Bits and bytes meet nuts and bolts

As ‘maker culture’ emerges at SCS, manufacturing skills are melding with software development to power new innovations

Cover art by Nora Thompson

Chris Harrison holds what looks like an X-Acto knife in his hand and drags it across a rectangle of glass. The tool leaves a faint scratch on the surface. He picks the glass up, flexes it, and it breaks neatly where the line was.

It’s my turn. He hands me the glass-cutting tool. I don’t think I can do it. Unlike Harrison, I haven’t taken a glass-working class, and I’m not really mechanically inclined. He gives me encouragement, just like a good teacher, explaining that it’s as easy as using a pen.  

I take a deep breath and place the edge of the tool on the glass, applying a bit of pressure and dragging it, rather crookedly, across it. I pick it up and snap it. It breaks cleanly, just like Harrison’s piece.

Harrison, an assistant professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, took a glass-cutting class a few years ago. He thought the skill would help him as he built prototypes of his projects. Over the years, he also learned how to use a 3D printer and took classes in carpentry, welding and stained glass. It’s unlikely that stained glass will play a role in much of Harrison’s professional work. But he believes all these skills help him as he builds prototypes of future computing devices. His work doesn’t always involve glass, or 3D plastic models, or carpentry, but it does always involve ingenuity. “All of these skills are little tricks,” he says, adding that understanding how to use a 3D printer or build something out of wood or glass changes how he tackles a prototype.

Harrison, like others at the School of Computer Science, is embracing maker culture—a sort of “do-it-yourself” ethos for technology. People in maker culture use traditional mechanical skills such as machining or carpentry, but combine those skills with computers or electronics to create new devices. Maker spaces have sprung up in Pittsburgh and many other cities, some run by volunteers, and others run for profit, such as TechShop—a national chain of “public workshops” with a location in Pittsburgh Bakery Square near Google’s offices. These maker spaces give everyone from computer scientists to weekend hobbyists a chance to use lathes, laser cutters, 3D printers and other manufacturing tools.

Having the skills to build a prototype touchscreen, or make a unique part for a robot, can help faculty and students become more innovative, Harrison says.

“It’s good to wrap our hands around something,” he says. “Being able to make prototypes, artifacts, it’s what humans do. Making things is a special human trait.”

Dave Touretzky, SCS research professor in computer science and robotics, has become one of the campus’ most ardent advocates for embracing the maker aesthetic. He says there’s another important element to the maker revolution that has nothing to do with inspiration in any abstract sense. Instead, it’s about how maker techniques are lowering real obstacles to scientific discovery.  

As Touretzky points out, throughout the history of their fields, computer scientists and roboticists have had to make things out of necessity, but it’s slowed them down. Now, rather than waiting for others to manufacture parts for their projects, or learning machining skills so that they can make those parts themselves, researchers can design a part in a program such as SolidWorks and output those parts to a 3D printer or laser cutter. They can go from design to prototype at a fraction of the cost and time that it used to take.

“People are going to use this in different ways,” Touretzky says. “If you already know how to make things, you’re going to use these technologies to make things better. But if you’re a researcher who doesn’t want to be in the fabrication business, it’s removing a barrier to your research.”

He compares maker technologies and techniques to the revolution in digital imaging that was wrought by Adobe’s wildly popular photo-editing software, Photoshop. “People who are graphic designers can do amazing things with Photoshop,” Touretzky says. “But many non-professionals now have basic Photoshop skills and can do simple things like crop or re-scale a photo, or alter the background.”

The maker revolution is happening at a time when some are wondering if the United States is still the world leader in technological innovation. In a November 2011 opinion piece for the Washington Post, political commentator Harold Meyerson noted something curious about Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Although Isaacson’s book discussed the many innovative products, such as the iPod and the iPad, that were introduced by Apple after Jobs returned to the company in 1996, it didn’t spend much time examining how those products were manufactured.

“To read Isaacson’s book, it’s as if all Apple and Jobs did was innovate, and the products magically appeared,” Meyerson wrote. In fact, Apple set up factories in China employing some 700,000 workers—“massive undertakings,” Meyerson said. And where manufacturing goes, he argued, innovation follows. In Meyerson’s article, former Intel CEO Andy Grove said some of the company’s semiconductor breakthroughs came straight from the factory floors where those semiconductors were made.

