The Narrowing Gap Between Amateur and Professional Fabrication

The other day I saw a plastic part that was so beautiful that I had to look twice to realize it hadn’t been cast — and no, it didn’t come out of a Stratysys or anything, just a 3D printer that probably cost $1,500. It struck me that someone who had paid an artisan to make a mold and cast that part might end up spending the same amount as that 3D printer. It also struck me that the little guys are starting to catch up with the big guys.

Haz Bridgeport, Will Mill

Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting a hold of the equipment. If you need a Bridgeport mill for your project, and you don’t have one, you have to pay for someone else to make the thing — no matter how simple. You’re paying for the operator’s education and expertise, as well as helping pay for the maintenance and support of the hardware and the shop it’s housed in.

I once worked in a packaging shop, and around 2004 we got in a prototype to use in developing the product box. This prototype was 3D printed and I was told it cost $12,000 to make. For the era it was mind blowing. The part itself was simplistic and few folks on Thingiverse circa 2017 would be impressed; the print quality was roughly on par with a Makerbot Cupcake. But because the company didn’t have a 3D printer, they had to pay someone who owned one a ton of cash to make the thing they wanted.

Unparalleled Access to Formerly Professional-Only Tools

But access to high end tools has never been easier. Hackerspaces and tool libraries alone have revolutionized what it means to have access to those machines. There are four or five Bridgeports (or similar vertical mills) at my hackerspace and I believe they were all donated. For the cost of membership, plus the time to get trained in and checked out, you can mill that part for cheap. Repeat with above-average 3D printers, CNC mills, vinyl cutters, lasers. The space’s South Bend lathe (pictured) is another example of the stuff most people don’t have in their basement shops. This group ownership model may not necessarily grant you the same gear as the pros, but sometimes it’s pretty close.

Being too afraid to use an expensive and unfamiliar tool is a stumbling block for a lot of people. But I don’t need to tell you that hackerspaces are a motherlode of knowledge. Find those subject matter experts — the machine shop ninja, the person with the cleanest welds, the dude whose PLA prints always look great. When that falls short, we have a resource our ancestors did not: the Internet. YouTube alone has revolutionized getting trained in on tools. People go to trade school to learn how to operate big expensive machines, but you can learn what to do for free.

Just Send it Out

For pretty much the entire human existence we have been hoarding our knowledge. Trade guilds jealously preserved their knowledge, while masters took their best tricks to the grave. Only recently did the Open Source ethos develop, encouraging the sharing of knowledge and designs. Now we can download and use free equivalents to expensive professional software. I use Inkscape instead of Illustrator, Fritzing (pictured) instead of Eagle. Open Source software allows you to do your design work at home, for very little money. Are these packages as sophisticated and feature-rich as the pros? Definitely not, but usually they’re surprisingly close. Making vectors in Illustrator might involve some innovative tools like warps and filters, but those features don’t make my laser-cut enclosures fit together any better.

Even if you don’t have a hackerspace nearby, the story doesn’t end. So many companies out there will take your DXFs and STLs and use their equipment to make the part.

Where once we had to make PCBs with toner transfers and acid etches, now we can send stuff to OSH Park or Dirty or any of a passel of service providers. Fictiv offers urethane casting and CNC machining as well as 3D printing. Shapeways helps you print your design using a number of materials, and they even have an online store so you can make a little dough. Speaking of selling, sites like Tindie also give you the opportunity to sell the products you create.

I’m not sure how people invented things in the past but it was a far bigger deal than it is now. When people say “it’s never been easier” to make quality fabricated goods, its’ really true.

51 thoughts on “The Narrowing Gap Between Amateur and Professional Fabrication

    1. What of the one offs or the niche products? You don’t need scale at that point. If you get to the point that scale is required, you are correct that doing it in your basement/local hackerspace is probably not the right answer.

      1. Depends on what your goals are for the project in question. One of the biggest hurdles continues to be getting from design to actual product in the correct materials, with decent tolerances and at a reasonable cost. Even CAD design software alone is becoming easier but it still takes an enormous amount of time to do and is still quite specialized for anything except very simple geometries to a lay user.

        You have to have a fairly wide assortment of skills (many of which are not taught in schools) in order to fabricate a product completely from idea to finished product, or you could pay someone to do that for you or fill in the blanks that you lack skills or equipment in.

