The 3rd Annual Nolop Haunted House

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.

More details . . .

Nolop in the fall of 2020

Nolop will continue to be closed in the fall of 2020. However, there will be three specific services that we will start offering to the Tufts community around September 15th: 3D printing as a service, laser cutting as a service, and soldering as a service.

What does this “as a service” business mean?

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.

Is Nolop open in the summer of 2020?

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 shutting down due to coronavirus

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!

Nolop hours, Thanksgiving 2019

Nolop will be open:

  • Wednesday, November 27, 10:30 AM – 6 PM
  • (not on Thanksgiving)
  • Friday, November 29, 12 PM – 8 PM
  • Saturday, November 30, 11 AM – 5 PM
  • Sunday: very likely closed unless someone comes back early

The red zone (the dangerous tools in the back) will very likely be closed for the entire break.

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.

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!