Coping: Men & Machines vs. Men & Computers

There’s a story (and song done most notably by Harry Belafonte) about John Henry.  It’s where our discussion of 3D printing this morning springs from…

Song dates back to the 1870’s and the building of a mile-long tunnel for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.  Big Bend tunnel, also called the Great Bend Tunnel.

John Henry, says legend, swung a mighty hammer –  and in a race with a steam-powered Machine?  Well, you see, that’s one of the great debates in this this stuff called “making.”  Recently, we talked about my all hand-made paper towel holder  (last week) but it has now been bettered by reader Larry R.  And a machine…  Here’s how he did it…

(Continues below)


Came as an email – shared with his kind permission:

Maybe it wasn’t really a challenge, but I did want to see how my techniques compare to yours.

A few years ago (pre-retirement) I was thinking of setting up a typical shop, but funds and space were limited.  Then I found 3D printing.  The choice was obvious – one device to replace a room full of equipment.  Sure, I’m limited to plastic, but that is fine for the majority of my projects.

Anyway, here’s the paper towel holder I made recently.

?I know you are interested in the numbers.


  • Finding and downloading the design:  10 minutes

I used this one:

  • Setup and machine startup: ~55 minutes  (3 parts = 3 cycles)

This includes a fat finger mistake on part #2 that required a restart.

Call it ~15 minutes labor per cycle.

If this was for production I’d print all three parts at once, reducing my labor time.

Machine Time:

  • ~12 hours

Material cost:

  • ~$3

Electricity cost:

  • ~$0.36 (est)

You have me beat on these numbers, BUT…

My front end costs were quite low.

  • The printer was $600 (used)
    Add a little for repairs.
  • The laptop was $50 (used)
  • All in, I’m about $700.

What value to you put on space?

This setup fits on a small desk.

Supplies fit in the drawers.

No, I won’t be making furniture but this works well for me.

Thanks for the idea to run this comparison.

Thanks also for your work on Urbansurvival.  It is the most enjoyable of my few daily reads.


I gotta tell you, that’s the kind of reader contribution (and photos!) we love around here.

Anyone can spout off (especially academics) but this is a front-line report on some first-class experience.  From a real maker.

This really got me to thinking about “what is the right approach” to making these days?

Seems to be a matter of what more than anything.  If I was making smaller items, no question, 3D printer is the way to go.  But they do have limitations to them.

For example, I have a new ham radio (the ubitx HF radio transceiver) I mentioned some time back.  There’s a fellow out in California, I think it was, who for $27-bucks would custom print a front and back panel for a standard equipment box.

Mine were done, alright, but if you look closely, you can see the granularity of the printing if you zoom-in close.

This is where we get into a LONG discussion about all the trade-off in the design process.  I’m pretty sure reader Larry’s machine is more dialed in, but the material graininess of 3D printing is still something of an issue.

On the other hand, it was worth it for me to print (and paint) my front panels because the marketing and cutting of plastic is not one of my strongest skills.

Also, the guy on eBay is a pioneer on the front of the “custom mass manufacturing movement” that has really been spearheaded by people like my friend Jim Lewis of which literally invented the space.  Go there, download their software,. and they will made anything you need.  Need a milled stainless steel part?  Coming right up…

All of these new – and exciting techniques are differentiated in a number of ways.  Some emachineshop orders can take a while (weeks) while the home shop or 3D printer is a “right now” deal.

On the other hand, the emachineshop parts will be to spec.  So will the 3D printer outputs, but unless you have access to a high-end metal-printing machine (oil patch, anyone?) forgetaboutit. Doing it at home?  Don’t know how good my milling of stainless would be on my Harbor Fright (sic) mill/drill platform, but I assure you it would take oodles of set-up time if I were to need closer than 50-thousandths.

Larry’s right on with space, too.  My shop is expansive.  In all, there’s 45 feet of counters, and that’s NOT counting the tops of tool roll-arounds or the table saw (which also has a wood cover for projects).  But, when you have 1.25-million square feet of land to play with and the shop/office is 40X40 to begin with, there’s no real size constraints.

On the other hand, if you don’t have all the room on Earth, then Larry’s going to be able to do a lot more “making stuff” because there’s just no way to put a machine shop in a desk in the rec room.  3D printer?  Sure, you betcha.

Some of “the call” depends on the kind of world you want to prep for.  In one version of the world, the post apocalyptic one-second-after EMP world, the no microprocessor tools will have incredible value.  Especially, if there is solar (protected with transient protectors) to run it.

On the other hand, banking of the End Times has been a bad bet for 2,000 years (so far) and if silly humans keep grinding ahead, then Larry’s approach is way smarter than mine.

Best option?  (lowest cost, highest return)?

Get to know someone like Larry – and some one like me.  Then if you ever need something, for a few bucks we’ll be glad to help…time and other commitments notwithstanding/.

Best part of that option?

Doesn’t require any upfront cost in time or equipment.  And that leaves more “treadmill time” to plot how to make more money,  lol…

Write when you get rich (or “make” it)

16 thoughts on “Coping: Men & Machines vs. Men & Computers”

  1. Hi, George,

    My husband and I have been using CAD/CAM technology since 1999 to make our wax patterns that are then cast by us for jewelry. CAD/CAM is computer aided design/computer aided manufacturing, and there are several resin growing and milling machines available that print resin and wax suitable for casting. It was considered heresy a few years ago to use such methods to make jewelry, as the designers still thought traditional wax carving done by hand was the desired manner. That attitude has changed to acceptance since many jewelry design houses in the industry have been using CAD/CAM. It is another tool in the tool box, like laser welders are. (You would love one of those, by the way.) The tight tolerances in millimeters one gets in design aspects is a win-win. That said, it does require the operators to have seriously competent computer skills and a good head for jewelry design. CAD is even used in designing gemstone diagrams, although I still do that the old fashioned way with pencil and paper. There are computer programs that can show how light can travel through a gemstone to better adjust the cutting angles for optimal light return and sparkle, as well as programs that can aid in creating a new cutting pattern.

