Intergenerational Making with the DeRose Family

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While it’s possible (and unfortunately not uncommon) to study engineering and lack hands-on experience, Harvey Mudd engineering student Sam DeRose is definitely not in that camp. For starters, at age 21, Sam can safely say that he’s been making projects with his family for over a decade. Between his parents, Cindy and Tony, and his brother, Joseph, the DeRoses have a broad range of skills sets between them, from filmmaking to metalworking, gardening to programming. That could explain how the 42 tutorials Sam has posted on Instructables run the gamut, including a kitchen knife, a Mario Kart blue shell hat, a variable resistor with a million settings, and healthy stuffed peppers. This also explains why OMC was happy to have Sam as a project intern two summers ago.

sam derose

Of his previous CNC experience, Sam says, “I had some very limited experience with large CNC tools before discovering the Othermill, but they are so big, dangerous, and expensive that I was pretty intimidated by them. The Othermill was so approachable and easy to use that I learned the fundamentals of CNC machining very quickly and stress-free. This allowed me to feel more comfortable learning new CNC tools, big or small. For instance, shortly after getting started on the Othermill, I learned how to use OMC’s giant, scary water-jet cutter and continued to use it for projects throughout the summer. Essentially, the Othermill is a great tool to help you transition from analog to digital fabrication.”

sam at the mill

Sam spent the summer making neat projects like the Nerd Watch (an idea he borrowed from one of his father’s projects) and the PCB Hummingbird Necklace. Of the latter, he says, “I did a series of jewelry pieces made from circuit boards, the first of which was a hummingbird necklace pendent with surface-mount LEDs that illuminate the wearer’s chest (the LEDs point inward). I liked this project for many reasons. It introduced me to the world of surface-mount components, let me experiment with double-sided machining, and also broke me away from making rectangular PCBs, as this one had to look like a bird.”

hummingbird trio

At the end of the summer, Sam took an Othermill back to Harvey Mudd with him, where he taught his peers how to use it. Throughout the year, they used it to make PCBs and linoleum stamps, as well as to engrave metal and plastic. This past summer, he brought the Othermill home to his parents’ house, and he and his dad, Tony, used it to make PCBs. By trade, Tony is a computer scientist and researcher at Pixar Animation Studios, and when he’s not at work, Tony is a multifaceted, lifelong maker who helped seed the Young Makers program and the Maker Education Initiative.

tony derose sawing

Until last May, Tony was new to CNC milling. He says, “We have a bunch of makers where I work, and the company was generous enough to purchase an Othermill. I was responsible for setting it up, which took only about an hour. The ‘one sheet’ that comes with the mill makes it extremely easy to set up and test.” Sam chimes in, “My first experience with the Othermill was on my first day at OMC. They gave me a mill and the Instructables post for the starter project (milling a simple PCB) and told me to have at it. It took about 45 minutes to finish the project (milling time included) and afterwards I felt comfortable enough to start experimenting with other materials. I think I broke a few bits trying to mill brass that day.”

Over the summer, Tony and Sam used the Othermill to experiment with making IoT home automation devices, some using an inexpensive wi-fi-enabled microcontroller called the ESP8266. Tony shared three of the projects they made:

  • “A programmer board for the ESP-01, the entry level board based on the ESP8266. It has an eight-pin connector, but isn’t very bread board friendly, so we used EAGLE and the Othermill to make a convenient board to make programming the ESP-01 a snap.

esp01 board

  • An internet-connected controller for our entertainment system, kind of a version 2.0 variant on a project we exhibited at Maker Faire 2014. [Check out the link for a window into some serious father-son time spent making.]
  • An internet-connected extension cord with an internal switch (actually a relay). You plug one end into a standard household socket and the other end into a lamp or other appliance you want to control. Once plugged in, the extension cord appears as a server on your wi-fi network, meaning you can control the on/off state of your appliance using http (e.g., from your web browser or a custom application).”

extension1 The board for the internet-connected extension cord. The ESP-01 is the smaller daughter board with the zigzag antenna. The large black component is the relay.

extension2 The power supply for the extension cord board was harvested from a cheap 3V AC/DC adapter.

How has the Othermill changed their project workflow? Tony offers, “Prior to using the Othermill, I made rapid turnaround circuit boards using photosensitive PCBs and household chemicals. The process was limited in that only single-sided boards could reliably be built, holes needed to be drilled by hand, and outlines—for all practical purposes—needed to be rectangles. In contrast, the Othermill allows two-sided boards to be cut very reliably, holes are drilled automatically, and the outline can be any shape you want. Using the mill, I can now go from conception to deployment in a few hours.” Sam adds, “The other day my dad said, ‘I can wake up in the morning with an idea for a new board and be testing the second or third version by dinner.’ I think that says it pretty well: the Othermill makes it fast and easy to create something tangible that would normally take a full day and lots of labor.”

A story about intergenerational making wouldn’t be complete without highlighting the perks of spending time passing knowledge on to young makers, as Tony did with Sam. The hope is that they will take the knowledge and build and iterate on it. The story of the Nerd Watch is a case in point. Sam recalls, “My dad made the first version of the Nerd Watch for Maker Faire 2014. It was a giant, rectangular, single-sided board that he photo-etched, with a huge CR2032 battery holder on the front and traces that were miles apart. It was a great concept, but the form of the watch was limited by the process he was using to make it.“

tonys nerd watch

"Once at OMC, it was clear that the Nerd Watch was a perfect project for the Othermill. I replaced several of the through-hole components with surface-mount versions and took advantage of the Othermill’s double-sided capability to put the battery on the back. I also made the outline of the board into the shape of a watch. The circuit and code stayed the same, but the watch was now in a more wearable form).”

nerd watch

“After I had gone back to school, OMC hired artist Jeff Lieberman to design an enclosure for the Nerd Watch. What he came up with is amazing!”

And clearly, the DeRoses show no signs of slowing down. As Tony says, “Our collaboration on IoT devices is just beginning. We are currently building something we’re calling a SmartSwitch, which is an internet-connected interface that replaces a standard light switch. Whereas today’s light switches are hardwired to particular outlets, we’re interested in developing a system that permits software-configurable control to allow any switch to control any number of outlets. A crucial part of realizing this vision is the design of ESP-based circuit boards, a task that is perfectly suited for the Othermill. To make ESP development easier, we’ve also built an easy-to-use programmer board.”

othermill derose