resources, in many situations.
For instance, a 3D printer for $300 can cost lots of time spent in testing, slicing, and setup, while prints still might not stick to a non-heated bed. On the other hand, an $800 printer will have turn-key software, a heated bed, and an enclosed cabin. Most tools follow the Golden Rule of tools: “You get what you pay for.”
Below I have listed options which I have personally owned, worked with, or read about/spoke to someone who enlightened me on the experience. In most descriptions, I explain how I am familiar with each tool.
-The laser cutter is the “cool factor” tool of any makerspace. It is the most useful as it can make very precise cuts or designs with (1200 dpi and cut the width of a hair) a wide range of materials, while producing less waste than a CNC mill.
-As this is such a big investment, many options are comparable. Much of the price difference goes to bed size and cut speed. If you have a lower wattage laser, you have to move it slower to cut deeper. Think of it like a magnifying glass to burn leaves. If it is hotter, it burns quicker and deeper.
-Lower-end systems need water cooling (glass tube DC CO2 lasers like Full Spectrum) and high-end systems can be cooled with moving air across fins surrounding the tube (RF DC CO2 lasers like Universal). All will need fume extraction or exhaust fans to remove the smoke and waste, and they are normally included in the packages.
-3D printers are the staple tool for any makerspace, and they are not all built the same, despite common functionality. The golden rule of “You get what you pay for” stands very true here.
-Investments into the printer will buy speed, precision, reliability, functions, and more. A cheaper printer will take more time to print, or the prints will fail, or they will not be precise, or the printer will break down frequently, (all of them do at some point). I recommend one very good printer for the benefits, and several similar cheap printers which can be used to replicate designs and toys. Once you have more investment capital, then the nice printers can be the cheap ones, as you keep upgrading.
-For any printer, you will need filament which is the material being deposited. You will need files to print, which can be designed in tinkercad.com (my favorite to start), Fusion 360 (favorite for next level), Solidworks (industrial design school standard), openSCAD (freebie using crazy math and similar to Inkscape which is the 2D open source software) , SketchUp (used to be owned by Google, then abandoned) , and the 123D suite from AutoDesk which might die one day, or files downloaded from Thingiverse.com which is a repository of shared designs. They also have laser cutter projects.
-Next you will need a slicer software to take it from model stage to GCode which is the machine language of stepper motor movements. There are free ones like Slic3r and Skeinforge (do not care for either at all) which are tried and true in the RepRap community, and are the only options for cheap printers. The slicer for Makerbot printers is free and will work with Flashforge and other Makerbot clone printers.
-Then there is my favorite and highly recommended one: Simplify3D which is the pinnacle of ease, customization, and maximum functionality. It runs about $125 for two licenses, and I would recommend those two spots be on the two PCs in Room One, then buy two more seats for the two instructors.
CNC mills like Carvey and X-Crave systems
CNC Mills are a nice tool to get depth from CAD designs. A laser can cut, but not have angles. A 3D printer can deposit, but only in 6”x6” +/- increments. CNC mills can be as small as desktop options (500mm) or up to 4ftx8ft to cut a full sheet of plywood.
They commonly use a rotary tool such as a dremel or ¼” wood router which has bits and parts available locally from Lowe’s and Home Depot. This is nice when you program the head to move faster than the bit wants to allow, and you break a bit. Having backups is important. I would recommend keeping two or three extras of your main bits.