State of the makerspace, 2019

The first semester of Nolop operation was a massive success. I want to note a few hard numbers for posterity, plus record some thoughts about how the place has been thriving and what we can improve next year.

For the last 6-8 weeks of the semester, Nolop was packed with people building cool stuff every afternoon and evening. The peak was likely the afternoon of Monday, April 29, when I counted 52 students working in the space, plus 3 or 4 staff members assisting them. All chairs were taken, and people were overflowing on the floor, many working on robots in small teams. The bulk of the students in that peak came from ES2 (Computing in Engineering), which had a project due the next day, and ME1, due two days later, but we also had other students in the mix.

Off that peak, I would often count students in the space when I went home for the day around 5 PM; values of 25-30 students were typical. On Fridays, that would be dominated by the Robotics Club and other people working on extracurricular projects; on other weekdays, curricular work dominated.

21 different courses from 11 departments used Nolop over the course of the semester. The heaviest curricular usage came from the Mechanical Engineering department, followed by the SMFA sculpture classes.

Course Instructor
AST 16Astrophysics LaboratoryDanilo Marchesini
BME 66Engineering Design ProcessJanet Krevolin
CEE 42Introduction to Geotechnical EngineeringChris Swan
COMP 11Introduction to Computer ScienceMark Sheldon and Samuel Guyer
EE 147Analog and Mixed Signal IC DesignSameer Sonkusale
EN 1Music and Art of EngineeringJeff Hopwood
ENP 165Industrial DesignEric Bogner
ES 2Introduction to Computation in EngineeringEthan Danahy
ES 8Fluid MechanicsDoug Matson
ES 9Applied MechanicsLuis Dorfman
ME 1Mechanical Design and FabricationLuisa Chiesa and Gary Leisk
ME 84Introduction to RoboticsChris Rogers
ME 93Electronics for Mechanical EngineersBrandon Stafford
ME 94Undergraduate ResearchKristen Wendell
ME 149Design of Physical Solutions for People in NeedGary Leisk
ME 149Design for SustainabilityDeborah Sunter
ME 171Engineering Education DesignKristen Wendell
MUS 63Electronics Musical Instrument DesignPaul Lehrman
OTS 105Assistive TechnologyJennifer Buxton
SCP 103Digital Fabrication LabFloor Van De Velde
SCP 110Sonic FormsFloor Van De Velde

We also had some usage by graduate students doing research in labs in Biology and Environmental Engineering. Typically, they were building elements of some scientific apparatus that they needed to perform a certain experiment.

Student club usage

After curricular usage, the next greatest utilization came from student clubs. The Tufts Robotics club, Design for Social Good, and the Tufts Make Galton board subgroup all held their weekly meetings in Nolop on Friday afternoons; the Tufts chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space met in Nolop on Sundays. These four groups (especially the Robotics Club and SEDS) are the most active student engineering groups on campus.

Additionally, the Tufts Steel Bridge Team did their test assembly of their bridge in Nolop; they also stored the bridge materials there before the competition. Also, SOLES, the Society of Latinx Engineers and Scientists, held a product design workshop with Google engineers in the space.

Materials usage

In March, we started a small student store inside of Nolop. The Nolop Store buys engineering materials at bulk prices and resells them to students at those same low prices, but in smaller quantity. The goal of the store is to take away the hurdles that students would have to jump to build a project. For most students, ordering huge sheets of plastic or plywood from industrial suppliers, plus paying shipping or driving somewhere to pick it up, is not a plausible alternative– they don’t have cars or the resources to afford large purchases. We found that by bulk ordering in moderately large quantities from industrial suppliers (say, ten 4 x 8 sheets of acrylic), we could undercut the cheapest prices otherwise available to students by a factor of 4, while eliminating the hassle and most of the cost of shipping at the same time.

Over the course of around 6 weeks in March and April, we sold $771.75 of mostly acrylic and plywood for lasercutting, as well as some electronic parts and motors for building electromechanical systems.

Over the course of the semester, we used 37 kg of 3D printer filament. We started with one Lulzbot Taz 6 3D printer. When that proved popular, we ordered unassembled kits of Prusa i3 MK3 printers, which student workers assembled, often late into the night. (In the classic words of Jeremy Kanovsky, “Printer finished @ 3:01 AM. Regrets? I have none. Sleep? I have none.”)

