Welcome to 2019!

2019 in Fab Lab Houston is going to be a great year if the first week is any proof.  Our membership has been growing, and we love seeing our members coming in to create new things. Each one has a favorite machine in the Fab Lab and they are always looking for new ways to improve their skills and grow their making abilities.

We have teachers that are calling to book their spring field trips and Mobile Fab Lab visits. Field trips to the Fab Lab are available for groups of up to 90 students. There is a fee is to cover the cost of materials. Each field trip lasts 3 hours with students rotating through 3 different stations that follow the same theme with very different activities. The Fab Lab Houston Mobile Unit is loaded up and ready to come visit schools and special events.  The Mobile Unit has the ability to see 30 students per hour. If you would like a mobile presentation without the time commitment of 3 hours, think about our Fab Lab Express, which will come to your school without the Mobile Unit. They can be booked in one hour increments, with 30 students being seen in that one hour.

We are slowly adding new workshops to our schedule as well. If you are curious about Fab Lab Houston and all that we have to offer, we encourage you to stop by for our weekly Open House, held each Thursday from 6:00-8:00pm. We offer tool specific workshops for members only in the evenings on other days of the week. Please go to the main page of the website and scroll to the bottom to see our schedule of workshops available.

Every Thursday from 11:00-1:00 we are offering Sewing Technical Assistance.  If you are a member of any of the BakerRipley Community Centers, this program is offered for free.  You will need to register through the East Aldine Campus, and class size is limited. During this time you can come in with a project you are working on or interested in starting, and we will help you get started and offer advice. We can show you how to use the sewing machines, introduce you to the embroidery machine, and even teach you how to use the laser cutter to cut out small projects with precision.

Keep an eye on our website and Facebook pages as we continue to add family workshops for the spring. They will be held on Saturdays and are a great way for the family to get out and work on something together!

Hope to see you around Fab Lab Houston soon.

Fab Lab Ambassadors 2018

This summer Fab Lab Houston hosted their first program, the Ambassadors.  Our Ambassadors were made up of 15 middle and high school students from the East Aldine area.  During the 14 days that the Ambassadors spent in the Fab Lab they learned digital fabrication, computer coding and programming, all about circuits and so much more.

For the Ambassadors program we partnered with Code Park to bring computer coding and programming activities to the youth. Code Park works hard to “Empower under-served students with creative coding experiences.” They worked with the Ambassadors 2 days a week to give them a basic introduction, leading to more complex programming. The students were able to explore how the popular game Mine Craft works to start.  By the end of their sessions with Code Park they were able to use Python to code sensors that were light and temperature sensitive. 

Our Makey Makey kits were a hit with the Ambassadors as well. The students were able to use the kits to turn conductive materials into controllers for playing games and music through Scratch  This website has a wonderful tutorial on how to do basic coding as well, showing students how to use “if / then” concepts.  You can use the site to animate pictures, your name, play games, and even create your own basic games.

Paper circuits were used to introduce the Ambassadors to basic circuitry. The students had fun incorporating basic art into their projects as they drew what the night sky looks like to them, adding a light up star at the end. They learned which colored LED light bulbs draw the most power, causing the bulbs to flicker or not stay on for very long.

One of the first digital fabrication projects that the Ambassadors got to participate in was creating a 3D image to make their own bar of soap.  First, they drew their shapes out on a piece of paper with Sharpie pens so that we could scan them into the computer as vector images to make clean, well defined lines. Once the students had their files they were able to upload them into Tinkercad where they were turned into 3D images. From there, the Ambassadors used the mini CNC mill and 3D printers to make the blanks for their soap molds.

Heating up plastic plates and then vacuum forming them made the final mold for the students to use for making their soap. We have a variety of colored dyes and scents so each soap was not only unique in size and shape, but scent and color as well.

For the Ambassador’s last project of the summer we had them make their own stop motion movies.  So many of them were very creative, using a variety of materials and mediums to bring their ideas to life.  Above is a video of one of the movies made. The youth used one of our other projects, a toy take-a-part as his concept.