        Going from a $1 in bulk part that you can buy off the shelf to a custom part with a $150 setup fee, 6 week delivery window and $30 per part cost for quantity 5 to 100 is a hurdle that is not impossible to overcome but greatly holds back the perceived promise of manufacturing or even 3d printing for the masses.

        It’s not like suddenly everybody is going to print their own disposable cutlery and furniture and cars and never need to buy anything except spools of ABS again. Hopefully that hype has mostly settled down and it is great that these tools are becoming easier to access (mostly due to cost) but it’s also not really fair to say that you can simply pickup a Chinese made lathe for a tenth the cost of a US made one and immediately become proficient in it either. Not only does it take time to learn, it also requires tools and space and raw materials. More barriers to go from idea to finished product, even if it is just quantity one.

        Many of these tools are NOT plug and play and amazingly spit out perfect parts comprised of dozens of different materials that all emerge while you sleep. The gap is narrowing some if you want to put the time in is sort of what the author is saying but the gap is still pretty steep and is unlikely to shrink much more until we are literally replicating molecular perfect products from pure energy.

        Some of the professional mills are getting pretty amazing but they require considerable setup and are amazingly expensive. You are not going to replicate that with some steppers and an Arduino.

        1. Years ago it was hard to find a small lathe or miller that was affordable for most people, and metals were not available easily, things are now a great deal better for hobbyists, buying a multimeter was a major purchase, let alone an oscilloscope, CAD systems for free, laser cutters for a song, 3D printers cheap and with free software regularly updated, bloody hell we have never had it so good.

  1. I very much love that you can send PCBs to various companies to have them manufactured for not a huge sum of money as I just don’t have the room or a well-ventilated area for playing around with etching PCBs myself. It’s pretty easy to send the PCBs off to be manufactured, too; just tick a few boxes in KiCad and then zip the output together and off you go! The only downside is that it takes so many weeks for the PCBs to come from China or US — wish there was a European alternative for this. (Not that I expect there ever will be. Chinaman can do it so much cheaper that no European company can compete.)

  2. This is so not true. Only an amateur would claim this. I have worked as a professional machinist for years, as well as own my own machinery in my home shop as a hobbyist. I assure you , the gap between amateur/hobbyist and professional work is still very present. The thing is, the article writers, or the amateurs do not understand what the difference is. There is far more to it than just getting a piece of aluminum off the machine thats close to the shape you intended. The divide is ver very evident watching videos on Youtube. Thats not to say an amateur cant do good work. They can. There is also far more to doing the work than simply obtaining a mill. LOL… that was such a joke of a statement its unreal. I’m not trying to knock amateurs, I started as one ,and could do great work worthy of space travel ,but I assure you, stepping in to the professional game was a huge eye opener. It isnt at all what you think , and it doesnt have a damn thing to do with economy of scale.

    1. I totally agree, except that very often the parts in question don’t need to be that accurate. As a professional machinist you are likely making parts with tight tolerances and professional finishes, but for most parts in a hacker setting being out by 0.010 isn’t that big of a deal. I know you’re cringing right now and there are a lot of examples where Accuracy Matters (like spinny things) but if you’re milling parts for a robot that’s going to crawl across your desk…

      And even the worst part you make on a mill is going to be worlds better than the best part you can make with JB Weld and a moto-tool.

      And yes, there is a ramp-up curve for mills and lathes but it’s not un-achieveable by the average hacker.

      1. Can you be a bit more specific about the gap between the amateur and the professional?
        I don’t even own any machining tool (only a Chinese drill press), so my insight in practical experience of machining is small (although I have interest in it)

        Is it only a question of milling precision? Wouldn’t a better tool solve the problem? Or is it a question of cost (it is always a question of cost, but is it that important?)? Or is it also a question of knowledge?

    2. Read the title again. It’s not the completely closed gap it’s the narrowing gap. Even if the gap is still very wide I can’t see how one could argue that it is no narrower than it was a generation ago.

      An amateur working (and gaining experience) a few hours per week on a hobbyist budget is not going to produce better things than a professional building 40+ hours of experience using equipment in the large corporation or even small home-business price range. I don’t think any reasonable person would expect that.

