Pocket NC and Their Incredible Engineering
Last week I was thinking of a product for this week’s Cool Stuff In Engineering column and I remembered this Kickstarter project I saw a while back. It was this neat looking, green, 5-axis mill that is small enough to sit on your desk. I remember being blown away by a video showing the mill in action. This little mill is so precise that it was able to cut out an engine block out of aluminum that could fit in the palm of your hand.
It was so cool! Therefore a perfect project for Cool Stuff In Engineering. But it went further than that.
I looked up the project and was so happy to see that not only did their Kickstarter get funded, it got funded five times over! Their company and their mill is called Pocket NC and it is available now. Check out the YouTube channel and you can see that little engine block being made.
Here is an awesome picture of their setup.
So I reached out to PocketNC looking for some pictures to include in my post but I got much more. Michelle, part of the husband and wife team that runs Pocket NC, offered to answer any questions I may have.
And ask I did. I wound up getting some detailed, insightful answers that I think any young engineer can get a lot out of. Some of these questions are taken from questions you guys frequently ask me so there’s some really good information here. Take a look at our interview.
What kind of classes would an engineering student take that would help them build something like this? What were the backgrounds of some of the engineers you had on board that helped to build this machine?
My husband and I designed and built the first machines. I have a degree in mechanical engineering and he has an associate’s degree in machining but he is definitely an engineer, just not with the degree. We actually hire a lot of students with Mechanical Engineering Technology degrees. We like this degree because it has a good balance of theory and hands on education. For a company as small as we are, we like that they come to work for us and can jump on our Haas and machine, assemble machines, or help with design.
What software did you use for the designs (CAD, programming, electrical)?
CAD — We initially designed the machine in SolidWorks and still do some Solidworks design, but we are moving more towards Fusion 360.
CAM — We initially did most of our Haas programming in Mastercam, but we are also moving into Fusion 360 for that. We have always done most of the programming for our Pocket NCs in Fusion 360. It’s free for students and we love to see students that have taken the initiative to learn it even a little bit if they were working in other software in class.
Electrical — We have always used Eagle. I think that Autodesk recently purchased Eagle and will be integrating it’s functionality into Fusion 360.
What kind of failures did you come across that you had to work through to get this project up and running? I tend to see students get discouraged when they fail but I try to enforce that failure is a part of learning. So what was something that happened during this project that maybe you set you back and or something you did not expect to get in the way?
At the get go, we did not understand just how many prototypes it would take to get to not only a machine that worked, but a machine that was able to be manufactured at a reasonable price and by people with an average skill set as well as be usable for our customers. It took us over 4 years of working nights and weekends outside of our regular jobs to get the product where it needed to be. We felt like most of our friends and family didn’t believe that anything would really come from it and so sometimes it was challenging to keep going and making new prototypes when we had design flaws.
What is an important lesson you learned during the development process? What is something you wish you had known when you started?
We really learned a lot about the difference between a product that just works and a product that is actually ready for the market. This was a really painful process for us because we just wanted to get there so we could quit our jobs and do this full time. You see this problem a lot with crowd funded projects that the designers get to the point of having a working prototype and then immediately make the Kickstarter video and go for it. They plan on continuing to prototype after the campaign has ended, and the nature of prototyping and troubleshooting is that it is really hard to predict just how long it will take and how many problems will arise. We think this is a big reason why a lot of hardware products from Kickstarter end up months or years late and it is hard to start a business with customers who are already unhappy.
What advice would you give to a young engineer getting their start in the field?
Even if you aren’t looking to start your own business, find something that interests you in the engineering field and try to dedicate your personal time to learning about it and doing projects with it. This is a big thing we look for in potential employees. If we meet someone who did well in school but doesn’t seem to have any specific interest beyond just getting a job, it’s hard to know if they will put forth the extra effort to help our company succeed. Even if their interest doesn’t apply directly to our product, it helps to show that they are willing to put in the extra effort to learn and grow their skills.
There were a lot of great takeaways from this interview. Pay attention to how much Michelle and Matt value education outside of the classroom. “…we love to see students that have taken the initiative to learn it even a little bit if they were working in other software in class.”
I love this because I have always thought self-education is so important. You only have so many hours in a classroom and while you can learn a lot in college, you can’t learn everything. I hear a lot of students say “I wish my college would teach _____.” Just because college doesn’t teach it, doesn’t mean you can’t learn it.
In fact, I find self-learning the best kind of learning because there are no boundaries. There are no rules you have to follow and no grades to tell you if you are doing well or not. You just find something you want to know and go out and do it. This is what I find most inspiring about the Pocket NC story. Michelle and Matt spent 4 years of their free time working towards their goal and as you can see, it paid off immensely.
It takes hard work and dedication but it is so worth it.
Just think of what you could accomplish with this kind of commitment. The most rewarding things in life take persistence to achieve and this is why I find the story of Pocket NC so inspiring.
Thank you, Pocket NC for the amazing interview!