Meyerson’s argument was that innovation isn’t strictly an ivory-tower pursuit, where new ideas are developed in isolation by deep-thinkers; instead, the development of new products must go hand-in-hand with knowing how those products are made and used. When a company—or a country—offshores or outsources the manufacture of its products, “the ability to devise new manufacturing processes is lost, and with it, the ability to devise new products,” Meyerson wrote, concluding, “absent manufacturing, innovation, even at its Jobsian heights, can’t do much for the U.S. economy.”

More recently, in March, a New York Times opinion piece by Eamonn Fingleton contended that American innovation has already stalled; most technological advances being pioneered in the United States, he said, aren’t happening in the creation of new devices, but in Internet applications and the financial sector.

Maker culture introduces thinkers to the techniques of manufacturing—the key ingredient people such as Meyerson and Grove believe is essential to invention. For his part, Harrison believes that having students actually make prototypes helps them think differently.

Some time ago, Harrison looked at a smartphone and wondered how he could make touchscreen devices easier to use. He designed prototype after prototype until he finally created a wearable system, OmniTouch, which allows cell phone users to turn anything from their hands to the table into a touch screen.

“My major body of work is making mobile devices better,” he says. “A big problem with a small screen is that our fingers are really big.”

He could have made the device larger. But Harrison thought a better solution was making screens respond differently to the pad of the fingertip versus the fingernail or the knuckle. By using the phone’s audio sensors to detect the sound of the touch as well as the pressure, he modified a phone so that it could tell the difference between different parts of the hand and cut down on user errors. Harrison calls it “FingerSense.” With FingerSense, a tap from a knuckle on a touchscreen might serve as a “right click,” and a tap from a fingernail might perform a different function. It could mean fewer mistakes from clumsy fingers and better human interaction.

Harrison even built a tiny keyboard for a smart watch, partly just to see if he could and partly to figure out “how small is too small?” The keyboard was about the size of a penny. “Smart watches are really too small,” he says, “but we need to be able to type on them.”

Harrison’s research involves a lot of hacking. Being able to take apart a phone and rebuild it with new features is essential to his research. As a doctoral student at CMU, traditional classes helped him gain the technical know-how he needed, but the extracurricular courses he took outside of computer science, in skills such as welding and glasswork, gave him a different perspective that he says enables him to innovate.  

Perhaps the technology that is enabling the maker revolution more than any other is the 3D printer. First developed in the mid-1980s, 3D printers create objects by outputting thin layers of plastic, building up pieces in a honeycomb-type structure that gets stronger as the plastic hardens. The machines once cost tens of thousands of dollars, but in the past few years, prices have plummeted. Inexpensive machines geared to hobbyists can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars. As a result, 3D printers have become a staple of maker culture.

 “(If) ‘ownership of the means of production’ determines the class structure of society, then 3-D printing and DIY culture threaten to annihilate archaic class distinctions,” Andrew Leonard argued this summer in Salon. “The means of production is about to get a lot cheaper.”

Touretzky says that’s wrong—it’s not production, but prototyping, that’s gotten cheaper. “3D printing is slow,” he says. “Mass production is still done more economically using techniques like injection molding.”

Last year, Touretzky proposed to Robotics Institute head Matt Mason and then-CS department head Jeannette Wing that SCS do an experiment, where he would teach people how to use SolidWorks, a 3D printer and a laser cutter.

“Part of this was in my own self-interest, because I wanted to make robot parts, but part of this was about helping to build a maker culture at SCS,” Touretzky says. Wing and Mason agreed to pay for the printer, while SCS’s computing facilities team acquired 50 unused site licenses for SolidWorks from CMU’s Mechanical Engineering Department.

When the printer arrived on the ninth floor of the Gates Center, Touretzky offered a training session with space for 25 people. More than 80 signed up. He’s since offered three more training sessions on 3D printing, as well as instruction on using the laser cutter in Doherty Hall’s Collaborative Machining Center. Greg Kesden, associate teaching professor and SCS director of educational computing, led the effort to put a second 3D printer into the third-floor computer cluster.