Overall we had a great 14 days with the Ambassadors and can’t wait to have them come back to the Fab Lab to build upon their new found skills.

Making Keys with MaKey MaKey

This summer seemed to fly by at Fab Lab Houston. Between our summer camp visits, Fab Lab Ambassadors program, watching construction wrap up around the center, and getting in all our new equipment, I can’t believe summer is almost over.

For Fab Lab Houston’s last visit of the summer to the BakerRipley summer camps we took MaKey MaKey kits to explore conductivity.  I always love pulling out the Makey Makey kits with a new group of students to see what they will come up with.

For those of you unfamiliar with MaKey MaKey, they are simple electronic toys that use a circuit board, alligator clips, and a USB cable to send closed loop electrical signals to the computer. These signals register as either a keyboard stroke or mouse click, telling the computer what to do next. This allows students to turn anything that conducts electricity into a controller.

Our locations had a lot of fun exploring the conductivity possibilities that the MaKey MaKey kits can bring to making music, simple programming, and playing games. Because this summer has been about teaching these kids as well as experimentation for me to find activities that we will be implementing in the Fab Lab long term, I tried something different at each center.

The first group used aluminum foil as their conductive matter. This resulted in a fun, fairly easy to set up activity with little cleanup.  Using the foil in the alligator clips left little room for error or questionable connectivity. The students had fun putting the foil into different shapes as well. One of the frustrations that we frequently ran into was that the foil offered little resistance on the slick tables, and they were constantly sliding off the workspace.  Once the students saw what the problem was, there was an easy fix with a small piece of tape or forming the foil into different shapes that might not slide as easily across the smooth services. Once that was figured out, they had a blast playing on https://scratch.mit.edu/ exploring games that they could play using the MaKey MaKey kits.

At the second location I was feeling a little more adventurous and brought out the play-doh.  Play-doh is a conductive material due to the moisture content. Each student got a container to break down into whatever 5 shapes they wanted to connect the alligator clips into. The play-doh made the kind of mess that you would expect from giving 20 students play-doh.  There was some on the floor, some on the tables, and stuck in the alligator clips. As much fun as the students were having with Makey Makey, the allure of playing with play-doh got to them and that ended up being their focus by the end of the session.

By the time I got to our third and final location I had a large variety of items for the students to experiment with: forks, spoons, marshmallows, gummy worms, and lead pencils with paper. The students had fun mixing and matching different materials for different keystrokes. As they used to their own creations they started playing on other’s kits.  It was fun hearing various directions being given around the room. My favorite was “You have to jump, push the marshmallow!”  I did learn that making keys with marshmallows, while fun, leaves a sticky mess on the alligator clips, wires, tables, kids, etc… So we will not be using them again.

Next time the Makey Makey kits come out we have a variety of new items for the children to explore with, including items that they can cover with foil for fun shaped controls.


Star Light, Star Bright

Fab Lab Houston was very busy last week! Furniture and equipment showed up every day and is being assembled just as quickly as it arrives. Each day we are getting closer to our opening and the excitement is building with each table assembled.

We have also been going to the BakerRipley Community Centers to present the second of three activities to the summer campers. This week the campers have been learning about the solar system and outer space, what a perfect time to introduce them to constellations using Paper Circuits!

Paper circuits have quickly become a program staple for us. Since Fab Lab Houston isn’t open yet, we have been searching for open-ended, portable activities that can be used on a variety of ages. The concept of paper circuits is an easy one; connect mini LED lights to copper tape, and power them with cell batteries. The simplicity or complexity of the project can be adjusted depending on your audience.

For younger audiences we have discovered it is best to use mini LED lights and focus on that one light being a special or North Star. Older groups have used surface mount LEDS to make constellations. The difference between the two lights is that the surface mount LEDS take more prep time and are difficult to make a connection sometimes, making their use more time consuming. The mini LED lights are essentially plug and play with two leads, one positive and one negative that can be attached directly to the copper tape. The surface mount LEDs, being smaller require less energy and you can connect multiples, up to six to one small cell battery. The same cell batteries can only power 2 of the mini LEDs at one time.

