Nolop will definitely open by Tuesday, September 7th, 2021. Everyone is welcome to use the space provided you are masked. Right now, we don’t anticipate any occupancy limits, though that might change.
(We may open before September 7th if staff are available; watch the Nolop Slack for details.)
Beyond masking, the only change to our policies is that we ask that you eat and drink elsewhere (like out on the charming patio, with its stylish red chairs). You’re welcome to possess food or drink while in Nolop, but masking is what is going to keep us healthy, so we’re strict about it.
For those of you who were new to Nolop last year, you will need to adjust to one other change, which is that the Nolop staff will no longer be accepting fabrication requests through Slack. We will make exceptions for people who have to quarantine, but, in general, we are returning to our old model, in which you all operate the machines yourself. This is because we are a school, and we want you to learn how to make stuff yourself. The staff are happy to help you learn how to use everything; that’s actually what I pay them for.
If you are too busy to make stuff yourself, you could try Shapeways for 3D printing, Big Blue Saw for laser and waterjet cutting, and Xometry for machined parts.
Welcome back to Nolop, everyone. I am thrilled to see what you will create.
A lot has happened since I last wrote a retrospective about Nolop, Tufts’ makerspace for the entire university community. Let’s look back at the last 2 years in Nolop.
Before the pandemic
In 2019, Nolop grew increasingly popular. For the last few weeks of the fall 2019 semester, Nolop was packed every afternoon, routinely drawing crowds of 50+ people from 4 PM until 8 or 9 PM. The laser cutter was running continuously most of the day and late into the night. Our four 3D printers also ran close to 24 hours per day. With grad student Elliot Pavlovich supervising the red zone several evenings per week, use of the table saw, drill press, and band saw increased as well. Another student, Mandy Rosengren, helped us set up a wearable tech area with a sewing machine and electronics for embedding in garments and accessories. We added a jump shear and brake for working sheet metal and a second soldering station to support more users.
In the winter of 2019-2020, we bought 4 more Prusa 3D printers to expand our capacity. I built a set of shelves to hold all the printers efficiently, and Eric Wu devised a mounting system to hold the Raspberry Pi print servers. We also added a Formlabs Form 2 printer for high precision prints.
Over the course of the year, the Nolop community grew tremendously. We had more users every week, and we developed a core of around 30 students, who, in addition to my 20 student workers, knew how to use most of the equipment and helped orient new people to the space. This community is key to why Nolop has worked well— instead of the staff being a bottleneck of expertise, students learn heavily from each other. This kind of peer learning and exploration also prepares them for professional settings, especially in innovation work, where nobody knows the answers yet.
More classes using the space
During Nolop’s first full academic year of operation, students used the space for class projects more and more. All 41 mechanical engineers in the senior class built a wooden chair as a warm-up project for the Senior Capstone course.
We also saw increased curricular usage from biomedical engineering, various robotics classes, and some sections of ES 2, Introduction to Computation in Engineering. Civil engineering students built wooden bridges for their structural engineering class.
Clubs and individuals using the space
In addition to class projects, we also saw increased usage by student clubs and individuals. The Tufts Robotics Club held meetings every Friday in Nolop. The space/rocketry club, SEDS, built rockets in Nolop; a weather balloon they launched made it within 20 miles of the Canadian border. Tufts Make also used the makerspace for meetings and project work.
On March 15th, 2020, Nolop closed due to the pandemic.
For the end of the spring semester and through the summer, Nolop was truly closed. We started a Slack workspace so everybody could keep in touch. In the early days of the pandemic, we also 3D printed filter adapters for health-care workers dealing with Covid patients.
Throughout the spring and summer, I livestreamed on Twitch from the red zone as I built a crosscut sled and a heavy-duty stand for our sheet metal brake. I also streamed electronics teardowns, the most popular of which focused on an old projector, a delightful mix of electrical, mechanical, and optical engineering constraints.
As we moved into the academic 2020-21 year, most students were back in Medford/Somerville, but watching classes on Zoom. Almost all of the Nolop staff returned to campus. We switched to a new model, in which remote students could submit jobs for fabrication through our Slack channels. The Nolop student workers worked, masked, in the makerspace in shifts. As fabrication requests came in, they would load the designs into laser cutter, or set up the 3D printers with the right filament and make sure the beds were clear for printing. After the parts were made, they would leave them on a table in the hallway outside Nolop for pickup. This is how we made it through the Covid winter.
