Lowering the Barrier to Entry at the CITRIS Invention Lab

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Nearly 15 years ago, in order to address the social and environmental issues facing California, the University of California’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) was created when UC researchers “realized that the real opportunities lay not just in developing new and innovative technologies, but in applying them.” Spanning over four UC campuses, CITRIS is headquartered in Sutardja Dai Hall (SDH) on the UC Berkeley campus, which is also home to the 1,700-square-foot Invention Lab, a makerspace open to the entire campus community, as well as The Foundry, CITRIS’ startup incubator. Impressively, CITRIS has spawned 51 startups since its inception.

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Last year, the Invention Lab added an Othermill to their arsenal of digital fabrication tools. Bjoern Hartmann, assistant professor in the EECS program, shares, “We also have another circuit board mill, an LPKF S63, which is a great precision machine but has a fairly steep learning curve for students. We were looking for a more accessible alternative. We generally try to offer a range of options for each type of machine tool.“ He added, "We also have a 4'x4' Shopbot CNC router and a Handibot CNC router.”

The Othermill has been received enthusiastically by the students and has been predominantly used for PCB milling, including breakout boards and adapter boards for embedded computing projects. Hartmann adds, “The machine and control software are very easy to learn, so we can train many more students to operate the machine independently themselves. For our larger PCB mill, many boards are batched and then milled by staff lab managers or a small number of trained superusers. With the Othermill, students just mill the boards themselves.”

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One specific class where Hartmann’s students use the Othermill is Interactive Device Design. As part of a final assignment, mechanical engineering PhD student Maxwell Micali and his team used the Othermill to make breakout boards and PCBs for a project called Punch, a fully automated wine fermentation monitor (pictured below).

Micali, having had extensive experience with CNC mills of various kinds, notes, “My favorite part about the Othermill was the software. While there were some exceptions where I would have liked to be able to "trick” it into doing something the software wasn’t set up to do (like use smaller milling bits from other manufacturers), the strictly curated set of user-tunable parameters is what made the software shine. This tool seemed to have the most value for quick iterations of parts, rather than spending an hour or so setting up other machines, like the LPKF, we had in the lab. With the Othermill, the amount of minutes between having a final CAD file and the first cut on that board could be counted on my fingers.”

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Another team from Hartmann’s class used the Othermill on a project called CharmBits, modular wearables intended to teach children the basics of electronics.

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Rundong (Kevin) Tian, also in the PhD program, has been using the Othermill to simply experiment with desktop CNC mills, making chocolate molds, stamp negatives, and PCBs. His primary previous CNC experience was with the LPKF S63, and he found the Othermill to be very user friendly and says it can be learned without an instruction manual. He adds, “I am very fortunate to have access to a large variety of digital fabrication tools as a Berkeley student. However, the Othermill definitely decreases the activation energy required for experimenting with new processes and quickly iterating on smaller designs.” Tian is looking forward to continuing his experimentation and, of course, creating more chocolate molds.

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Images 1, 3, and 6 photographed by Adriel Olmos.