From a teaching perspective it has been fun adjusting the workshop based on age, giving us an opportunity to see what ages and groups work best for each activity. We have found that 8 years old is about the cut off for using the surface mount LEDs. Groups that have fewer than 15 participants, unless an additional teacher is available, are the ideal size for the surface mount LEDs.

Today’s blog will be focused on teaching with the mini LED lights. I usually start the class by asking the students what they see in the sky when they look up at night. The typical answers are stars and the moon, but I have heard airplanes, space shuttles, cupcakes, and my dog for answers as well. I like to point out that not all the little bright spots you see in the sky are not always stars, sometimes they can be planets as well. Each student is given a half sheet of dark blue paper to draw their night sky. I have also seen this interpreted in a few creative ways, from just stars and a moon to a house and trees with the stars above it, to rainbows, the sun, and clouds. If another student tells a child with the sun on their paper that they are wrong, I like to use that as a teaching opportunity. Just because we can’t see the stars during the day doesn’t mean they are gone. The stars are out all the time, but during the day they aren’t bright enough for us to see because of the brightest and closest star in the sky, the sun.

Once they students have drawn their picture, they are asked to identify where on the paper they would like to place their light up star. Each child is given a pencil to poke a hole in the paper for the lightbulb to shine through. It is time for them to turn their picture over. Each child is given a 5” x .25” copper tape strip to cut in half. They are then instructed to place each half parallel to the other on either side of the hole made for the lightbulb. The leads of the LED bulbs are bent off to the side, so they create a bridge that will connect the two copper tape strips. Place the LED bulb in the hole, then to keep the leads in placed, cover with small pieces of copper tape. Now it is time to connect the battery. Another small piece of copper tape is used to connect one side of the copper tape on the paper to the battery. Now, the battery will be run to the other side of the copper tape, completing the circuit. If the bulb does not turn on, change the side the copper tape attached to the battery is on, as the positive and negative sides must match.

Let the students know to turn their star on, they push the battery down on the copper strip, and to turn it off, they bend it back and away from making the connection.

The yells of delight and excitement as the students get their bulbs to turn on are great. The “Ah-ha” moment is there as they are trying to figure out how the battery will power the bulb, playing with the connections on their own while waiting for the instructions.

It has been wonderful supplementing the BakerRipley Young Leaders Summer Camp activities this year, and I look forward to our last session where we will introduce the students to MakeyMakey kits. I can’t wait to see the creative ways they use them.

Butterfly in The Sky

Fab Lab Houston is moving closer to our opening this summer. In the meantime we are keeping busy by bringing programs to our community. Last week we kicked off a science summer learning series with BakerRipley’s summer camp program. Over the next 11 weeks we will be visiting four summer camp locations bringing fun STEM activities to their elementary and middle school campers.

Fab Lab Houston’s first visit was during the weekly theme “Let It Grow,” during which the summer campers were learning about how things grow.  They have cocoons in the classroom growing into butterflies, seedlings sprouting, and a new found knowledge of the essential things needed for all things to grow. We were excited to bring in an activity that continued to expand their knowledge.

The activity decided upon was a familiar one, with a modern twist; stained glass butterflies made by melting crayons between two layers of wax paper. Typically for this activity the children cut the shape of the butterfly out of black construction paper to be the frame. With the Fab Lab we were able to use a vinyl cutter to make the black frame, allowing for more detail in the butterfly, and less mess as no glue was involved.