One unexpected benefit to having the makerspace run just by a skeleton crew during the pandemic was the strong community sense developed among the 14 student workers. They were in the trenches together; I expect that many of them will be friends for life. I’m enormously proud of what they accomplished and grateful for all their efforts.
In addition to lasercutting and 3D printing, we also provided soldering services, as well as help for general stuff like, “Can you drill a hole in this board for me?”
Despite having to send everything through Slack, people still built remarkable stuff, like Zachary Goldstein’s air engine, below.
Estimating remote usage during the pandemic from logs
While Nolop was operating under the remote model, we have a couple of ways of estimating usage. The first is that for all the jobs that were submitted by people outside of Nolop, we have Slack conversations. Here’s what that data looks like for the last year.
We have another source of data, which is the laser cutter PC. Every time someone sends a job to the laser cutter, the PC logs the job in an event log. Here’s that data, overlaid onto the Slack data for the laser cutter.
The peaks of the Slack data and the PC data roughly line up, but the PC data is, on average, around 2.75x higher. If we use this ratio between Slack and PC data as a correction factor for 3D printing and soldering, we can get an upper bound on how many jobs the Nolop staff completed over the course of the two semesters: 8352, or an average of around 35 per day. My suspicion that the true number is more in the range of 5000-6000.
PC event logs
Class use during the pandemic
The total number of courses that used Nolop, tabulated below, decreased during the pandemic, but the total number of curricular projects probably increased. Before the pandemic, some of the usage we saw was on open-ended projects, where professors gave students the option to build something if they wanted to; many students chose not to. Over the last year, we saw several classes use Nolop as a required part of class work. For example, every sophomore mechanical engineer was enrolled in ME 21, Dr. Wendell’s Mechanics class; all 85 of them lasercut some kind of mechanism through the Nolop Slack channel. Similarly, most of the ~60 junior mechanical engineers soldered their circuit board projects through the Nolop Slack.
Engineering Design Process
Inventing Smart Toys for Kids
Brandon Stafford and Kristen Wendell
Instruments and Experiments
Senior Design Project
Jeff Guasto and Felix Huang
Dan Hannon and Gary Leisk
Microcontroller Programming Projects
Electronics Musical Instrument Design
Non-curricular usage during the pandemic
Non-curricular usage dropped dramatically during the pandemic. The Nolop staff still worked on personal projects, but the vast majority of what we saw come through the Slack channels was for coursework. (The Robotics Club did continue to build robots remotely, but we can’t take credit for that.)
We also saw various research groups and other entities at Tufts using the space. In support of Tufts covid testing response, Tufts Technology Services, led by Tufts CIO Chris Sedore, recruited some engineering students to build devices to make virus testing work more smoothly.
The first machine adapts a label printer to peel labels, with the eventual goal of applying them to the sample tubes without everybody smearing their biological juices on everything. The second machine used a suite of cameras to image every sample tube, in an effort to use machine learning to identify the cause of a small number of inconclusive tests.
We were previously averaging around 40 kg of printer filament per semester. That average held through the pandemic, more or less. We bought 142 kg of filament over the last two years, but approximately 10 kg were discarded because a certain brand tended to clog our extruders. If we omit the half of the spring 2020 semester when we were closed, that’s about 38 kg per semester, roughly on pace with our previous usage.
The Nolop Store also continued to resell materials at bulk prices at a brisk rate, around $1000 per semester. These are materials, like acrylic for lasercutting, or batteries for electronics projects, which are cheap in bulk, but expensive in small quantity.
Before the pandemic, we ran workshops to teach people different fabrication techniques and draw people into the space. We couldn’t continue that with the pandemic, but we did partner with Tufts Design For Social Good and Cecropia Strong for a virtual weekend hack-a-thon called TAThack. I met with students over Zoom to give them design and fabrication advice as they designed assistive devices for a 9-year-old girl with a congenital spinal cord injury. I found it particularly rewarding to help non-engineering students who were totally new to the field, but bravely pushing forward.