Use of the 3D printers is being governed by SCS’s time-honored “reasonable person principle”: If you’re going to print a lot of objects, you need to buy your own print cartridge for $50. Access to the laser cutter is also now available to SCS students; the Computer Science Department and Robotics Institute pay $10 per hour for their students to use the machine.

One of the people who took advantage of the first 3D printer’s arrival is Michael Taylor, a robotics doctoral student and researcher in CMU’s CREATE Lab. He had used a 3D printer while an undergraduate at Olin College, where he created a mechanical fish that looked like a blue-fin tuna. It’s not like there were a lot of off-the-shelf parts available for mechanical tuna fish, so he had little choice but to craft the pieces himself. When he was done, he had his tuna.

Soon after the 3D printer’s arrival at the Gates Center, Taylor designed little projects for it, like a cap for a bottle or a vintage rocket ship. These helped him become more comfortable with the software and equipment.

Taylor also received a more personal demonstration of the value of knowing how to “make” things, and its potential to spur innovation. In January, Taylor slipped on some ice and shattered his elbow. After a weeklong hospital stay, he faced some serious rehab time, which included wearing a monstrous brace. The brace, a metal tube with spokes sticking out of it, stretched his arm and put pressure on it.

After a few months, he didn’t need to stretch it out anymore—he just needed the brace to hold pressure on his arm. When he learned he had to travel to Uganda for his research, he realized he had a problem. The brace was too bulky for travel. He did have a soft brace—more like a sling—and that set Taylor’s mind to thinking: what if he could modify his portable sling so it would work like the bulky, metal one?

After some thought, he designed a turnbuckle of sorts, which allowed the soft brace to exert the pressure that he needed. It was only two inches long, but this little piece that Taylor designed and printed on a 3D printer was exactly the elegant solution he needed to travel safely as his elbow healed.

As Taylor demonstrated, access to new tools and technologies inspires people to think about how to use them in creative ways, says Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics and director of CMU’s CREATE Lab, and even people who don’t have a technical education can be inspired to find ways to make technology work better. “It’s all about the idea of empowerment,” he says. “It’s inverting the power relationship.”

CREATE stands for Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment. Much of Nourbakhsh’s work at the CREATE Lab encourages active participation in the creation of technology by end users—whether that user is a tech-savvy gadget lover, a child just becoming interested in robotics, or a graduate student in SCS. “We’re making (the experience) relevant to what the user wants to learn,” he says.

Taylor worked with Nourbakhsh on a project to help improve air quality in homes in developing nations. People in poorer parts of the world often use indoor fires to cook their food, in part because stoves aren’t easy to find or affordable, and also because cooking over an open fire is traditional in those cultures. Yet cooking over a fire leads to poor indoor air quality and experts are unsure of how big of a problem that is. Taylor and Nourbakhsh wanted to develop small, low-cost sensors to test indoor air quality, but those sensors were fragile and prone to being damaged once they were deployed.

Maker culture came to the rescue: Taylor was able to design a housing in SolidWorks and used the 3D printer to produce them.

“I think it’s very valuable and a unique resource,” Taylor says. “We have access to something that allows people to implement ideas. That’s very valuable.”

That ability to rapidly move from research to prototype is where maker techniques shine. Ellen Cappo, a master’s student in the Robotics Institute, used the 3D printer to help Prasanna Velagapudi (E’05, CS’09,’12) and Pyry Matikainen (CS’10,’12) build a prototype of a two-foot-tall humanoid robot for a competition. She’s also used the laser cutter. “I really like that the School of Computer Science is making these tools available,” Cappo says.

Marynel Vazquez, a third-year Ph.D. student in RI, used the 3D printer to make a robotic judge for a game she created that encourages children to eat more fruits and vegetables. The robot gave people points based on how fast they responded. She’s now working with Disney Research Pittsburgh on ways to help robots interact with children, and the ability to design something quickly in SolidWorks, and then send it to a 3D printer, is spurring her creativity, Vazquez says. “It is an absolutely great opportunity for prototyping,” she says. “In some cases, it’s not until you have a physical model when you can say ‘this might work’ or ‘this won’t work.’”  

