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Tech Spark Facility Includes Safety Systems Made by Makers

college of engineering / maker education

Inside the Tech Spark makerspace Carnegie Mellon University students chatter over the sound of buzzing machines and heavy materials clanking.

The prototype facility in Hamerschlag Hall houses laser cutting machines, 3D printers, soldering stations, power tools, welding equipment, metal mills and countless other technical machinery used by the Carnegie Mellon community to design and transform ideas into reality.

The College of Engineering offers a multitude of training courses for a wide range of machines and technical skills. Some are full-length courses (such as 24-212 Make it More) and half-semester minis (e.g. 24-104 Modern Making, 24-00 Manual Machining), while others are micro courses (e.g. 24-105 Last, 24-205 Welding), which last just two weeks. Some graduate students received training on machines during their undergraduate studies but might take a micro or mini for a refresher.

Like the resources of Tech Spark, these courses are open to everyone at Carnegie Mellon. A diverse range of students across colleges and majors use Tech Spark, from students in engineering and design to those in art, architecture, computer science and business, among others.

"We want to be a place for everyone, with the physical, digital and intellectual resources open and available," said Diana Haidar, assistant teaching professor of Mechanical Engineering and educational director of Tech Spark. Haidar leads a class for advanced students in the makerspace working to build a Rube Goldberg machine, an intentionally over-complicated device to solve a very simple problem.

As part of the Tech Spark's safety systems, above each station hangs a glowing LED light system. These light trees read Andrew ID cards to check safety certifications and the LED lights glow different colors based on the system's findings. Haidar highlighted the need for the system, and Robert Smith, senior windows systems engineer in Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering IT group, spearheaded the project.

"From discussing the issues at a panel to a working prototype, it wasn't long, about six weeks," Smith said. "They first asked for 15 systems; a week later, make it 25. It ended up being more like 35."

For the light tree system, the housing unit of LED lights glow specific colors according to the experience and ability of the user at a given machine. When waiting for a user, the lights are blue. Once users insert their Andrew ID card to access the machine, the lights will glow yellow or green - yellow if they are in a training course for the machine and green if they have passed the training course. For users without appropriate safety credentials, the lights will flash red, and student workers will help users find necessary training.

The team wanted a 360-degree view of the hanging lights from anywhere in the room, and chose halo-like units designed by Nikhil Shinde, a master's student in Mechanical Engineering who is employed in Tech Spark's TEAM (Training Engineers and Makers).

Next year, Tech Spark will expand into the upcoming ANSYS Hall, and Smith scale up the systems already in place. He plans to double the number of light tree systems for more machines. Smith is also developing turnstiles for the new building, which will have a card reader system to collect information from the turnstiles in real time, an integrated hardware system that will provide data on the makeup of the Tech Spark users.

Smith's educational background is in electronics, but he has mainly worked with computing within Electrical and Computer Engineering. These projects at Tech Spark have allowed him to use various skills he has gained throughout his career.

"It's been refreshing to couple systems automation with my electronics background," he said.