Safety record: excellent
According to our safety log, before the pandemic, we were averaging 7-8 band-aids per year, with no serious injuries so far. Since the last report, we have had only one potentially serious safety incident, which was a small fire in the laser cutter. The laser typically produces a small flame when cutting wood. In this case, the laser was set to cut thicker material than was actually being used. Additionally, we suspect that some bits of material had fallen into the grid of the laser bed, where it was susceptible to ignition.
The person operating the laser cutter noticed the fire immediately (good job, Teddy), and it was extinguished quickly by another staff member (thanks, Jeff). No substantial damage was caused to either people or the laser itself.
Summer 2021: equipment maintenance
The Covid testing program at Tufts is suspended for the summer, and most of my student workers graduated anyway, so Nolop is closed to the community for the summer. This has left me with the opportunity to fix a lot of stuff that broke over the last year.
The honeycomb bed of the laser cutter has been replaced. The upper left corner, near the origin of the laser’s coordinate system, had been heavily ablated. In the future, we should remember to flip over the honeycomb before it gets destroyed. The cost of this repair was also low, around $150 including shipping from Arizona.
I just spent a week repairing our 3D printer farm. Three of our eight printers needed their extruders replaced– one was totally destroyed; the other two were limping along, but with reduced print quality. I found a wide range of inventive hacks used to keep the machines functional; I tried to restore them all to factory condition. We’ve now had the printers for an average of 2 years, and the total spent on replacement parts across the eight of them is in the range of $500-600, slightly less than the cost of one new printer.
The future: waterjet and beyond
Thanks to the diligent efforts of Jeremy Kanovsky and Tufts Robotics, we have a new Wazer waterjet cutter that has just arrived; I hope to get that set up and running this fall. It should provide a beautiful workflow, in which designs are rapidly prototyped out of wood or acrylic on the laser, and then the validated designs are cut out of metal on the waterjet.
I’m also working on a new open source robotics project: an autonomous vacuum bot for the red zone– like a Roomba, but big like a Shopvac. We had a first version of this built by an ME capstone team in 2019, which validated the concept. My hope is that I can get a basic machine working this summer and pass it off to students for improvement. (The closest I’ve seen to this commercially is the Makita DRC200Z, which I can’t program myself at all.)
I’m a little nervous about how the fall semester will go with relatively large groups of students working (masked) in the makerspace together, but Tufts’ Covid response has been outstanding so far. I’m immensely proud of how we reacted as a community to tough, changing situations. I think we’ll do well.
Nolop will close for the summer at 4 PM on Friday, May 14, 2021.
Card access for everyone will be revoked at midnight, so please remove any projects or supplies before then. Stuff that’s in the Robotics Club, Make, or SEDS cabinets can stay. Everything else will be tossed in the dumpster.
If you have anything dangerous that you need to store over the summer (like rocket engines), please let me know; I will store it safely for you. Basically, do not hide explosives under your bed.
Nolop will reopen at 9 AM on September 1, 2021.
A furious detonation of creativity the likes of which the universe has never witnessed will ensue.
We’re too late for Hanukkah, and Christmas is really close, but a lot of your parents are probably sitting in Zoom meetings and worrying about what sort of gift they should get you. This is made all the more difficult by your obscure, technical interests (and possibly your sullen, adolescent attitude).
But it turns out that I actually carry around with me, in my head, a list of lots of things that frequent Nolop visitors want. (I know this list because these are the things that you ask me for.) I figured it would make sense to write down the list, and then you can just ”accidentally” drop a link to this page in your family TikTok group chat.
What you want most is a soldering iron. In Nolop, we have the Hakko FX888D soldering iron. It’s a basic tool with decent temperature adjustability. (The temperature adjustment controls are a little annoying, but it’s good enough.)
As a cheaper alternative, there’s the Weller WLC100 soldering iron. The big difference is the temperature control being more coarse, and the whole thing being a bit more flimsy, but it’s a fine first iron. (The picture on Amazon shows a weirdly huge tip, but it ships with a normal ST3 tip.)
In the realm of electronics, the place to start is the Arduino Uno, the world’s most popular basic microcontroller board. We used a fancier version of this (the MKR Wifi 1010) in ME 30 this year, but the boards weren’t as robust as the Uno, so we’ll be going back to the Uno next year.
Once you want to add the internet to your microcontroller projects, you want the Raspberry Pi 4, Model B. It’s the world’s most popular small computer. With a quad-core processor and 2-8 GB of RAM, it destroys the Arduino on power, but with that power comes all the complexity of Linux. You also need a microSD card to make it run. Virtually any microSD card will do.