To get the activity started each child was at a computer with a half image of a butterfly on it in Microsoft Paint.  During the introduction we spoke about how butterflies are symmetrical.  The children were then instructed to use the marker tool to make lines on their butterflies, with a picture of a monarch butterfly used as an example. The children then used the ‘select’ and copy tools to move their image over to Microsoft Publisher. In publisher they pasted their half butterfly image twice and then shown how to rotate the image vertically.  They were then able to move the images around to match them up perfectly and make a symmetrical butterfly.  Once we had the image saved as a PDF we imported it to the Cricut Design Space software to prepare for printing on black vinyl. Our butterflies were on the small side, about 4” x 5.” Once the butterflies were cut out on the cutter, we pulled out the parts not needed, leaving just the outline and drawn in lines to be covered with the transfer tape.

After getting the butterfly outlines done, it was time to work on the ‘stained glass’ part of the project. Each child was given a piece of wax paper and a hand-held pencil sharpener. They were then told to choose 3-5 different colors of crayons from a box. The crayons have had their paper wrappings removed already to save time and mess.  During the testing process it was found that using Crayola brand crayons for this activity is really best, other brands don’t melt evenly and tend to look powdery once they cool.  Students won’t need a lot of crayon shavings for this activity, maybe a total of a tablespoon’s worth in the middle of the wax paper, spread in a thin layer.  Once they have enough, take their wax paper with the shavings to a separate area for melting. Place the wax paper with shavings on your work surface, and cover with another piece of wax paper. Using a regular household iron on a medium setting will be best for the melting process. I cover my work area with a towel to insulate from the heat and more importantly to protect it from any melted crayon that might sneak out around the edges. I also use a thin kitchen towel on top to keep the wax paper coating from getting on the iron.   Press the iron down on top of the towel to start melting the crayons. If they aren’t spreading out well as they melt, press down on the iron harder, pressing towards the edge of the wax paper as you go.

It doesn’t take long for the crayons to cool so the project can be finished.  The area of the melted crayon will most likely be larger than the vinyl cut out, so let the children choose the area for their butterfly to be placed. Some children needed help peeling the vinyl backing off and placing the butterfly on their wax paper.  Be careful when removing the transfer tape to not tear the wax paper. Once the transfer is complete, give the students scissors to cut around the outline of the butterfly.

This project was done with 4 – 7 year olds.  I found during the process that while all ages had fun, the 6 and  7 year olds were best at doing this project somewhat independently.  One of the keys is to have the children use the large side of the pencil sharpener for the crayons. Also, have something small on hand to dislodge the broken crayon tips from the sharpener as you will be doing that a lot.

So Fresh and So Clean

On Friday, May 11, BakerRipley’s Community Based Initiatives Division (CBI) held their quarterly conference. The main topic of conversation was the agency’s response to Hurricane Harvey, the importance of self care, and resiliency. Fab Lab Houston was asked to put together a one hour workshop following the theme of self care.  We determined that making soap would not only fit the theme, but would give our colleagues a chance to see what some of our equipment can do.

We spent the week leading up to the meeting making prototypes and testing our procedures. The first step was to design our mold. BakerRipley’s logo is a heart with a roof over it. Brent Richardson, Fab Lab Developer, used an online tool to convert the two color logo into an SVG. He then imported the SVG into TinkerCad and made the 3D model there. From TinkerCad he then exported the .stl file to open in the Roland CNC Mill CAM program to prepare it to be cut using the CNC mini mill.

Our first prototype blanks were milled into a thick foam. In order to turn these blanks into molds we used a homemade vacuum molder. By heating up a simple plastic plate under a space heater we were able to make the plastic pliable for molding. Once the plastic was melted, we pulled it down on top of our blank and turned on a shop vac that was attached to the bottom platform. The platform has holes cut in it to allow for even air flow. We quickly figured out how long to hold the plastic plate under the heater. If it is held too long the plastic becomes too thin to make a proper mold, not held long enough and it won’t form to the blank. Another issue we quickly ran into was that due to the raised edges of the logo a solid seal was unable to be made, resulting in a somewhat blobby looking logo. That problem was quickly solved by drilling holes through the foam in the areas of the logo to allow for proper airflow. We ultimately ended up completely drilling out the heart and roof.  At this point we needed to be very careful with the heating of the plate as warming it too much would result in the plastic being pulled all the way through the blank, which made an interesting effect of a hole in the middle of the soap. Through all the testing the foam started to melt due to the heat of the plastic plates.  We made a final mold out of medium density fiberboard (MDF) and finally started to make our 20 molds needed for the workshop.

