3D printing with beetleblocks

We have had a 3D printer in the Learning Studio for a few months, and some of us have been experimenting with ways to use it meaningfully, whether it is to make custom parts for exhibits on the floor, or cool materials that bend and spring in interesting ways. For me, though, the whole process lacked a certain crucial degree of appeal. I don't know how to use a 3D cad program, and although I am interested in learning eventually, the learning curve is quite steep and the process very long before I can get something meaningful out of it. On the other hand, simply downloading and printing a ready-made design from an online repository like thingiverse is not very exciting, it seems to me to amount essentially to adding one more tchotchke to the world, and a poor quality one at that.

Recently, Sebastian introduced to us beetleblocks, a project by friend and collaborator Eric Rosenbaum, which basically is Scratch for 3D printing. Essentially you snap together blocks of code that tell the computer what to draw and how to move around a 3-dimensional stage, and you are able to add computation and randomization to the variables you use.

I checked it out and started to play with it. All of a sudden the process of creating a 3D design became incredibly approachable: with just a few blocks of code I could create a 3D design that was interesting, dynamic, and easily tinkerable. I can change a simple number and get an entirely different and unexpected result.


Here's the block of code that I ended up using to make my final design. It's very simple, but the resulting shape is complex and pleasing. I've included a short video that shows the process of turning the code into a 3D design; it's fun to watch the "beetle" move around and drop solids according to your code!

3D print experiment

So I finally started printing. In order to support a complex 3D structure with elements that are hanging in mid-air, the printer software comes up with a complex "base" to hold the final piece steady, and starts laying that down first. It is difficult to imagine how the final piece will fit in there, but I trusted the machine. The job would take over 3 hours, so I let it go overnight and headed home.

3D print experiment

I was not prepared for what waited for me the next morning! This insanely complicated structure resembling a demented rollercoaster is what the software came up with as necessary to support what I wanted to print. It took quite a while, but I managed to take all the supports off and the final piece looks quite nice!

3D print experiment

3D print experiment

I am very excited to try more experiments with beetleblocks and to mess about with quality settings and different shapes on the 3D printer. But a thought occurred to me after finally engaging with the process of making a 3D printed shape. I think that in most people's minds the promise of 3D printing is this: if you can design it, you can print it. But that turns out not to be true: there are myriad limitations and caveats and little tricks to actually get the object that you designed out of the printer, so you are just trading one set of constraints and problems for a different one. Something that you design might be actually impossible to print, or really hard with the type of printer you have available, or at the quality that you want, etc. The tool itself is very difficult to fine tune when you run into problem, unlike a laser cutter. If I am trying to cut a piece of cardboard on a laser cutter and the cut doesn't go quite all the way through, I know I have to increase power, for example. But if some of the squares in my bracelet end up not quite closed all the way, or the line slumps in places, I have no idea what I could change in the tool to fix that problem. Maybe that will become more evident and we gain more expertise, but this is my first impression.

More thoughts as I keep playing with it!


Maker Faire 2015 - Day 2


On the second day of Maker Faire, we continued with our chain reaction explorations, scientific demonstrations, and the new addition of toothpick artist Scott Weaver. One surprise was that as the gates opened up, one family who had built part of the chain reaction the night before, came running into the tent to build another section for the morning set off!


We design tinkering activities to be open ended and personally meaningful, so it was great validation that after spending three hours with us these young makers wanted to come back to build more. Over the day several more groups would build return again to join in a second (and even third) session.

Maker Faire 2015

And with the return builders seeding the environment with ideas and inspiration, the machines got more complex and imaginative, including elements that moved under the table, materials used in surprising ways, and new homemade devices like a rubber band catapult constructed out of scrap wood and hot glue.

Maker Faire 2015

Some larger groups joined the activity which challenged us as facilitators to help them negotiate the collaborative element of building. In anticipation of the crowds, we had divided each table in half with colored tape, reducing the building space but increasing the number of groups that could participate. Part of the process always includes figuring out how to express ideas and share them with others, and on these smaller sections, that was more important that usual.

Maker Faire 2015

'Rolling through the Bay' creator Scott Weaver drove down to San Mateo to join us for the day and brought along his toothpick hat and glasses. Lots of people gathered at his work bench to watch him demonstrate the ball runs and explain his process of making toothpick sculptures. His enthusiasm was contagious and we were thrilled that so many visitors to the faire got to meet this amazing artist.


Even when Scott wasn't stationed at his maker bench, he roamed the grounds of the event center, letting younger kids place the ping pong balls in his toothpick hat!

Maker Faire 2015

Meanwhile, in the workshop space, the tables filled with interesting foil switches, complicated ball runs, and creative uses of materials over the course of the first three hours. Our first set off of the day at 1:00 went really well with limited use of the 'magic finger' (the way we keep the machine going when things don't go according to plan).

Maker Faire 2015

One of the nice things about the Maker Faire is that it serves as a mini reunion with many artists, educators, and colleagues from around the globe. This group was visiting from the New York Hall of Science and stopped by the booth to build an incredible section (complete with a flying chicken).


At 5:00 we had our last set off of the weekend and the booth was full of people cheering, taking pictures, and noticing the hard work that went into creating the complex machines. Luigi, Ron and Ryoko filmed each chain reaction and those videos will be posted soon on vimeo and here on the blog. Thanks so much to everyone who helped out to make our tenth Maker Faire an amazing experience!


