Two UCSC students carve a niche in the world of 3-D printing with an affordable new device
It’s so transformative to design something on the computer, and then be able to make it into a real object,” says 23-year-old Bar Smith, inventor of what could be the world’s most affordable CNC router.
Operating like an automated sculptor, Smith’s CNC (short for computer numerical control) device allows people to carve items out of raw materials like wood, plastic, foam and brick after they’ve designed the piece on a computer.
Similar to a 3-D printer, which lays down materials and builds pieces from the ground up with lasers, a CNC router instead uses metal bits to whittle the material down into the desired shape. And the router can create both two- and three-dimensional pieces, “so there is an unlimited number of things you can make,” says Smith, who graduated from UCSC last month with an electrical engineering degree.
The desktop device could be used to carve phone cases, chess boards, nameplates, or just about anything from material soft enough that it can cut and small enough to fit on the machine’s working surface, Smith says.
At just over a cubic foot, this router costs less than $200, putting it at a tenth of the price of machines with similar capabilities—a big accomplishment for a 23-year old and his friends. And possibly for the entire world of 3-D printing: the invention has been met with global enthusiasm, and in May, Makesmith CNC—the start-up he founded with Thomas Beckett—garnered 800 percent of its Kickstarter funding goal to manufacture more of the devices.
Thoughts Become Things
A couple of years ago, Smith, a soft-spoken engineering student with shaggy blond hair, wanted to turn models he made on his computer into physical objects he could hold in his hand.
But Smith’s success story began with a dilemma: a budget too tight to keep up with his ambitions. And the story of how he ended up with $80,000 in funding to distribute his invention to clamoring engineers, hobbyists and designers is a testament to patient perseverance.
Searching the Internet two years ago, Smith realized he would have a hard time affording the parts to build the machine he wanted, let alone purchase a fully assembled device. The confines of his budget forced him to economize on his project in a way professional designers are not familiar with, he says.
Many people, even some professors, scoffed at his idea to build a CNC router, given his modest financial means, Smith recalls. He brushed them off and continued to work.
“Anytime you’re doing something that no one’s done before, people just assume that it hasn’t been done because it can’t be done,” Smith says.
Egged on by the skepticism of both professors and some online peers, Smith sought to build pieces of the machine to prove to them, and himself, that a more affordable router was feasible.
“In the first year, I thought ‘Well, I probably can’t build the whole machine but I can at least prove that I was right about this specific part being possible,’” Smith says. “And then someone would be like ‘Well, this next part won’t work.’ And I thought, ‘OK, well, I’ll make that part work just to win that argument.’”
Smith’s friends attest to Smith’s hardheadedness.
“That’s just what Bar is: ‘Well I’m going to try it out regardless,’”says Tom Beckett, Smith’s business partner, with a laugh. “That’s Bar.”
And as Smith worked in his room, he realized that he was coming closer and closer to completing an entirely homemade CNC router. “Eventually I was like ‘Well, it’s mostly done, so I should just probably finish,’” Smith says.
At first Smith figured he would just build enough routers for himself and a few friends. “Then I thought ‘Well, maybe we should do a Kickstarter—then we could make a lot of them,’” Smith says. “‘That would be fun.’”
Smith consulted Beckett, his housemate and fellow UCSC student at the time, and the two planned for the future. What had been a hobby for Smith had quickly turned into a business venture.
“We sat down and said, ‘OK, if we’re going to do this, how do we get started?” says Beckett, who minored in information and technology management. “So we just sat at the laundromat and just drafted the list of ‘Here’s what we need to get. We don’t have the exact path, but we can start.’”
The two posted a listing to Kickstarter, setting their goal at $10,000 to fund the purchase of two large laser cutters for manufacture of Makesmith CNC’s router for sale and distribution before Beckett left for work one morning. “I got back nine hours later and our project was funded,” Beckett says.
The incredible success of the Kickstarter campaign did not stop there. By the end of the month-long fundraising period, the campaign raised more than $80,000 from over 400 backers in more than 40 countries.
“I was completely terrified,” Smith says. “We were both working in restaurants and when I sat down and did the math I was like ‘This is the amount of money I would make if I did what I’m doing for the next, like, many years.’”
Currently, the team is waiting on large laser cutters to arrive so that they can begin manufacturing the CNC router kits and ship them out to the backers on Kickstarter who pledged $195 or more to the fundraising.
“We’re trying to keep up with the people who want [the router],” says Justin Beirold, a former Cabrillo student, currently studying at UC Berkeley and doing marketing for Makesmith. “At this point we’re not even trying to attract people to our product. Right now, people are just coming to us, like ‘This is awesome, I want one.’”
One interested customer could be MakersFactory, a 3-D printing company in Santa Cruz.
“Our laser cutter isn’t even able to do soft metals, which is in the range of five to fifteen thousand dollars,” says Joe Allington, a teacher and designer at MakersFactory. “The fact that you’re able to work with materials hardier than what some powerful laser cutters can manage with a machine that’s under $200 would be pretty exciting.”
But the enthusiasm surrounding Makesmith’s router is best summed up by the group’s favorite message from a supporter: “It was from Japan,” Smith says. The email just said: ‘Can’t speak much English. Maximum stoked.’”