Friday arrived and we were happy to see our co-workers excited to make their own soap. We explained the process to them, and even had the vacuum molder and CNC mill on hand to show them what the process looked like. We had all the bar soap separated into plastic cups for easy melting in less than 30 seconds in a microwave.  Once their soap bar was melted down, participants were able to choose their own color and scent for their bars. Many ended up making more than one, excited to experiment with the mixing of scents and colors.

We would love to see this set up as a workshop once the Fab Lab is open. Allowing participants to make their own molds to create a truly custom bar of soap.

3D Printing: Bringing the Past to the Present

Fab Lab Houston may not have a permanent space yet, but that hasn’t stopped us from bringing digital fabrication equipment to the community. Monday we were at Shotwell Middle School in the Aldine Independent School District using the 3D printer to help with a History Fair project.

3D printers can be used for a variety of projects, this time to print a small model of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 during World War II by the Boeing B-29 Enola Gay.

Basically anything that can go from liquid to solid or solid to liquid to solid again can be used with a 3D printer. You may have seen videos online of people using them to make pancakes that are elaborate pictures. We prefer to use ABS. It is versatile, and once printed is a hard plastic, like a Lego brick. Even though the finished product is hard, the plastic printing process can best be compared to how a hot glue gun works.  The glue stick goes in at the top, in a wide and long form. It is then heated up, and comes out of the nozzle as a thin string, warmed up so it is pliable.

When you are plotting points on a piece of paper, you are operating on an X-Y axis. The process of 3D printing also adds a Z axis, which is what goes ‘up’ and makes an object 3D.  There is a variety of free online software that can be used to help you get started on your first project. If you go to www.thingiverse.com you will encounter a variety of searchable projects. Their projects range in difficulty and practicality, from small model cars, to modifications for drones, to detailed models. Once you have your project downloaded, you can go to www.tinkercad.com where you will upload the project from a CAD (computer aided design) format to a CAM (computer assisted machining) format. The change in format makes the project able to be printed on the 3D printer.  If you have a project in mind that cannot be found on Thingiverse, you can design your own using Tinkercad.  While in Tinkercad you can customize the thickness of the model, the amount of fill used, and many other variables.  Sometimes the projects may be too large to print, Thingiverse sometimes has them split into printable sections for you. Other times you may need to break them up yourself in Tinkercad.

Once you have set the variables in Tinkercad, you will save your project to an SD card for easy transfer to your printer. The process of printing in 3D can best be compared to stacking pieces of paper. Each layer that is printed is so thin, if they were next to each other they would be inconsequential.  However, when you start to stack up pieces of paper, one on top of the other, you can see the thickness increase.  This is the same with 3D printing. It adds layer upon layer of thin melted plastic, building up slowly, with projects sometimes taking hours to print. If you have split your project into 2 or more sections, you will need to glue them together once done.

It was wonderful being at Shotwell Middle and seeing the students get excited about the technology being used for their projects.  Without the Fab Lab Houston and the machines it has available, these students would not have had the opportunity to bring history to life in such a futuristic way.  Good Luck to the teams from Shotwell Middle School as they travel to Austin, TX this weekend for the History Fair State Finals!

Milling PCBs at Fab Lab Convening

I had an opportunity to attend the Chevron Fab Lab Convening last month which focused on introducing all the Fab Lab Managers to new methods of digital fabrication.

One of the workshops showed us how to cut circuit boards using a milling machine, as well soldering electronic components to them. The large group was divided into 3 smaller groups, and gave us enough time go through the process of making or milling the circuit boards, soldering the components on there, and programming them at the end.