  2. Super cool @ I have been toying with the idea of getting a 3d printer. You can even make a pistol on one. I still have the plans. I down loaded them back when they were available and stashed them on a thumb drive.

    Great article. Thanks for sharing Larry and George.

    • Back when I was 14 I built a .54 caliber mussel loader from a Thompson center kit. Forged my own bullets and made my own powder horn. Still have it today. Super fun stuff. I grew up in Alaska and back then they had a year long class i. 7th grade called the “history of firearms.”

      Kinda wish I would have made a cannon. A few guys in my class made these little cannons. They were cool as F.

      Mr. Aleckson, long since passed. He was the shop teacher and was voted several times teacher of the Year for the state of Alaska. Very cool dude. We learned to make a ton of stuff all from scratch.

      I also made a knife forged out of leaf spring steal when I was 15. With a bone handle. You could not bend or break that blade no matter how much weight you put on it. Folded it several times. Very cool stuff.

      It’s a different world now days.

    • I passed on a metal printer a few months back. It was “broken in some way” and I figured if the owner didn’t know what was wrong or how to fix it, repairs could run to the thousands — more than I was willing to risk for a used man-toy.

  3. Hey George, may not be a problem for you but my Ubitx had horrible intermod from near AM stations, two of them showed up all over the bands until I built a 600Khz hi pass to put on the antenna input.

    My KW 520 doesn’t have this problem….I guess the little radio has limited input dynamic range.

  4. Speaking of MACHINES, the market’s gone downward nuts again. George for President, & make your 1st executive order to stop machine-based hi frequency trading.

  5. “the emachineshop parts will be to spec. So will the 3D printer outputs, but unless you have access to a high-end metal-printing machine (oil patch, anyone?) forgetaboutit. Doing it at home? ”

    Lol… I used a crayon and scissors.. I wanted to show the kids how to mount a wind turbine. Had an idea drew it out on cardboard and cut it out with a scissors. Made some notes on it and handed to a friends grandson that worked a laser cutter. Three days later I was getting it powder coated. I made a couple of mistakes like not considering the thickness of the paint. But total cost was about 74.00
    I see mounts exactly like that all over now . I have been thinking about getting a 3D printer. I just haven’t been able to convince the wife it would be a good deal.
    My argument is you need a thingy run down to the store buy it drive back home. Where you could scan it download the information needed then print. Made in the USA
    I remember making a satellite dish using a string to get my design… I was laid up for a few months and needed something to do. Bought a radio shack D.C. And ac and RC circuits book and built one.. long before they were for sale.. and yep I won’t ever do that again. I didn’t have the equipment needed couldn’t afford the equipment and just tuned it all in by guess and by golly.. considering the distance variables for a 32nd of an inch it’s a miracle that I was able to sight it in and calibrate we can get them cheap from china

  6. to gain access to a well equipped machine shop I joined a model engineering society,
    they usually come with older members with usefully obsolescent skills that are often worth extracting……

  7. I’ve been wrestling with choosing a cabinet to put my uBitX board into. The board spec says it is 6 inches, but it’s a bit more and won’t fit into a 6 inch box. I decided that 7″ square and 4″ high would be ideal, but could not find anything that size. Finally settled on a BUD CU-3011. It is 4x7x12, so I had to cut 5″ off the long dimension and reAssemble the box with a seam. Cutting with a nibbling tool by hand. Also check your final transistor heatsinks. Mine were pushed inward and the heatsinks were shorting out the PA transistor leads. Found that before power-up, fortunately. Good info on the ‘hacks’ page and I’m also ‘MAKING’ the speech processor and QRP Tuner.

    So much to make… so little time.

  8. Othermill, a 5 axis table top CNC machine, $3.2k. Cuts wood, plastic, and aluminium to very fine finish.

    Run it with Fusion 360, a free and very powerful CAD/CAM (and soooooo much more) program. Anyone can learn it, surely people more stupid than you guys have learned it and are making stuff every day with it.

    Best part about Fusion 360, it also directly feeds 3D printers, so rather than download your part (if you can’t find one to download, for instance), you can design it yourself. What’s the fun of making without design?

    Thingiverse is good for models, same with Shapeways (they’ll gladly make metal doo dads for you)… there are other sites too like GrabCAD that have 3D model downloads.

    Regarding metal printing, it’s not a toy. The best I’ve seen is CNC welding robots that layer up welding deposits and then grab a mill tool to machine them smooth. It’s currently perhaps the best way to make boat impellers, on site, in a couple days. (unless you really want to do it the old fashioned way, have fun).

    Plastic 3D printing can easily achieve production quality finish, but those are professional machines ($) and they do not use filament. Rather they use lasers and goo in some wild dance of UV and chemicals. Those too are available for desktop sizes, if your wallet is also desktop sized.

    One last tip: never bother 3D printing text for panels, the little details letters add is a mess for regular printing. Get a labelmaker and add your labels by hand.

  9. I think you guys might be interested in this new 3D method. NASA has a wire 3D machine. Like the plastic makers but it uses wire and laser welds it together. I had heard about this but hadn’t realized it had come so far. They’re making rocket motors with it.

    With one of these and a basic machine tool that would drill holes and maybe surface finish you could build just about anything. With computing power being so cheap eventually these things will be super cheap.

    • It doesn’t require NASA computers, anyone can do it. They already are. It’s not rocket science.

      Here is the boat propeller project, welded and machined by a robot. It’s called “additive/subtractive” manufacturing, because you do both – add and remove material.

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