      But… what did the amateur’s shop and skillset look like whenever you first became aware of such things? What do they look like now?

      – Today amateurs have their own lathes, 3d printers, laser cutters, etc…
      – Today amateurs have access to professional equipment being sold cheap due (sadly) to the widespread factory closings. Much of this stuff is easy to get today but would be unobtanium to an amateur a decade or two ago.
      – Today amateurs have the entire internet to learn new skills and collaborate.

      Think how different this is from when amateurs had to work with hammer and chisel, a handful of books from the local library and maybe had a magazine subscription or two and could write a letter to the editor.

      While considering this beware of your own experiences as a “hobbyist”. A daytime professional working at night on a home project at the very least as a set of knowledge and experience that an amateur does not. It isn’t really the same thing. Also, while I wouldn’t want to assume where any one stranger (such as yourself) obtained their equipment but I suspect that a lot of professionals that also have home shops are probably better equipped because they had first dibs on their company’s used, discarded equipment. At the very least it’s probably easier to convince your wife that you should buy a new Bridgeport mill when you are a professional machinist than when you are not!

      1. > An amateur working (and gaining experience) a few hours per week
        > professional building 40+ hours of experience

        And dont forget, the professional probably has years of training too.

      1. I’m picturing a fire because someone, despite warning placards all over the place and repeated safety lectures for users – left the lid off a can of flammable solvent then someone decided to surface a piece of steel on the grinder.

  3. “Only recently did the Open Source ethos develop, encouraging the sharing of knowledge and designs.”
    Er, the sharing of knowledge existed long before Open Source, it was just altruistic and was usually done by people who didn’t feel protective of their knowledge/skills so taught/wrote/educated the less fortunate.
    What has changed now is the mediums and access to those who are willing to share their knowledge (sadly there is also a lot more, er, ‘chaff’ as well) and the concepts of “Open Source” have developed some fairly fervent believers which can disenfranchise those who only want to share parts of their knowledge.

    Also, a big thing on the amateur vs professional space tends to be the whole time/cost axioms (a competent amateur could make something look professional but it’ll likely take longer and potentially cost more in materials whereas the professional may not have the time for small projects and the cost of their time is high).

    1. Very few absolutes are true. Of course anyone who says that nobody ever shared any information before BSD or “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” or Linux or whatever you choose to see as the beginning of “Open Source” is full of crap. That’s not to say the past wasn’t very different from today.

      Look at how many pre-modern discoveries spend centuries or even millennia known solely to this or that specific group of monks before someone finally came along and stole the idea. Then came trade guilds and such. Finally we got to see how things work after patents came on the scene. It still took the invention and popularization of the internet before open source came into it’s own.

      Who else here remembers seeing early GNU advertised for sale on big tape spindles for $100s in shareware magazines?

  4. Believe it or not, the gap is still wide and will probably widen in fact.
    The main difference between today and less than a decade ago is that the entry cost has dramatically plummeted for amateur, as long as you stay in the mainstream amateur flow.
    Twenty years ago it was possible for an amateur to buy a lathe and mill, only that it cost way more.
    Cheap china manufacturing is what shifted the cost. A lot of manufacturing capabilities becomes commodity in the meantime.
    Once it’s a commodity you are lost against china/apac country as a professional maker, so most professional makers moved to more advanced manufacturing or just disappeared.
    Amateur maker enjoy new manufacturing capabilities: advanced pcbs that were a dream 10y ago, real capable 3d printer that do not cost arm and leg, CNC and cad software for free.
    But you have them at cost still above china cost, so most amateur maker can’t compete on price (no maker do their own arduino board), but probably more on creativity, until some in china steal the idea or monetize the osh product if there is a market.

    1. Hobbies usually aren’t done against cost, although it sometimes starts that way. The interesting thing about cheap tools (although the knowledge may not be cheap) is what was presented in Future Shock, and The Third Wave that products would become more individualized. More tailored to the owner, something which I might add would decrease things like piracy, and counterfeiting, although it would reduce the resale market.

    2. That’s a difference between a hobbyist and a professional mindset showing right there.

      An amateur isn’t worried about meeting or beating China or anyone else by cost. When evaluating that ‘gap’ the fact that some professional can build it cheaper isn’t a major part of the equation.

