Well, That Was A Week

Jeff Powell
8 min readMar 18, 2023
Photo by Apolo Photographer on Unsplash

It’s Friday evening, and I am finally sitting down with a glass of wine.

Beware: typos abound. You are forewarned.

Aside: the recently released Canadian alcohol consumption guidelines are definitely a good thing. Yes, they say to limit drinking to just two drinks a week to keep your risk of things like cancer low. I understand that, and I even agree with it. But I earned this.

Here’s the story.

Last week I mentioned I had a second, very part-time job, but exactly when it would start was not yet clear. On Friday someone in HR was out, and the same was true on Monday. But on Tuesday at about 10:30 am I received an email saying all was well, and that I was able to start. I’d convinced myself that the system would grind for several more days before things settled, so this turn of events was a bit of a surprise. I got myself organized and onto a bus to get to campus by 1:00 pm.

Tuesday afternoon was a crash course / reintroduction to the laser cutter and 3D printers that are the most used devices in the MakerSpace. But the person giving me the overview has been running at full speed on his own for some time now, and details were already slipping away due to mental overload.

The laser cutter is driven by a Windows 7 computer (not connected to the internet) and (for unknown reasons) the print spooler periodically dies. Apparently this had been happening for some time without resolution. I suggested the simple (if time consuming) fix of rebooting the computer when it happens. I believe there is a way to restart just the print spooler but I didn’t have time to research that. Gotta keep the students working!

The 3D printers that get heavily used are made by a company called Tinkerine, and the software for them is installed on a few computers in the MakerSpace. Students have to create a 3D model of their object in some modeling package (RhinoCAD, Fusion 360, or Sketchup, I think) and save it in a particular format. Then the Tinkerine software converts that into the G-code which will make the printer hum. That code must be saved onto a memory card which is inserted into the printer itself.

In three hours things were relatively sane and I was not on the hot seat yet. It all sounded simple. Ha.

Wednesday started at 8:30 am. No, that’s not true. That’s when work started. But for those like me — trying to get to work via public transit and who live in the nether regions of the area served by said public transit — the alarm goes off at 6:00 am so we can get on the 6:30 bus, which takes us to another bus, which takes us to the seabus, which takes us to the skytrain, which leaves us with a three block walk to campus. All of that takes 75–90 minutes in the morning. On the way back home all the connections except the last one work just as well. But thanks to that last bus, if you’re running late it can take up to 30 minutes longer to get home.

Anyway, Wednesday arrived. Lots more of the same thing. I begin to realize just how much work this place — the MakerSpace — is and needs. I also started to form some half baked ideas about what needs to change, as if I ran the zoo, which I definitely do not. But Wednesday was not terrifying despite all that. With Philip — the MakerSpace head honcho — there, it all seemed like it could be handled. For a second time I say “ha!”

Thursday arrived and… oh, wait.

Thursday had been previously booked for me to work in the Langara Fine Arts shop in the morning, not the MakerSpace. And because they were my first Langara employer they get priority. But on Wednesday I was asked if I could cover the shop for the whole day. After consulting with Philip, yes I could. So on Thursday morning my schedule shifted by half an hour and I headed in to the shop.

A schedule shift?

Yes. For reasons well above my pay grade, the Fine Arts Shop is open 9:00–4:30, while the MakerSpace is open 8:30–4:00. And that half hour does weird things to the interaction with the bus route that runs by our home.

Anyway, Thursday could not have been more different from the previous day and a half. During a full day in the shop I counted exactly eleven visitors, and two of them were the same instructor. I spent a lot of time on the computer doing nothing useful (though I did break my Covid virus in Vancouver wastewater charts). On a different day the shop might have been crazy busy, but not this time.

Friday arrived and I was on my own, supporting students using the MakerSpace without assistance. But it’s the end of the week. How wrong can things possibly go? (Spoiler alert: ha!)

Well…

The first student who wanted to use the laser cutter was just fine. Everything went swimmingly, and I was reassured.

But it went downhill from there.