The milling process was new to me since I had not used the Roland SRM-20 mini mill before. I learned that there are many applications that can be used with the mini mill, from engraving to milling molds. The method of how the boards were going to be cut seemed to be straight forward. The standard procedure to begin cutting was by placing the “blank” copper clad board in the lower left corner and zeroing the machine. Once that was done, the board is ready to be cut. The design program was already done and just needed to be uploaded to the milling machine. It was nice to have a large group working on the space project because even Fab Lab staff run into problems the first time they try to learn something new. One of the issues that occurred during this process was that one of the sensors on the door was activated due to being opened. Once the sensor was triggered the machine stopped because of safety precautions and we had to start over. We learned not to open the door for progress checks or a mid-cut vacuum. After some trial and error, we successfully made the board and were then ready to get the soldering process started.

I knew all the electronic components by name resistors, capacitors, diodes, micro-controllers, and LEDs but I had never used them in this way. The process of soldering together such small parts to a board that is  1”x2” was a bit intimidating. First, I began by figuring out the orientation of the board, how it was “mapped out” and the placement of each part before I started to solder. While soldering, I used tweezers and a device that had a magnifying lens with alligator clips to hold the small pieces. I don’t have the steadiest hands so soldering at first was a bit difficult, which just meant I had to be very careful about making sure that all the connections were soldered properly and that none of the solder points were touching so it wouldn’t short circuit. My confidence grew with each component I soldered and I could see the circuit board starting to take shape.

We were able to build our own Arduino board on day two of the workshop. We learned how to make our own board for about $5 instead of spending roughly about $20 to purchase one. Besides being more cost efficient, it’s also a way to learn what each individual part is and where it goes. Seeing this process is like getting the inside scoop on how it works rather than just unboxing it and plugging it in. This board was much easier to do in comparison to the first one. For me, it was simply about getting into the zone where soldering became a flick of the wrist. It was a big plus having others around to help show me how to fix soldering mistakes.

Having overcome the intimidating process of solding the circuit boards I was ready to program the boards. There were some difficulties programming the boards. After several attempts of connecting it to the computer, the board was not responding to the program. Without knowing what the issue was, we checked the code and didn’t find any issues. Turns out, I needed to re-solder one of the parts because two solder points were not making contact, causing it to not respond to the computer’s commands. With the help from some colleagues, we went through the process of programming the boards and managed to get them to work.

From beginning to end, I was amazed by the process. It is always fun to learn a new skill. I started with few experiences tinkering with electronics but I now feel more confident in my ability to help others build circuit boards. With this new knowledge and more practice, I look forward to helping people troubleshoot thier projects when Fab Lab Houston opens.

Odyssey of the Mind

Students at Orange Grove Elementary School are preparing to compete in the Odyssey of the Mind. Their challenge is to build a structure from wood that can support the most weight.

To help them prepare, Fab Lab Houston lead a paper building activity encouraging each design team to think through all aspects of the build with paper before moving onto wood. Students rolled paper into tubes to simulate wooden sticks. Once each group had a pile of paper tubes they constructed their structure using masking tape to hold everything together. The paper structure weight record for students at Orange Grove was 15 pounds.

Over the coming weeks students will take what they learned from the paper structures and apply it to their wooden structures. We are excited to see how they do at the competition in March.

Houston Maker Faire

The last weekend in October, BakerRipley’s Fab Lab Houston attended the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth – the Houston Maker Faire at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The family friendly showcase of invention, creativity, and resourcefulness allows people who love learning to share what they can make. From engineers and artists to scientists and crafters, Maker Faire is a venue for these “makers” to show off hobbies, experiments, and projects. It also provided us a venue to promote our Fab Lab and network with local makers.

BakerRipley set up a booth highlighting the soon-to-open Fab Lab Houston. With the support of 17 Chevron volunteers, families were able to explore STEM concepts through two of the hands-on workshops that will be offered in the Fab Lab.

Volunteers helped visitors experiment with circuits as they constructed a paper circuit helicopter and attempted to build the tallest tower out of dowel rods and rubber bands. A ninth grader successfully built the tallest tower on Sunday when his tower reached more than 18 feet tall.