A mechatronic workshop

Some people face more challenges than others. Members of the Afghan all-girls robotics team make adjustments to a team robot in the practice area in Washington D.C. on 2017-07-17. These young Afghan women are renown for their resilience and resolve. Their visas to USA had been rejected twice. Despite this, when they arrived at the last minute, their team came in second place. Later in 2017-11-27, they won first place at the Entrepreneurial Challenge, for the Robotex festival, in Tallinn, Estonia. Their challenge was to showcase a prototype that could solve a real-world problem, and that customers would want to buy. They won with a robot that could use solar energy to support small-scale farmers in their fields. (Photo: Paul J. Richards)

For the past three days I have spent my working hours fighting off a virus while pondering some fundamental concepts related to a community mechatronics workshop, that should be opening soon in Inderøy.

Ideally, this workshop should be all things to all people, or at least, a few different things to a few different groups of people. The challenge is, that one has only NOK 250 000 to equip the workshop, whereas one needs about NOK 1 000 000. The area is 70 square meters, and one room. What one needs is 200 square meters and five different rooms.

Rather than spreading investments over several fields, and ending up with nothing, a decision was taken to focus exclusively on mechatronics. Once this is in place and functioning well, then other areas can be prioritized at some unspecified point in the future.

Then there is the challenge of a name. What might seem like an obvious choice, a seemingly innocent term, such as maker space proves difficult to use in practice. Why? Well, maker is a political term, and is frequently usurped by people with vested interests. John Patrick Leary lists maker as one of his keywords, in his 2018 book, Keywords. Libertarians, in particular, have seized on this title. Other terms, such as hack space, have also been usurped, but by the socialist hoard, political adversaries of libertarians.

Before confronting the socialist hoard hackers, who are theselibertarians and what do they want? A quick, but necessarily incomplete, answer to the question is, followers of Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982). Admittedly there are exceptional libertarians who dislike Rand, but they are in the minority. Rand is known especially for two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for a philosophical system she called Objectivism, that has inspired many libertarians. Mother Jones, the San Francisco based investigative magazine, remarked that “Rand’s particular genius has always been her ability to turn upside down traditional hierarchies and recast the wealthy, the talented, and the powerful as the oppressed.” (July-August 2009).

Rand is not noted for anything approaching political correctness. In her biography Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, Jennifer Burns notes how Rand’s position that “Native Americans were savages” and that as a result “European colonists had a right to seize their land because native tribes did not recognize individual rights.” (p. 266) She has offered similar opinions about the Arab populations of the Middle East.

As David Harvey, in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), argues, Neoliberalization’s primary accomplishment has been to “redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income” (p. 159). In particular, he points to privatization and commodification of previously public assets, which he describes as the “Commodification of Everything” in which all things are turned into things with that can have rents extracted from, including intangible ideas like originality, authenticity, and uniqueness, which “were never actually produced as commodities.” (p. 166) .

Much of the libertarian movement could be described as “me first”. It wants to reward the aggressive. At this point it could be appropriate for readers to take a pause, and read Debbie Chachra’s essay, Why I am Not a Maker: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/01/why-i-am-not-a-maker/384767/

The point of the above essay is that a community workshop is not just a workshop for the few. There are a large number of social interactions that have to be facilitated. There are youth present who may be learning new skills, teachers who may be providing instruction, disabled people who may be in need of companionship, people of many genders who may want to create a new and for them, a more appropriate identity. While there may be people who may be making, there may be others who are repairing or repurposing or recycling or just reflecting on life.

I am particularly concerned that calling something a maker space, will in itself create an unintended hierarchy of users. In some maker spaces in Canada, it has been found that white, male youth, from privliged backgrounds, attempted to monopolize maker spaces, by defining themselves as its target group, and defining others as outside of that target group.

Such is the power of a name. I have previously argued for the use of a name that is the Norwegian equivalent of Velocity, a vector quantity that combines speed with direction. More importantly, it does not hint at what can or cannot be done in a workshop. There is no prestige to be lost if the organization changes direction. Velocity might be involved in mechatronics this year, then shift to fashion, cos-play and steampunk next year, before ending up as a videography group focused on rock musicals. It doesn’t make any difference, because the name is flexible.

Now it is time to look at more left-leaning hacker spaces. Left-leaning, but not necessarily egalitarian or diverse.