      From an amateur viewpoint the ratio of things we still cannot make vs things we can is much smaller than it used to be. Also, while amateurs will build things in all sorts of different quality levels. (often not caring because it’s just a learning experience) we now have the tools to make things of better quality than ever before, even with less experience. The ratio of typical professional quality over potential amateur quality is lower than it has been.

      You are talking about competing but that has no meaning to an amateur. If an amateur starts trying to sell things against the professional market guess what… they are no longer an amateur! That is the definition of professional.

      To an amateur it might be about the experience, or the pride in having something they made themselves… or.. it might be about making a custom item that exactly fits the maker’s needs and desires. On that last note the gap actually goes the other way. No factory will ever be able to tool up to create a custom object for one person at a price that beats an amateur making it themselves. While amateurs can tailor something to the individual professionals must always specialize in catering to the market.

      So.. as an amateur… I look only at what an amateur can create (in single user quantity) vs what a professional can. From that viewpoint the gap has shrunk considerably. A professional, coming from more of a business viewpoint than a maker one might see things differently however as an amateur this is irrelevant.

  5. “a plastic part that was so beautiful that I had to look twice to realize it hadn’t been cast”
    there could be a problem with your eyesight or it could be a really great print, anyway… I would like to see it and judge for myself. Why, you might ask, well because I want that quality too.
    Currently it requires me lot’s of sanding and smoothing with acetone, if there is only one tip that saves me lot’s of work (without increasing printing time heavily) then I would like to hear it.

    Anyway, the gap between big and little guys is huge and comparing them is comparing apples with pears. Anyway what you might mean is that you no longer need to be a crafstman to output nice things, sure it helps a lot to be one, but the tools of today are so good and cheap that devices like printer and cutters can take away a lot of work that in that past could only be done manually. This is a good thing, but no substitute for a real craftsman, because eventually a problem will arise that requires the proper knowledge and experience…

    Anyway, hurray for technology!

    1. The Zortrax M200’s consistently put out parts that look injection molded. I’ve got a friend of a friend with one, and I am very jealous. :P

      My friend has shown me stuff that seriously made me look twice to make sure it wasn’t a pro product.

  6. It’s the 4th industrial revolution. Deal with it. Profit from it.
    Disruption of previous tool-chains, elimination of jobs and businesses. Free or cheap CAD/CAM allows you to design what you can imagine. Crowdfunding allows you to create a market before you build your product. Makerspaces give you access to tools to build it.

    1. I agree. I am doing a low volume production teaching myself CAD with tinkercad, using a build it yourself 3D printer which costs under $200. The product is not smooth finished molded plastic but not bad looking and it works. Heck of a lot cheaper than otherwise.

    1. I don’t see anyone claiming anything close to that? No having tools isn’t enough, experience is vital. But experience comes from 1) learning from others and 2) actually doing mistakes and learning from them.

      There are many examples of amateurs (that is people not earning money from the work) producing things of a quality a professional wouldn’t – simply as the professional must take the time, tool wear etc. into account to see if it is reasonable to do (other than as a promotional effort). An amateur doing what they think is fun is in another world, a world where a wonky tool that can’t be trusted suddenly is an enabler rather than just a pain in the ass.

      OTOH there are many things only professionals are likely to do well – anything requiring long experience and expensive special purpose tools could make the amateur spend years for doing one thing for an enormous amount of money when asking someone that does it professionally can do it in maybe one month for little money. Scale matters.

    1. But really, WTH is that circuit board‽ Odd angles and non-parallel traces going all over the place.
      I guess their breadboard view might be nice for beginners and makes for some nice images to put up on blogs or the like, but those PCBs… just no. Fritzing makes designing good boards way more complicated than it really should (not that other tools like KiCad make it very easy, but that’s a whole different set of arguments).

      1. RobM: True, it’s not about what you use. BUT, when I see a PCB with traces at random angles and reference designators scattered haphazardly with no apparent concern for either aesthetics or utility, it almost always turns out that Fritzing was used to create it.

