Building Digital Hardware


Feb 2016

In 2014, there was the first OReilly Solid Conference about the impact of the “digital” world on the “analog” world. To learn about the foundations for digital fabrication, have a look at this talk by prof. Neil Gershenfeld from the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.

It is an interesting question: What happens if you mix materials with code, symbols and data? In fact, what happens if you replace analog processes for fabrication of goods with digital abstractions to build things?

As Neil Gershenfeld explains, these questions have led to the so-called fablabs or “Fabrication Labs”. In Fablabs, people use digital designs from the internet and transform them into physical objects. Often, 3D printers or laser cutters are used. It is amazing to see how blueprints and designs are moving freely over the internet. And, it is equally amazing to see how skills and know-how evolve if you visit a maker space regularly.

If you have not yet been to a maker space before, here are some starting points. Some of the first FabLabs were built in Barcelona, where there was (is) a high unemployment rate among young people. The video below should give you an impression about a FabLab in Barcelona and about the people involved, esp. Tomas Diez.

While not Barcelona, Munich is quite interesting for digital fabrication too. As I am in located in Munich, let’s look at some examples what “maker spaces” do and how they provide tools and parts.

Maker spaces in Munich

In Munich there are several maker spaces:

  • There is FabLab Muenchen with many workshops for kids and a nice collection of 3D Printers.
  • Then there is MunichMakerLab which has 3D Printers, a laser cutter, drones, and much more. It also hosts meetups for 3D Printing and Arduino for example.
  • Then there is the MCSM Model Engines Club. This is more of a shared workshop in essence, but it comes close to the idea of maker space. By the way, that space just moved into a building 200m away from the Intel HQ in Germany.
  • Last but not least, there is the Munich office of the Chaos Computer Club which comes close to the idea of maker space too.

In a maker space, you not only will find people to share ideas and solutions to problems. Often, you have access to materials and components for making things. For example, as I am working on a power supply for a robot with screws and cables that the MCSM space provides:

Working with software, the skills and tools needed to build hardware are often easier to pick up in a maker space. While a maker space provides tools for analog and digital fabrication, you can explore the web for projects.

Blueprints from the Web

Sharing hardware and circuits is still a bit different from sharing code. For example, you can easily share JavaScript libraries over Github or NPM. On those platforms, you will also find plenty of code related to hardware. But where do you go for circuits or prototype hardware projects from others?

For sharing blueprints of hardware prototypes, the platform is interesting. For example, take a look at this automatic cat feeder project by @SelkeyMoonbeam. You will find an overview about used technologies, and most interestingly, you can access the parts inventory for the projects and sometimes a “toolbox”.

When it comes to circuits, you can browse printed-circuit boards at OSHpark for example. With a press of a button, you can easily share design efforts and explore a circuit from someone else. Sharing circuits is still in its early days.

Another option to build circuits is by the toner heat transfer method. With this, you print out the circuit on a plastic or paper and transfer it to a copper plate.

For robots, Github is also an interesting platform for collaboration. For example, the Sumobot project allows you to build a small robot with an Arduino for less than 50 USD.

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