In V. Kostakis, V. Niaros & C. Giotitsas Production and governance in hackerspaces: A manifestation of Commons-based peer production in the physical realm? (2014) International Journal of Cultural Studies, Hacker space practices supposedly contrast with market-based maker space businesses in that they are more focused on for-benefit rather than for-profit projects but that for-profit motivations are not entirely absent. In this study of 23 semi-structured interviews with a sample of hacker spaces around the world found that money remains a peripheral concept only. Particpants are motivated by the social desire for hackers to have a ‘third place’ for social interaction. This refers to American urban sociologist, Ray Oldenburg (1932 – ) and the importance of informal public gathering places for a functioning civil society, democracy and civic engagement. In addition, there is the altruistic motivation of ‘making the world a better place’ through working on commons-oriented projects. However, it was also found that openness only applied in a limited sense. The barrier is not a door; it is social inclusion. In J. Moilanen Emerging hackerspaces–Peer-production generation Open Source Systems: LongTerm Sustainability (2012) pp. 94-111, 90 percent of respondents were male and 64 percent of respondents had a completed a post-secondary degree. Often hacker spaces are closed to non-members, most days of the week.

Collaboration and sharing were found to be important by six out of
seven participants as evidence of collaboration in the spaces. In addition, some hacker spaces were committed to sharing projects with Commons-based licenses and favored people working on collective projects over personal ones. There was also a wide variety of ‘innovative’ hardware and software produced by hacker spaces and showed the underestimated power of meaningful human cooperation. At the same time there was community accountability, communal validation and autonomy. Participants cited trust and accountability as important pillars of hacker space operation.

A workshop needs legal status and governance. Most are non-profit organizations governed by elected boards, This is one of the first things that has to be put into place. An alternative is to nest the workshop within an existing organization, such a municipal public library. It needs membership fees and/ or funding. Often membership fees serve as the primary income source for a space though different membership levels or sliding-scale pricing. Some spaces receive grants or donations, as is the case with the workshop in Inderøy.

Workshops need physical space and equipment. Most start small but can grow into large spaces. One major challenge is finding adequate and affordable space. There is also a need for a workshop to abide by legal safety and ergonomic standards. Workshops may have issues with building codes, including fire protection and ventilation systems. There is also a need for liability insurance and waiver forms for adult participants.

The creation of a workshop involves much more than a group of
individuals coming together to form a do-ocracy.

One major challenge is the inability for workshops to account/ bookkeep volunteer labour. It is far too frequently treated as a free resource without value. This is inappropriate. Personnel and mentor costs are valid costs. When local government is involved, they need to be efficient in allocating limited resources (even those provided by retired persons). Other underestimated costs have to do with externalities. Noise and physical damage are major concerns, given that workshops have noisier and messier activities. To reduce noise impact, workshops may have to be given insulated spaces and flooring, and by separated physically from other quieter activities.

Stakeholder support is another significant issue. It is important that workshop initiators communicate openly with everyone even remotely influenced by the workshop.


A: Use a variety of tools, modes, media, and materials to design texts and artefacts. Re-design texts and artefacts.

B: Understand design principles within a specific social and cultural context, bringing their own experiences to bear on the task.

C: Reflect critically on design principles. Choose modes, media, and materials to use for specific purposes (e.g., to entertain,persuade, etc.) and for particular audiences.

D: Use a variety of tools, modes, media,and materials to produce texts and artefacts. Re-use/ re-purpose/ re-mix texts and artefacts effectively.

E: Draw on own social and cultural experiences in the creation of texts and artefacts. Allow feelings and emotions to shape the production experience.

F: Reflect critically on the process of production,to ask questions such as (i) How do I want topresent myself and others in this text or artefact? (ii) What messages do I want to convey?

G: Access and understand modes/ media/ materials used in the production of a text/ artefact. Comprehend meaning, interpret through analysis,reflection, synthesis. Relate text/artefact to own prior understandingand experience. Move beyond a literal to deductive andinferential reading.

H: Draw on own social and cultural experiences in the analysis and interpretation of texts and artefacts. Participate with others in collective reviewand interpretation. Understand texts and artefacts in relation to the social, historical, and cultural contexts in which they were produced. I: Reflect critically on the text or artefact that is being engaged with, to ask questions such as: (i) Who produced this? (ii) What can be discerned of the producer’s intentions? (iii) How has the producer positioned the reader/ viewer/ user? (iv) How do issues of power work in this context?