  7. Hackerspace availability is inversely proportional to real estate costs. Where I am at, we have a tiny hackerspace in the city and it has no machine tools located in an inaccessible part of the city. I have lived where there were much, much better hackerspaces. Its kind of upsetting. I have my own tools, but no space to use them, realistically. I think the most I have been able to do is portable work with my rigid power tool set and 3d prints, even with portable machine tools available. Tiny pieces of metal get everywhere so the apartment is out of the question. I have a rolling hackerspace in a large trailer but it is sitting on my property 100 miles away being used as storage until I get a permanent place where I live. I wish hackerspaces were more ubiquitous.

    1. I assume you mean accessible, not inaccessible.

      So.. you seem to be saying.. that there is a hackerspace in your city, just not a part of the city that is as close to you as you would like? Where/when do you live? Berlin somewhere between 1961 and 1989? If hackerspace availability is worth whining about it’s at least worth driving for. Travel a little farther!

      I wish there was a hackerspace in my city. I even tried at one point to start one but with a family to support I don’t really have the time. In the past I traveled about 40 miles North to what was then the nearest 2 hackerpsaces, Now I travel about 30 miles south to a new, slightly closer one. I earn my right to complain my city has no space of it’s own by making the trip to cities that do! What’s your excuse?

      Once you start participating in the space that does exist in your city… consider bringing some of your storage-fill equipment there. Maybe you can even teach a class or two on using it.

  8. Looking at the comments I can see people have difficulty separating proof of concept, prototype, short run, niche market, and mass market projects. Each one has its own criteria and manufacturing philosophy. No offense to real machinists out there but non precision machining is responsible for most of the great product ideas out there. Usually the person who sees the need in the market uses whatever tools and skill level at their disposal to begin commercializing their product. When you move up the scale of volume then you find a real mold
    And tool shop and up the ladder you go paying for others expertise. You have to realize though, many modern products will find their commercializations well below high volume. This is where the maker ethos can allow people to have low barrier to entry. The is nothing immoral about it. It’s just a new way.

  9. I think a lot of people aren’t getting it. It makes no sense to compare amateur and professional capability to compete in a market. By definition if you are in a market you are a professional. That’s more like comparing big businesses to entrepreneurial startups. It has nothing to do with amateurs.

    The only sensible way to compare amateurs and professionals is to compare what they can produce, not how competitively they can do it. First, what items are hobbyists producing or able to produce vs what items are only producible by professionals. For a couple extreme examples, I don’t see any hobbyists making human rated spacecraft yet… but amateur cubesats are a thing. I’m not expecting to see an article about a garage Tokamak build (except on April 1st) but Farnsworth fusion reactors are old news.

    Second, how does quality compare. For this I would not just compare average quality. A hobbyist might be churning out quick projects on a breadboard for example that aren’t even intended to last any amount of time. Compare what a typical hobbyist can reasonably produce when actually trying to produce a quality project vs typical professional output.

    If you even find yourself thinking words like market or commercialization you probably missed the point. You aren’t “measuring” a gap between amateurs and professionals because you aren’t even considering amateurs at all!

  10. I agree, just look at how easy it is to design and manufacture a novel electronics widget. No one mistakes these for iPhones. They don’t have to be designed for mass manufacturing and use. Today you can design on free EDA tools, outsource pcb fabrication for cheap and even have limited runs fully manufactured, all from the comfort of your computer of choice.

  11. Interesting post. I think the west is in for a rocky ride really, if something needs to me made in the 100s then you really cant compete with China etc. so maybe specialist 1 offs are the way forward! We have to do something in the west to earn a living?!
    Regarding PCBs etc. Eagle, certainly was a great package, though sadly the all evil “Autodesk” have now taken it over, so its likely going to be a disaster, continuous crashing, updates and patches, “Buy eagle 2031 – out now” .. no direct sales – only through pushy sales reps with 80% markups, no one-off purchase, just unceasing monthly installments! Ah the price of progress!
    For PCB manufacturing themselves, I used to do a lot of home made PCBs, double sided down to 10mill spacing, but the via pins are the killer, even using through hole rivets its just not easy to do good boards. Plus with places like “pcbway” offering 10pcs of 10cmx10cm double sides boards for just $5 there really is no point!

  12. Is that lathe the one at the Minneapolis MN Hackfactory? If it is, the cross slide is messed up. Sometimes amateurs break shared equipment. Sometimes they don’t have the desire or funds to fix them…

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