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What the Tech?!

February 18, 2021

From Post-It Note to Prototype

Jason Slade
Contributing Writer

Photo courtesy of Jason Slade

A  display of 3D printed items designed and created in the NMC MakerSpace.

The pandemic has changed the way we interact with each other as well as how we allocate our time. More and more people are turning to online forums, social media accounts, and other platforms as a way to interact and get inspiration.

One community that has continued to thrive during the pandemic is the “Maker” community. This was evident as MakerSpaces and FabLabs pivoted to provide much needed PPE for first responders in the beginning months of the pandemic. It shifted later in 2020, as innovators and entrepreneurs looked to digital fabrication and other technology to bring ideas to market. For an individual, the world of design, programming, integration and innovation may be the ticket for a new job or their next big break.

For those who have changed their social interactions, and limited their in-person activities, this community has provided a vital connection back to people. At colleges such as NMC, it serves a vital role of encouraging innovation and experimentation. 

What is a maker?
A “maker” is a broad term to describe anyone that builds, tinkers, or creates. The Maker Community is a diverse group of individuals encompassing everything from artists to inventors to engineers to anyone who just likes to experiment. According to Keith Kelly, founder of NMC’s Engineering Technology MakerSpace, the concept of a “makerspace” evolved out of the Maker Faire events that launched in the San Francisco Bay area. The core tenants of the movement are:

  • Zero-to-Maker: This person is new to making. The space provides tools, processes, and instruction designed so they can learn to create.

  • Maker-to-Maker: This is the social dynamic of the space where two or more members collaborate on work. This teamwork and synergy results in more complex creation and deeper learning.

  • Maker-to-Entrepreneur: Maker-to-maker prototypes evolve into solutions for customers. Business value is created, and funding is secured to create startup ventures.

So the Maker community can be as informal as a few friends collaborating in the dorms, or as formal as a start-up launching a new product line.

Who are the major Maker influencers?
The great thing about the Maker Community is that you can decide the level of interaction you wish to have with other creators. Just a few of them are:

  • Nerdforge (YouTube): These are not creators focused on invention but, instead use their technical skills to build everything from Harry Potter themed bookshelves to conversion vans. This is not the site to go to for technical information on how to use a shopbot, but instead to see artistry in action.

  • MakeMagazine (YouTube or Twitter): Yes, they are pitching their magazine. However, the range of projects are phenomenal. You will find a glut of resources including robotics, 3D printing, and more. The best part for me are the submissions by contributors including Helen Leigh ( and others. I then find myself going down the rabbit hole of exploring their work.

  • #Maker (Twitter or Instagram): This simple hashtag will open up a world of projects and connections. I have used this to tap into some of my favorite makers that build right out of their house or garage.

How to tinker / make on your own?
So, you have an idea or project you want to do, but how do you get started? Well, the best way is to find someone online that has done something similar. This will allow you to see the tools and technology they used for their creations. It will also open an entire community of support:

Design / Drawing

If you want to 3D print, laser cut, or etch, you are going to move past a hand drawn sketch into a 2D / 3D model. A basic CAD software tool will allow you to start prototyping your design and exporting the required file type for the printer / cutter / device you want to use.

There are numerous design tools out there to help you take your sketch to reality. A few to consider are:

  • Sketch-up: A free, Google-developed 3D modeling software. It is simple to use, has numerous online tutorials and requires very little computing power. A great option for the beginner. 

  • TinkerCAD: A free 3D modeling software from Autodesk. It rivals Sketch-up for ease of use and makes exporting files for 3D printing a breeze.

  • Fusion360: This is a full-blown CAD tool that is free to students from AutoDesk. The commercial version is robust enough for use by leading designers and developers. 

  • NMC student: If you are an NMC student in Engineering Technology, Marine Technology, or Engineering, you have access to SolidWorks. This is another great tool for design. We also offer classes (DD170) on how to use it.

Electronics is a bit trickier as you need to understand how circuits operate and function. However, you can find numerous examples of simple LED lighting circuits or tutorials to build more complex circuits. A few tools to consider:

  • TinkerCAD (circuits): Within TinkerCAD is an easy-to-use circuit simulator that allows you to create and connect basic circuits. It is intuitive as the wiring diagrams shown can be copied directly to your design.

  • Arduino: Want to learn to program a microcontroller or need to write some quick code to open and close a door? Well, then is your ticket to the world of control. Combine these smart devices with some external circuitry and now your inventions will come alive!

From there you can go a number of ways. Many students have access to (or own) cheap 3D printers. The Traverse Area District Library has one and some NMC courses have 3D printing fees baked in. These additive printers create a part in a matter of hours. From there, other components can be added or connected to make a functional model or design.

After that? Who knows! Maybe you could share your creation with your community of maker friends. Maybe it is your first step in your evolution from Maker-to-Entrepreneur. Either way, it is the start of an exciting new journey. Keep tinkering!

Jason Slade is the director of the Technical Division at Northwestern Michigan College.


Photo courtesy of Jason Slade

Examples of laser-cut projects students can create.

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