J: Able to use a variety of tools, modes, media,and avenues to disseminate texts and artefacts.

K: Understand most effective means of disseminating texts and artefacts within the social and cultural context. Reach out effectively to diverse audiences tocommunicate meanings.

L: Reflect critically on modes of dissemination, to ensure most effective use of them.

Marsh, J.; Kumpulainen, K.; Nisha, B.; Velicu, A.; Blum-Ross, A.; Hyatt, D.; Jónsdóttir, S.R.; Levy, R.; Little, S.;Marusteru, G.; et al. (Eds.) Makerspaces in the Early Years: A Literature Review; MakEY Project; University of Sheffield: Sheffield, UK, 2017; pp. 75–79. Available online: http://makeyproject.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Makey_Literature_Review.pdf

To conclude. There are a wide range of issues in workshop governance that can emerge, many of which cannot be found in advance.

In Inderøy a mechatronic workshop may suit the needs of many potential participants. In other parts of the world, this would not be the obvious choice. Many women, especially, choose to work with tradtional textiles, while others feel more comfortable working with robots. Lowriders are a cultural phenomenon involving many American males of Latino background. People have many different interests, and develop many different skill sets.

YouTube U

As a Canadian immigrating to Norway, I have a basic understanding of how other immigrants have to adapt to their new environment. Yet, as an English-speaking North-American I lack insights into many of the problems that people from developing countries, speaking non-European languages, and writing with non-Latin alphabets, have to cope with.

While I can’t do much to help local immigrants learn to speak or write Norwegian, despite these being important tools that allow for a better integration into the community, I can encourage immigrants to acquire skills in areas that will enhance their ability to obtain work, or start their own businesses. These are:

  1. Health, Environment and Safety, with an emphasis on workplace safety, human factors and ergonomics.
  2. Mechatronics, with an emphasis on basic electronics and programming.
  3. Entrepreneurship, with an emphasis on disruptive innovation.

Laura Knight 1943 Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring
Laura Knight 1943 Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring Ruby is not using eye or hearing protection, and her hair net does not keep all her hair in place.

YouTube is a great place for learning new skills. Unfortunately, there is no certification available with their videos to state that health, environmental and safety practices conform with best practices. For example, a large number of woodworking videos involve people working with inadequate hearing and eye protection.

So, the first piece of advice is to gain a basic understanding of workplace safety, human factors and ergonomics before one learns about other skill sets. A good place to begin is with Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_factors_and_ergonomics

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, also has valuable insights: https://osha.europa.eu/

Despite the following video being made in 2015, and despite my mixed feeling about Volkswagen, this short video shows the direction ergonomics is heading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05ChaWGJ0-A

The second piece of advice is that mechatronics is an area with considerable growth potential. Because it is so complex, it is difficult to know where to start. Here my advice is to learn elementary electronics and programming with an Arduino. As a teacher, I actively used Jeremy Blum’s Arduino videos: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA567CE235D39FA84Mechatronics

The third piece of advice requires people to relate to disruptive innovation. This is explained in Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. It is also explained in numerous YouTube videos, including this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUAtIQDllo8



From Analogue to Digital Workshop

In my retirement, I am currently a denizen of an analogue world that that roughly approaches my teenage ideal. In that world, Plywood, marine plywood especially, was the material I preferred to shape. The preferred shape being that of a hard-chined sailboat. The radial arm saw was, unquestionably, the most exalted workshop tool. Yes, Roy Henderson had one that occupied a central position in his workshop. When I think carefully about it, that is where my idea of a line of tools, Machine Alley, has come from. He had few options, as an under-used recreation room occupied most of the basement. It was in the rec room that his son, Grant, spent his time, building and painting plastic model cars from kits.

DeWalt Radial Arm Saw 1957
A 1957 De Walt Radial Arm Saw, largely as I remember them, although I cannot recall any red sawblades. (Photo: https://vintagewoodshop.wordpress.com/1957-dewalt-10-radial-arm-saw-gw-i/ )

Roy’s shop was one of four that has influenced me. The second was a commercial workshop run by English immigrants building hard-chine, plywood hulled Enterprise sailboats from kits along the shores of Blind Bay, on Shuswap Lake, British Columbia. The third was the school workshop at Vincent Massey Junior High School, where I learned to use assorted woodworking tools, and found that mastering the jack plane was harder than mastering the band saw.