We don’t have a good measurement of how much the laser cutter was used, but it rivals the 3D printer as the most popular tool. Roughly speaking, I’d estimate an average of 30 laser cut projects per day over the last 60 days of the semester, so around 1800 jobs run. Late in the semester, I enabled print queue logging on the laser cutter PC, so next semester, we should have a better measurement.


We ran two workshops during the semester: one focused on robotics, which drew 25 people, and one focused on laser-cut earrings, which drew less than 10 people. Next semester, we hope to substantially increase the frequency and scope of workshops.

Safety record: excellent

We had no significant safety incidents in the makerspace this semester. We dispensed a total of roughly 15 bandaids over the course of the semester. The most common cause was cuts from sharp edges of acrylic or plywood. The most severe was a fan blade that came loose and hit someone in the forehead. The result was a small cut, but notably the activity was not one enabled by the tools in Nolop; the student would have been playing with the fan motor in his dorm room anyway.

I trained 86 people to use some or all of the tools in the red zone; there were no known incidents of unauthorized tool usage.

Equipment maintenance

We had three significant equipment failures:

  • Laser cutter head rollers flat-spotted, $45 and 2 days to replace
  • 3D printer head melted, $75 and 1 week to replace
  • CNC router brushes worn down, $10 and 3 days to replace

Overall, machine maintenance was a small fraction of the total effort put in by the Nolop staff.

Improvements for 2019-2020

There are 5 core elements that Nolop has to hit to successfully support engineering fabrication at Tufts. For each category, I’ve identified ways that we can improve our performance.

Core elementImprovements for 2019-2020
Access to workspaceExpanded evening and weekend hours
Tools for fabricationBandsaw, possibly a waterjet or advanced 3D printer
Materials conveniently and cheaply availableMore plywood, dimensional lumber available in Nolop Store
Storage for projects in progressMore cubbies, racks, cabinets
Skill buildingWorkshops

Additionally, I hope to draw in the remaining student clubs that build stuff (the Biomechanics Club, the Society of Women Engineers, and the Tufts chapter of the ASME). (The Tufts Electric Racing Team has used Nolop a bit for electronics, but they’re a good fit in Bray because they need a garage door for their racecar.)

On to 2020!

Brandon Stafford
Manager, Nolop Makerspace

Nolop hours, summer 2019

Nolop will be open during the day as usual during the summer. There will be limited evening and weekend hours. We’ll probably add some more, and then they’ll be posted here. (Updated Wednesday, June 26)

There are, however, a few weeks when Nolop will be closed. Specifically, Nolop will be well and truly closed June 29 – July 7, as well as August 24 – September 2. Additionally, Nolop will be partially occupied by the Engineering Design Lab July 14 – July 26. (You’re still welcome to come use the space during the Design Lab, but it will be a bit crowded.)

Also, as usual, the red zone will close at 5 PM, when Brandon goes home.

The detailed schedule, which shows all the closures for the Design Lab and various other gaps, is posted here as a PDF.

Spring break hours

Hello Nolop enthusiasts,

Over spring break 2019, Nolop will be open normal hours on weekdays except Tuesday and maybe some evenings. This post will be updated when we know more. (Updated twice, Thursday AM and PM.)

Current plan

  • Monday: 10:30 AM – 5 PM
  • Tuesday: 11 AM – 11 PM
  • Wednesday: 10:30 AM – 11 PM
  • Thursday: 9:00 AM – 5 PM
  • Friday: 10:30 AM – 5 PM

Choosing a laser cutter for a makerspace

We’ve just picked a laser cutter for the Nolop makerspace at Tufts. I thought it would be useful to record how we made the decision. (Spoiler: we’re getting a Universal VLS 3.60.)

The first advice I got repeatedly from every experienced makerspace manager that I talked to was that I should prioritize reliability and ease of use over cost because university makerspace users are often new to laser cutting, which means they need help a lot, and they accidentally break stuff.

There are two large categories of laser cutters you can buy: cheap lasers with glass tubes made in China (including those imported by Full Spectrum Laser and Boss Laser) and expensive lasers made in the US. The latter category consists of three companies: Epilog, Trotec, and Universal; their lasers are 2-3x more expensive than the lasers from China, but they have better customer support, and their software is not hard to use or buggy.