Trial and error is an important part of the design and development process. Tom Pope, an assistant systems manager in the Institute for Software Research, has been using the 3D printer to create everyday items for use around the department, like key fobs, business card holders, and smartphone stands. His first key fob was bit too bulky for comfortable use, while the second one was too small. But the process is helping him hone his design skills, Pope says. He envisions creating items that he can hand out to visitors to promote both the department and maker culture. It’s tangential to his job, Pope admits, “but it’s fun to do.”
Maker culture isn’t confined to faculty, staff and grad students. CMU’s makers include people such as undergraduate Julia Teitelbaum, a double major in information systems and human-computer interaction. Growing up, Teitelbaum sewed things and built projects in her father’s workshop, and the experience of “making something” using technology helped lead to her decision to pursue a degree in computing. “I got introduced to (making things) because I liked crafts, and because my grandmother sewed, and my dad had tools,” she says.

She recently interned at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, where she got to see up close the first year of a long-term exhibit called “Makeshop.” The installation is designed to demystify technology by giving children the chance to take apart toys, electronic devices and small appliances, and to apply woodworking, wiring, sewing and other skills to their own inventions. Makeshop uses many materials from the Center for Creative Reuse, a Pittsburgh nonprofit dedicated to recycling and reusing.

“Knowing how things are made changes your mindset,” Teitelbaum says. “For example, at the Makeshop, I helped a group of kids take apart a printer. I couldn’t make a printer from scratch if you asked me to, but having had the experience of taking one apart makes it less of a ‘black box,’ inspires curiosity, and makes it less intimidating to think about fixing one or trying to make one someday.”

Teitelbaum likes that the final project in the Fundamentals of Programming and Computer Science course requires that the students make something, such as an app, that forces them test their skills in a tangible way.

On the surface, it would seem as if people interested in creating physical things would have a similar outlook on life as computer scientists, and that the School of Computer Science would be a natural place for doing-it-yourself to thrive.

But in Teitelbaum’s opinion, that hasn’t always been the case, at least among undergraduates. “Maker culture is only just starting to catch on at SCS,” she says. “Across CMU and especially in computer science, people often know theory really well and do assignments,” but turning their theories into implementation “isn’t a skill that people necessarily have.”

If that skill doesn’t come naturally, maybe it can be taught: Teitelbaum is one of the students behind a group called ScottyLabs (see sidebar), which is trying to nurture the hacking culture on the CMU campus by making it welcoming to newbies and outsiders.

ScottyLabs is taking steps to make sure that CMU’s maker culture isn’t insular. Indeed, one problem of technology development, according to Nourbakhsh, occurs when technology engineers become a “monoculture” of similarly minded people pursuing similar goals. That’s why so many projects at the CREATE Lab reach out into places where technologists don’t often go, such as inner-city elementary schools, scout troops, YMCAs, and hospitals and homes in developing nations.

Take Arts & Bots. This program introduces robots and computer science into grade and middle school classrooms, while assessing students’ ability in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). CREATE Lab’s Project Hummingbird, for students age 11 and older, provides adolescents with the tools to transform a construction paper animal, for example, into a “kinetic sculpture” that use sensors to respond to the changing environment.

CREATE Lab’s projects are designed to allow people to make their own products and innovate while also helping the economy, Nourbakhsh says. Things such as 3D printers are similarly helping to democratize the process of creating technology by giving the public the tools they need to participate in research and innovation. “Everyone becomes a technologist,” he says.

—Meghan Holohan is a contributor to NBC News and and frequent contributor to The Link. She wrote about Safaba Translation Systems and alumnus Daniel H. Wilson in the Spring 2013 issue. Jason Togyer is editor of The Link. In eighth grade, he tried to build a robotic arm out of balsa wood and brass tubing from Loreski’s hobby shop in Monroeville. It didn’t work very well.

Tom Pope, assistant systems manager in the Institute for Software Research, has been using the 3D printer to create everyday items for use around the department.
For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 |