I went to the Santa Cruz New Tech Meetup on Friday 12 Aug 2011 to find out more about the Makers Factory that is starting in Santa Cruz in November. (I blogged about the Makers Factory already.) Details about the event are on the meetup web page.
At the meetup they confirmed that they will not be getting the sort of expensive shop equipment that places like TechShop (over the hill) have. The initial setup will be suitable for mechatronics work, similar to what Gabriel Elkaim teaches in the Mechatronics class at UCSC. Gabriel was the fifth of five speakers at the MeetUp and provided a nice overview of the Mechatronics class.
What the Makers Factory will have are low-cost 3D printing machines (which I suspect will not be useful for much, but are fun toys), a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter, and some electronics equipment (soldering stations and some oscilloscopes, I guess). They’ll probably also get some board shears. I think I talked them out of trying to do their own PC board fabrication, in favor of ordering boards from some place like 4pcb.com. You can probably do a class full of small boards as one $145 order from 4pcb.com (even without a .edu address) and give each person 4 copies of their board. The 2-week turnaround time is fine for a class. It would probably take longer than that to make your own using low-cost tools in a classroom setting with only a few hours of class time a week, and the quality would be much worse. I’d also hate to be the one in charge of getting rid of the hazardous waste produced by PC board etching.
I brought my HexMotor board with me to the MeetUp and showed it off to a few people, including Gabriel Elkaim, who was properly polite about it. He also told me about the new PC boards he had just sent out for fab—they are redoing the electronic cockroaches that are used for the first lab in Mechatronics, since the old ones have started acquiring too much damage. The problem is that students were much more inventive in discovering ways to damage the boards than originally expected, so the new design has a lot more protection circuitry.
I did get a chance to talk with Chris Yonge, who will be running Makers Factory. It sounds like he is interested in having me teach an Arduino programming class and PC board design using free tools. I recommended Eagle for PC board design, even though it is not open-source, because it is fairly mature, the free version is enough for classes and hobbyists, it runs on both PCs and Macs, it has an adequate auto-router, and the licensed version is still fairly cheap.
There are open-source projects for PCB design, like FreePCB, which runs only on Windows and has no auto-router, KICAD which runs under Linux and Windows (but not Mac OS X, I believe), and many others. There is a good list at http://www.olimex.com/pcb/dtools.html. The general consensus of the hobbyist community seems to be that currently Eagle is most fully featured and robust free PCB editor, and that none of the open-source projects comes close yet. Since I need Mac OS X software, and most of the open-source software is for Linux, my choices are more restricted still. I don’t know what sort of computers Makers Factory is planning to get for classes—but they should choose software as much as possible that is platform independent.