I surveyed my senior mechanical design class on the sizes of the parts they had cut during their college careers (mostly using the Trotec Speedy 400 laser in the mechanical engineering shop). They estimated that of the ~450 parts they had cut, only 5 were larger than 12″ x 18″. This pushed us towards the smaller, cheaper lasers, especially given that students can use the larger laser in the ME shop if they need to.

Then, I thought about optimizing for the greatest average throughput. Cutting speed is roughly linear with laser power, but less than half of the cost of a laser cutter is for the laser itself, and the cost rises less than linearly with power, at least for powers in the 10-100 W range.

We got quotes from Universal and Trotec for a few different sizes. (Epilog’s Fusion M2 series would have been in the running as well, but they’re large and thus relatively expensive.) For the smallest-bed laser that could accept a 60 W laser, this pitted the Universal VLS 3.60 at $21k against the Trotec Speedy 100 at $30k, so we opted for the Universal. The stop at 60 W was arbitrary, but getting a more powerful laser from Universal would require moving up to their PLS series of professional laser cutters.

One other feature tilted us toward Universal: the laser head has a feature where it can pop loose when someone bumps it, rather than breaking a belt or stripping a pulley.

We have workbenches and a saw

Last week, a truck filled with 15 square workbenches and 7 long tables arrived from Steel Sentry in Texas.

Each bench is 4 x 4 feet, so we can make a 4 x 8 work surface or two smaller ones. The bench height is currently set to 34.5″, but the legs can be adjusted up or down a few inches with a wrench. The benchtops are 1.75″ thick, and they stick out past the frames by 4″ all the way around. Our hope is that they’ll make clamping stuff easy. Each work bench cost $1062 and the long tables were $1412 each, so the total for benches and tables was around $25,000, plus shipping.

Workbenches in the assembly area

We ordered 15 workbenches, so the total area devoted to benchtops is 240 ft2, or roughly 5% of the total area of the 5000 ft2 makerspace. We have another ~100 ft2 of long tables that will hold equipment like 3D printers and oscilloscopes.

The table saw also arrived last week. It’s a Sawstop ICS53230 with a 36″ fence, powered by a 5 hp, 3 phase, 230 V motor. The total cost, with the fence and delivery, was $4649.

The table saw coming in the front door

Next up, a laser cutter and 3D printers!

Our occupancy has been certified

Yesterday, the cities of Somerville and Medford granted us certificates of occupancy.

The eventual site of the Byrne Advanced Machining Area. (Thanks, Dan!)

Looking down the space toward Byrne

The digital fabrication area and the entry to the space, the latter funded by the Stricker Family

The ceiling is up

The ceiling is up; the first round of taping and mudding the drywall happened today. Some parts of the space have been painted. Note the brilliant orange entrance to what will eventually be the digital fabrication area.

The walls are closing in

A little more than half of the insulation and wallboard is complete in the new makerspace. The shot below is what will eventually become the Byrne Advanced Machining Area.

The space through the opening pictured below will be devoted to modern digital fabrication, meaning machines that are guided by computer models rather than by the human hand. The typical examples are 3D printers and laser cutters, but we may also add vinyl cutters, a small computer-controlled mill or waterjet, or similar tools for working with textiles.

The sheetrock has arrived

Most of the steel studs have been screwed into place, and some of the insulation is up. The next step is to cover the studs and insulation with gypsum wallboard.

At the same time, the air ducts for heating and cooling the space are nearly complete, the plumbing is done, and the electrical work is mostly done.

After the air ducts are finished, a drop ceiling covered in acoustically insulating foam will be installed, so the noise of the workshop won’t annoy the people upstairs.

Wall framing underway; workbenches ordered

Last week, the ceiling was fireproofed, and now the walls are getting framed with galvanized steel studs. At the same time, electrical contractors are roughing in the outlets and wiring in the ceiling, and the HVAC people are hanging ducts from the ceiling. Most of the ducting, plumbing, and wiring will be sandwiched in between the fireproof ceiling and a lower soundproof ceiling that will be installed in a few weeks.

The basic infrastructure schedule has slipped about a week, so we’re now expecting walls, electricity, plumbing, heating, and such to be done on September 26.

Our big furniture order has been placed; we’re expecting some to show up in September, but the big set of work tables is scheduled for approximately October 16.

We’ll be having our first public event for Parents and Family Weekend on October 19-20. We might not have many tools up and running by then, but the doors will be open!