Maker Faire 2015 - Day 1

Last weekend we participated in the 10th annual Bay Area Maker Faire. This year we collaborated with the Explainers, our stalwart staff scientists, the cinema arts program, and one very special toothpick artist, to bring the spirit of the Exploratorium down to San Mateo. Once again we set up outdoors, with the focus of our booth on building five Rube Goldberg inspired chain reaction machines with the public over the course of the weekend. It was challenging, sometimes chaotic, and a lot of fun!

Maker Faire 2015

As Luigi artfully documented in his last post, we created 120 linear feet of new tube wall for the occasion and it served as a barrier to the more dedicated workshop space. On the outside of the booth we put out the chain reaction example table for people who couldn't dedicate the time to build their own contraption.

Maker Faire 2015

Inside the tent, we had twenty stations for groups of kids and adults to work together to build one section of a chain reaction contraption. The completed reaction would connect with each of the other groups and span from Nicole's fish bowl timer to the ping-pong ball finale on the other side of the tent. We planned for three chain reactions on Saturday and two on Sunday with about three hours dedicated for building each one.

Maker Faire 2015

However, we ran into a snag right away, as the weather in San Mateo for the weekend was chilly, grey and most problematically windy. Building a chain reaction involves setting up intricate domino systems, precariously balancing balls to be hit down ramps, and other precise engineering solutions that are made much more difficult when having to take into account the wind. Out first chain reaction went through all right, but it was much more difficult than usual, and we were a little worried for the rest of the faire.


So when Nicole arrived in the afternoon, she immediately started working on homemade wind shields with the materials that she could scrounge around the tent. In about a half-hour, we had three of these ingenious baffles made from cardboard and 2x4s with water bottles as weights.


While this improvised solution worked pretty good, luckily it was only temporary, as the wonderful crew quickly arrived with a side wall for our tent which did an excellent job to protect the chain reaction builders from the elements.


With the environmental challenges settled, we could concentrate on the remaining two chain reactions of the day. Maybe there's something about the amount of time, the special nature of the event, or the surrounding experiences, but it always seems that people come up with really interesting and unexpected ideas at Maker Faire. As an example, Sebastian helped this group construct a catapult with a backboard and funnel to control the marble shot.


The project explainers have been facilitating chain reaction in the Tinkering Studio on the weekends, so it was also nice for them to work with visitors in a different environment and share some tips and tricks they've accumulated over time.

Maker Faire 2015

While inside the tube wall corral, makers were deeply engaged in the process of tinkering, the outside ring of exhibits and demos had a steady stream of faire-goers passing through all day long. Fred, from the Institute for Inquiry, spent some time working with guests at the new 'take a close look' microscope station.

Maker Faire 2015

Ron entertained the crowds with simple science tricks like a magnet moving slowly through an aluminum tube which also served as as the platform for two other classic 'exhibit snacks'.

Over the rest of the afternoon and evening we had two more successful chain reaction set-offs, which each culminated in a bowling ball launching dozens of ping pong balls into the large crowds that gathered to watch the spectacle. After the third chain reaction finished up, we were tired, happy, and excited to spend one more day working with makers at the faire.


Tube Wall 2.0

In preparation for Maker Faire 2015 we decided it was time to rebuild our venerable tube wall, originally created for Maker Faire 2009. We took that chance to film the process and make a sort of instructional video on how it's made, since it is one of the frequently asked questions we get from visitors and other museum professionals. Enjoy!


Making More Space for Making & Tinkering


There was so much interest in the topic of Making Space for Making & Tinkering that we needed another hangout just to scratch the surface. This time we’ll be focusing more on schools and after school centers – finding out what they think is most important to consider when creating spaces for their specific audiences.

Getting a space up and running is only half the battle -- staffing it with the right people, doing interesting things with the tools and technology can often get overlooked and sustaining the effort long term are other milestones you'll be faced with. These are issues we've thought a lot about here in the Tinkering Studio, as part of our work with the ASTC Community of Practice for Making and Tinkering, and feel like it's worth thinking more broadly about together.

In this hangout you’ll hear from people who have been directly involved in planning and running spaces as well as a couple who are in the process of ramping up towards opening their own spaces.  Each of the presenters will reflect upon their own experiences up to this point, offering advice and suggestions to each other and be able respond to any specific questions you might have about their approach.

Aaron Vanderwerff from Lighthouse Community Charter School’s Creativity Lab in Oakland, CA.
Aaron's role with making started in his 9th grade classroom several years ago and has grown exponentially to include a school-wide initiative involving making (K-12) and even the development of an entirely new school with maker-centered learning as it’s guiding philosophy.

Emilyn Green from Community Science Workshop Network Emilyn will share her experience with community-centered making in Watsonville, California - but also across the wider CSW network since they have been expanding their efforts statewide. 

Lisa Yokana teaches Art at Scarsdale High School in New York.  
Lisa wrote a nice piece about Crafting the Maker Mindset for Edutopia and is the process of turning her classroom into a Maker Space.

Rob McAdams is with the University of Richmond Rob developed an Integrating Creativity in Learning and Working course for teachers and business professionals as part of his work with the University. He's currently trying to get "mostly analog" maker spaces into financially challenged public schools in his area.

*In case you missed the earlier hangout with the same topic - here's a link to the recording of that one.


We hope you can join us this Thursday!
May 21st at 11PST

To register for this hangout - use this link.


If you'd like to learn more about the ASTC Community of Practice for Making and Tinkering in Museums, here's the link for that.
Do you have an idea for something you'd like us to cover in a future hangout? Shoot us an email --> tinkering@exploratorium.edu