The fourth was the unloved workshop at my parents house in New Westminster. Its tools seemed to be from a previous century, and many probably were. They had belonged to my father’s Uncle, Thomas McGinley. He was the same uncle that had participated in the Klondike gold rush, but had otherwise worked as a carpenter. These tools were all rugged and heavy, designed for work on ship’s timbers or log cabins, rather than more delicate objects. I never saw my father use any of the tools. I’m not sure if it was from a lack of skills or a lack of interest. When my parents sold their house in 1972, these tools were disposed of.

These days I am more moderate in my opinions, but more excessive in my purchases. I am fortunate in being able to buy the tools I want. Yet, I hesitate to buy the best quality. I am buying the equivalent of Craftsman tools: Good, but not great. I don’t mind the challenges of working with imperfect tools. The fact that I may have to use extra time to adjust the table saw’s fence rather than have it snap into a precise position is a challenge with its own reward.

As I approach 70 years, I realize that the time I have to use analogue tools is limited. Yes, I am focusing on analogue woodworking tools. I am more comfortable working with wood than metal, or textiles or plastic or clay. In five years time, the worst of my infatuation with band saws, sliding compound mitre saws (UK)/ chop saws (US), spindle moulders (UK)/ wood shapers (US) and lathes should have eased. That is tomorrow. Today, I want to master this analogue world around me.

Because it is so many years since I used analogue tools seriously, I have to rebuild my skills. At the same time the workshop is being formed. The wisdom of what I had hoped would be a single line of stationary tools along a wall, Machine Alley, is being questioned. The table saw, an essential tool for transforming plywood, MDF and even OSB into useful components is demanding a more central placement. Already now the as yet un-purchased lathe has been repositioned in Machine Alley. The prudence of purchasing a separate thickness planer, rather than one in combination with a jointer, is being questioned.  While tools are cheaper now, it doesn’t mean that they are easy to come by. I regret Norway being outside EU’s Customs Union. It makes my purchasing decisions more complex and expensive. Because importing goods is an expensive and bureaucratic hassle, Norwegian tool retailers and importers can ignore people like me, and just offer a selection of popular tools. All of the tools that I want, but cannot find in Norway, can be found stocked in Ireland.

At this point I would like to comment on my feelings in relation to my fate. It is complex, combining regret with acceptance, even contentment. Yes, I regret never having built my own house. Yet, I am sure that I could never build one in Norway, in a way that I would like to build it. Norway is a country without building inspectors, that allows each trade to police itself. A loose canon, such as myself or anyone without trade qualifications, would never be given permission to build such a major undertaking. In Canada, anyone can do anything, but it has to be inspected, to ensure that it meets the standards. I am equally sure that I would find it equally frustrating to build a house in Canada. I am not sure that I could regress to 24″ from 600 mm.

A lack of house building means that my workshop activities have limited scope. The workshop will ensure that improvements are made to the various rooms of the house, including the kitchen and living room. A minor addition or a shed will be added. Siding will be replaced, possibly with stucco. Furniture will be built. That could take up to five years. What will happen after that? Unfortunately, many makers do not plan for their future. They see their activities proceeding linearly, forever.

What I do see happening is that at some point old age will demand a transition away from analogue tools. My eyesight will worsen, and some of my skills may degenerate. Yet, hopefully, working in the workshop will keep my strength up. I am giving myself five years to accomplish my analogue goals. Everything has to be finished by 2022-12-31, although that date may be extended, health permitted.

Let me repeat that comment about my feelings in relation to my fate. “It is complex, combining regret with acceptance, even contentment.” What I am looking forward to is replacing analogue with digital, working more with workshop automation, home automation and robotics, including robots for the elderly.

I am not quite sure what this world will look like. Yet, in my later retirement years, I am looking forward to being a denizen of a digital world that is vastly different from my teenage ideal. In this future world, I may still be using plywood, but my table saw will be replaced with a CNC machine in the centre of the workshop. It will allow me to work with different processes, simply by replacing a head. It will work with different materials, some currently unknown.

CNC Router Parts 4896
CNC Machine kits are available from many sources, including CNC Router Parts. (photo: cncrouterparts.com )

Yet, transitions have to be planned. An analogue workshop will neither appear nor disappear by itself, a digital workshop has to be planned and implemented.

