The recipe for limitless living

I used to feel limited. Video games were my main priority, and the reason is probably quite simple: they were consistent and predictable. There was really not much else I aspired to do than sit around and play.

For a long time, this was all I knew. A clear path, a certain goal. I wasn’t aware that there was anything else out there.

One day, several years ago now, something switched in my brain. I think it was simple: the realization that I could influence things in the real world, not just in video games.

I remember thinking about the little CD/DVD burner in my computer. I remember my dad talking about how there was a laser in there, used to etch patterns into the discs. I wondered if you could take out the laser and use it to build something else.

Now, that sounds quite simple, but honestly, that was a pretty profound moment in my development. I had thought about wanting to be an engineer for a while, not really knowing why or what that meant. But thinking about the computer I had in front of me and the wonders it could do made my mind wander.

How do lasers work? How does it make the right patterns at the right time? How do you even read a CD? Can you build a laser pointer if you disassemble the CD burner? How does the computer itself even work?

Now, I had no clue. I was 16 years old and barely knew what a screwdriver was. One thing I did know, however, was the internet. So I went straight to our beloved Google and started asking all of my questions.

Since then, much has happened. One thing that’s been constant ever since that day, though, is that curiosity. I feel fortunate to live in an age where we have excessive amounts of information at our fingertips — it really can’t be overstated how valuable of a tool the internet is.

I have probably spent more than 6000 hours in the last 5 years just researching things I was curious about. Somewhere, subconsciously, I think I was always looking for some kind of border, some kind of limit: Somewhere, there had to be a black box or a wall, a place where regular people weren’t allowed, where only “real” engineers got all there magical knowledge from.

But it was never really there. Quite the opposite, actually: I discovered that millions of people share everything from videos to build logs of all kinds of crazy projects. Everything from RC cars to home-built helicopters to industrial machinery to robots. What better way to learn how to do stuff in real life than by simply watching people who were already doing it?

My journey started somewhere in the spring of 2013. 3D printers were really starting to get hyped up, and I obviously found out about them during my endeavours online. The RepRap project had been going for several years at this point, and I was extraordinarily fascinated by the concept, both of the self-replication aspect, but also just by the thought of a 3D printer itself.

So, not yet having discovered a barrier to my new-found powers and limitlessness, I thought — I have to build a 3D printer. Now, again, I was (still am) naive and inexperienced, but something was so attractive about the prospect of building this machine that I happily shelled out the money, buying a bunch of stuff on eBay, a cool site I ‘discovered’ for the first time, never having purchased anything there previously.

To illustrate my inexperience, before ordering the parts for the printer, I was asking on Reddit about why I couldn’t just use an old laptop circuit board to control the 3D printer instead of purchasing a microcontroller board. I’m an advocate of “no stupid questions”, but it certainly shows that I had no clue about electronics.

A few weeks later, the parts were arriving and I immediately got to work, recruiting my dad to help me a few times when I felt stuck. I followed YouTube videos, a great tutorial series by “Engineglue” in particular, and eventually, I had built my first thing ever — a RepRap Prusa i2.

A RepRap Prusa i2

Then, the most amazing thing happened. I had been testing the motors, heating elements and endstops and so forth as I went along, but now, I was done assembling. I had calibrated the machine, I had loaded the plastic filament. It was time for the scariest part: trying to get the thing to actually produce something that wasn’t just a gooey mess.

I think some kind of miracle happened at that point. If I remember correctly, I simply did what the guy on the internet said, and the very first time I hit print, it started laying down a beautiful rectangular grid of molten black plastic. I watched in awe, and the printer simply kept buzzing about, eventually finishing the 20x20x20mm test cube I had instructed it to print. I imagine the feeling I had was similar to what one would experience if they consumed cocaine.

Now, it’s been 6 years. I’ve built several printers since then, on top of a bunch of other stuff. I’ve spent countless hours researching, reading, dreaming, and occasionally even doing stuff. I’m pursuing an engineering degree, and I feel ready to conquer the world.

I’m even willing to take partial credit for the fact that my dad not only designed and built his own 3D printer as well, but that he decided to quit his job and pursue an engineering degree for himself. My cousin is headed down the same route after he purchased his own 3D printer kit recently on eBay. Now, he’s building his own renewable energy storage system for his room, building electric skateboards and has big plans for the future.

I’ve landed multiple internships and student assistant positions since I built that first printer. It’s hard to believe how useful those experiences are, and I doubt I’d have gotten a single one if it wasn’t for the confidence and curiosity instilled by embarking on that initial project.

Some people seem to think that 3D printers are useless, at least in their current form. People have this preconceived notion that the parts they produce are worthless, weak and simply toys. I’m not sure where it comes from, but oh well. Some even seem to go as far as dismissing the entire concept of 3D printing, saying it’s a fad.

I disagree, but let’s just pretend that they’re right in their assumptions for a second. I still think they’re wrong overall.

3D printing isn’t just about printing silly sculptures off of thingiverse.

It’s about open source hardware, about decentralized development, about inspiring a new generation of engineers and makers.

It’s about seeing the fascination of digital fabrication and automation happen right in front of your eyes.

It’s about teaching CAD, mechanical design, product development, prototyping and much more.

It’s about a passion for understanding and manipulating the physical world.

Everyone probably has moments in their life where their path took a certain direction for better or worse. I think deciding to jump head-first into something I didn’t understand was the best decision I’ve made so far. Perhaps I’ll be brought down a notch before too long, but for the time being, I’ll cherish the feeling of limitlessness every day.

I’m (most likely) not the next Elon Musk, but I’m feeling more and more motivated as time goes by, and I feel my skillset growing day by day. It’s fun and challenging, and hopefully I will continue feeling this way for a long, long time, since I have so many projects I’d like to tackle that I’m probably going to need life extension to cross off all the points on my bucket list.

The moral of the story is, in the words of Shia LaBeouf—”Just do it!”. I hope you’ll consider diving in head first as well, whatever it is you’re contemplating. In a few days, weeks, months or years, you may well be so happy about your decision that you can’t help but write an article on Medium about it.