There’s a cheaper alternative to the Pi 4: Raspberry Pi Zero W. It’s less powerful, but also only $10 (but you still need a microSD card). It’s about as powerful as a laptop you would have bought for $1500 around 2002.
Getting more obscure, there’s the Upduino 3.0. I think it’s the cheapest way to get started playing around with FPGAs, which are like a blank canvas of transistors that you can program to become whatever digital hardware you can imagine. The Upduino has the advantage that it’s sold through Tindie, which is like Etsy for electronics, instead of Amazon.
Now, let’s say you’re into woodworking, and you have a lot of money that you need to get rid of somehow. Normally, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, in Warren, Maine, is the solution to that problem, but almost all of their tools are sold out. As a backup, you could try the hand tools section of Woodcraft or any of the numerous dealers of Veritas tools.
Lastly, suppose your interests are so wide that you can’t be tied down to any single fabrication discipline. What you need then is the basic tool of the precision engineer, digital calipers. At Nolop, we’ve been using the Vinca 6 inch calipers. Before we committed to buying a bunch of those, I compared their accuracy against a few sets of high-end Mitutoyo calipers. It turns out that the fancy calipers were accurate to within better than 0.001”, but the cheap Vinca calipers were still accurate to within 0.005”, which is good enough for virtually everything built in Nolop since its opening.
Enjoy your holidays, everyone, and I look forward to seeing you all in the spring, when we will vanquish coronavirus forever.
Unlike our weak, meat-based bodies, robots are immune to the coronavirus. In this time of pandemic, the zealous roboticists of Tufts have been hard at work this fall creating new automatons. Normally, you would all come to Nolop, breathe on each other, and touch all the exciting new robots, but instead, we’ll be doing the haunted house virtually.
It means that the doors of Nolop will be locked, but there will be a small number of student workers (1-3 each day) who will be laboring behind those doors to run the printers, laser cutter, and soldering irons on your behalf. You send us a file or drop off your circuit board and components, we do the work, and then drop the result on the table outside the door, hopefully within 24 hours. The links above have all the details.
Does this service cost money?
No. You do have to pay for materials for the laser cutter, like before, but we do the work for free. (The truth is that a donor gave us a large gift to cover the student workers for a few years.)
Do I have to be an engineering student to use this service?
No. This is for anyone at Tufts, for class work or independent projects, clubs, whatever. We’re trying to support you exploring engineering fabrication, regardless of your background.
So if this is free, can I use this as a manufacturing center and start a business on Etsy?
Please try not to be a jerk.
But what about clubs? Can we still meet in Nolop?
No, sorry. Really sorry. But the student workers can retrieve whatever materials you need from the Robotics/Make/SEDS cabinets.
But what if I’m just lonely?
If you’re looking for community and you have a Tufts email address, come join the Nolop Slack channel, where Brandon, a bunch of students and various other professors and staff are carrying on about 3D printers, Arduinos and whatnot.
It is extremely unlikely that Nolop will be open in the summer of 2020. A plan for the fall will be developed once the university announces its plan for the fall.
My best guess (as of early summer) is that Nolop will be closed for general use in the fall, but we may be able to offer some kind of 3D printing and/or lasercutting services that can be performed in isolation.
In the meantime, if you’re desperate for parts, you could try Shapeways for 3D printing, Big Blue Saw for laser and waterjet cutting, and Xometry for machined parts.
If you’re desperate for community and you have a Tufts email address, come join the Nolop Slack channel, where Brandon and a bunch of the Nolop zealots are yapping about 3D printers, Arduinos and whatnot.
And take heart, mateys! Time will pass, we will recover, and we will go back to welcoming people to our lovely makerspace.
Nolop will close Sunday night, March 15th, until an undetermined date, because of the coronavirus. Until then, it will be open regular hours (maybe not Saturday or Sunday morning).
If you just need to pick up a piece of hardware or a project you left in Nolop, Brandon will be in Nolop intermittently (see his Twitch stream for a Nolop fix). Unfortunately, you are asked not to work in Nolop during the closure. The doors are locked.
Feeling discouraged? Just look at what Matthias Wandel can build in the woods of Canada!