This weblog post was updated 2021/12/21. to eliminate Seeds from the title. This post formed part of a Needs, Seeds and Weeds website that belonged to my daughter, Shelagh. In addition, other things are also out of date, or my opinions have changed. Apart from the title, updating the text to a block format and other minor formatting changes, the text above this paragraph remains as it was before. Any significant content changes are found below this paragraph

Renewal of Furnishings

Ye have been enjoined to renew the furnishings of your homes after the passing of each nineteen years; thus hath it been ordained by One Who is Omniscient and All-Perceiving. He, verily, is desirous of refinement, both for you yourselves and for all that ye possess; lay not aside the fear of God and be not of the negligent. Whoso findeth that his means are insufficient to this purpose hath been excused by God, the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Bounteous.


Since I retired, Alasdair and I have made a few simple modifications to that building formerly known as the garage (with attached shed), but now referred to as the workshop (with attached annex). My hope is that this building will result in something more than just more conspicuous consumption, but will be a small center for practical social change.

In the Baha’i Faith, there is a requirement to refurbish, as shown in the above text. This text generates discussion, not only in terms of what should be included (cars?) but also the handling of antiques and rare possessions. Some days, I read the text as an admonition to keep possessions longer than is common today. The Tripp-Trapp chairs in the house are about 34 years and 28 years old, respectively. They are still used daily. None of our cars have lasted 19 years, yet. However, I will be very disappointed if my 2023 VW Buzz doesn’t last at least 19 years. In fact, I have every intention of keeping it until my 100th birthday in 2048, when it will be 25 years old.

VW Buzz
A VW I.D. Buzz prototype from 2017. It is expected to enter production in 2023. I am not sure how often I will be carrying surf boards on the roof, as I expect to end my active surfing career in 2018, at the age of 70. The Buzz may be in some way described as environmentally friendly, but it does consume large quantities of materials. It could become a symbol of conspicuous consumption in the future. (Photo: VW)

The workshop is designed to aid refurbishment, not just selfishly – but also in terms of community. It is a place where products are to be designed, and prototypes made. If the prototypes are successful, then further copies may be made. This may even involve batch production.

An equally important act is the publication of product information. The workshop is, naturally, an open source environment. Products designs developed there are to be made freely available to others.  This blog will be an important element in distributing information. However, there are other things that need to be done. One of the challenges of the open-source movement is quality control. Products need to be tested, and the results of those tests have to enter a feedback loop, so that designs can be improved.

Woodworking is the initial focus of the workshop. Shop cabinets and French cleat storage units will be some of the first products to be made. The goal is to have the workshop in working order by 2018.01.01. “Machine Alley”, a 6-meter (20 feet) long section of the workshop will consist of eight 600 mm (24 inches) long units, with a uniform height. Machines will have their own particular unit assigned to them. However, it should be a relatively easy task (less than one hour of work) to move a machine to a different location.

The first production machine purchased for the workshop, a planer. This length of wall is to be known as “Machine Alley”, and will be the location where stationary machines will be kept. Photo: Brock McLellan

A large number of wooden products are being considered for the workshop including: a replacement garden shed, a winter garden, kitchen cabinets, a replacement dining table and chairs. At the community level there may be a need for geodesic dome greenhouses that could be produced at this, or another workshop, in the Vangshylla community.

As our own personal refurbishment becomes more complete, I see a gradual transition to other materials than wood. A solar water heater is one example of a product that uses very little wood, more plastic and a lot of metal. With the use of active systems, it is here that we are entering the world of mechatronics (mechanics + electronics + a lot more).

Aerial Euler diagram showing the sub-fields of Mechatronics (Photo: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2012).

Personally, I would also like to learn other construction skills. I have made a decision that using a gym or studio to exercise is a waste of time and money. Lifting a few tons of wood or steel is as good exercise as lifting weights. I won’t even mention the word, spinning. In the Unit One blog, there has been some discussion about making paving stones, and using stucco (rendering) on walls. These activities will keep anyone in shape.

While I would like to work with heavy materials for as long as possible, aging is an ongoing process. At some point a refocusing on robotics may be natural. Regardless, a key element is a focus on community – and the needs of others. I am looking forward to using the workshop over the next 19 years. By then, at the age of 88, there could be yet another refurbishment, with new horizons opening for me to explore.