While the next couple of laser cutter users were well prepared and needed only mild assistance, the issues were changing. It turned out Friday was 3D printer day, and I was in the deep end of the pool.

One woman was having trouble with the 3D print she had completed. It had two parts that were supposed to interact nicely but didn’t. She hadn’t left enough room in slot A for tab B. Literally. But she had a modified version printing already, so the hope was the revised version would work better. (Spoiler alert: later in the day that print finished and she found it had similar issues. Turns out there is an art to designing physical things. It takes practice and knowledge.)

Another student had a model of the bones of a hand that she needed printed for a Bio/Archaeology class, but she didn’t know the software to do that. I thought I did, but when I went looking for it on the computers in question it was missing. Getting help from another student we managed to find the software on yet another computer and get the code to drive the printer created. That was great, but the computer we had to use didn’t have an SD card slot. I found a USB port extender thingy and with it and her laptop we managed to get the file onto the SD card, then we started her print and let it run. (Spoilers again: it worked, and she came back three hours later to take it away. She was happy.)

Yet another student’s 3D print went well for a few minutes and then failed. For reasons known only to the printer it started dragging filament around instead of adding to the previous layer, and the result was a mess. We stopped the print, changed printers, and restarted it. But just a couple of minutes into it I noted that the filament spool on the new printer was almost empty, so we stopped it again. I raided the printer filament stash, restocked the printer, and we restarted it yet again. This time it seemed to go well. (Semi spoilers: this print was still running when I closed up the MakerSpace at 4:00 pm.)

By now other students were coming in to use the laser cutter, but they wanted to cut plywood rather than paper or cardboard. That might not sound like a big deal, but it kind of is.

The laser cutter we’re using has a history. It was purchased new, and in the beginning it was quite powerful. Cutting plywood was relatively simple at the start, but lasers age and grow less powerful, and over time it didn’t cut that well. Apparently it got so bad that they replaced the laser, but the new one is not as powerful as the original. So here we sit, some time later, with a set of laser control parameters that were all created when the first laser was new.

The result is that cutting plywood is difficult, and no one has made the time to reassess and reset all the laser control parameters. Eventually we decided — after running a cut twice and still not getting all the way through some 1/4" plywood — to simply tell the cutter we were cutting 1/2" stock. But that makes what was a 22 minute cut take 44 minutes, and those add up.

And of course other students are coming in while those long runs are going on. But it’s getting late on a Friday now and I detect a possible pattern: these folks are not as well prepared, and in many cases are not even ready to use the cutter. Some even show up minutes before the MakerSpace is set to close, thinking they can get to work on an assignment.

But 4:00 pm does finally arrive, the doors are closed and locked, the last student leaves, and the computers are powered down. Then began the trek home, followed by dinner and writing the draft of this post, among other things. The previously mentioned wine was definitely needed.

Some of you know I am a serial retiree. I have tried to retire at least three times so far, but I keep going back to work in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes it was going back into tech, but that is done now. I am totally obsolete, and no one wants to hire me for my technical skills. Once I went to work at an auto repair shop just for the fun of it. And most recently I went back to school full time for three years, ending just as Covid happened.

Now here I sit with two different, weird, very part time jobs. I love interacting with students and helping them get things done — it’s as close as I will ever get to teaching again — but I really don’t need another full time job. When we bought this house we weren’t planning on me going to Langara College regularly, and it’s not an ideal location from that perspective. Of course I could drive, but I dislike that option for all kinds of reasons: ecological, political, and social. So for a few weeks I will help my friends out and do this crazy thing, but in the end I will go back to being a lazy bum.

Or at least I hope that’s the way things go. Time will tell.

One final item before I go. Someone in a relatively recent sculpture class created this:

Sorry for the photo quality. I see it looking into the sculpture room from outside and the window is filthy. But the sculpture itself is great. I need to ask the instructor about it. Someone needs to make more things like this!

Anyway, that is all for this time. I expect the next several posts to arrive on Saturdays as I fight through my new work week, so don’t be worried in that case.

Cheers!

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Jeff Powell

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.