Sears ThinkBox runs smoothly and for good reason

A visit to Sears ThinkBox the week before classes makes it clear why it's a successful academic makerspace.  

At the end of August, Luis Rodriguez and I paid a visit to the third floor of Sears ThinkBox at Case Western Reserve during their week-long student workers training.



Sears ThinkBox is a university innovation center designed to encourage cross-discipline and cross-institution collaboration and innovation, with a focus on entrepreneurship. The space is open to anyone – students, faculty, alumni, and members of the community. Around 80% of the visits are from the Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), including students, staff, and faculty. Another 15% are from the neighboring Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA). Its floors of tools, machines, and self-serve tutorials promote good design and hands-on, just-in-time learning. The center is housed in a seven-story, 50,000 square foot facility, with three floors still under renovation. This multi-floor structure is designed to support product development, funding opportunities, and to help with product commercialization. This ambitious initiative is the largest open-access innovation center at any university in the world. The ThinkBox staff does a stellar job collecting data and, according to their records, they receive over 5,000 visits each month, putting its popularity on par with the athletics center and the library. Also of note, in 2017 the ThinkBox was the most cited core facility on campus.


Data Collection

Student workers at the ThinkBox for the 2018-2019 school year applied for their positions the previous spring. They don’t have to have technical experience, but they must be friendly, patient, communicate well, and have an interest in knowing how to use the tools and the machines. On the application students are asked which team they would prefer to work on. The Operations, Prototyping, and Fabrication managers review and rate each application, then discuss and decide which candidates will be invited to the next round for interviews. During the interviews the managers ask questions to gauge a student’s personal interest. When the interviews have been completed, the strongest candidates are identified, and the students are divided into the different teams. Of the 115 applicants, 45 students were selected: 13 of them make up the Prototyping team, 15 are on the Fabrication team, and 17 are on the Operations team. Most of the ThinkBox’s workforce is made up of CWRU students, but this year the Prototyping team also includes two CIA students.



The Prototyping team is responsible for the laser cutters, media center, electronics area, and the 3D printers. The student workers supervise the workplace and enforce safety policies. They educate and assist users through their excellent customer service skills in person, on the phone, and by email. They perform advanced equipment maintenance and troubleshooting; maintain a clean and organized workplace; draft and produce documentation for software, procedures, and equipment; and complete special prototyping projects as assigned.



Wages start at $12 per hour and students are required to work 10-20 hours a week. It's not uncommon for them to spend additional time in the space, and they often work on their own projects for between 5 and 10 hours a week, in addition to their shifts. One perk of working at the ThinkBox is getting 24-hour access to the space – this includes both student workers and full-time staff.

Who wouldn’t love this job – working with and having access to state-of-the-art tools and machines? In fact, there are four students beginning their third year working on the Prototyping team. Yanzhou and Nick started in spring 2016, while Joel and Badar started in spring 2017.


student workers

This is the first year that the ThinkBox has insisted on a year-long commitment from students. Previously, students would arrive in the first week of classes during their regular shifts and be trained by a peer, a manager, or a self-guided tutorial. The latest cohort was hired in the spring and the entire group, including some seasoned ThinkBox workers, were required to attend a week-long 40-hour training session. During that week the group spent the mornings focusing on broader organizational goals and tasks that applied to all three teams. A part of their mornings included sessions on communication, customer service, inventory, first aid, and fire safety. They also learned about organizational tools (like Trello, Airtable, Google Drive), policies, stress management, and Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate (ALICE). In the afternoons time was dedicated to individual team tasks and responsibilities. The Prototyping team covered how to use software, operate machines, and perform machine maintenance. This new training program ensures that every employed student is comfortable with every machine on the floor they work on, and that there is a common baseline. In addition to their day-to-day duties, student workers will also lead the How-to-ThinkBox series of classes and this training will come in handy when they become the trainers.

During the training week the students learn about each tool, what it can do, how to use it safely, how to maintain it, and how to troubleshoot any issues. To help them become more comfortable with the tools, they are given a small project during the week and a larger three-week assignment to complete. While we were there, the students were working on designing a schematic with Eagle, manufacturing a PCB board with a CNC, and then soldering their 555 timer circuits. They were also beginning to think about their open-ended light box project. The only requirements for this project are that they must use the design process, incorporate a switch, and use both a 3D printer and laser cutter. Solutions that use additional machines will be awarded extra points and the top three groups will receive a prize.



Invited by Ainsley Buckner, the Prototyping Manager, Luis and I spent two afternoons with her student workers. Ainsley manages the third floor of the ThinkBox – the Prototyping Studio – which is equipped with sewing and embroidery machines, laser cutters, CNC machines, and, of course, 3D printers. The Ultimaker printers are free to use, but ThinkBox charges $0.15 per gram whether the print is successful or not.

In Thursday’s session, Luis and I introduced the students to Ultimaker, the Ultimaker 2+ (they have 24 of them), Ultimaker Cura, and ways to troubleshoot problems that might arise when the ThinkBox opens for the school year. We encouraged them to have ThinkBox Ultimaker users employ the “Layer” view in Ultimaker Cura and to always save the sliced files as Ultimaker Cura projects so that if something goes wrong, the staff could assess which settings may have contributed to the problems, and which could be used to remedy them. We also demonstrated the power of the “per object setting” and of “support blocker”. For failed prints and PLA scraps, we encouraged them to collect and send these to Filabot at the end of each semester for recycling.


student training

After the presentation the trainees each chose a model that they believed would be challenging to slice and print. This was aimed at testing out their newly acquired custom Ultimaker Cura skills.

This also gave some of them the opportunity to unbox a printer and all of them got the chance to manually level the bed.





Only three prints needed to be reprinted. One needed better leveling, another had a snag in the filament, and the last incurred a broken foot during the removal of supports.



The next day, after lunch and a session play-acting the role of potential ThinkBox visitors, we got a second chance to work with the students. The day before focused on presentations, but today was hands-on. We had previously reviewed the maintenance schedule, but now we wanted the students to get some real experience.

We started with the atomic method before moving on to changing nozzles and emphasizing the advantages of using larger nozzle diameters for prototyping or making strong single-walled prints. We continued by tightening all the belts and making sure that all the rods were well lubricated.

We then reviewed some of the Ultimaker Cura options we had previously mentioned. We showed the students where to find the “Pause at height” extension and reminded them to turn it off after that particular model was sliced. We took a look at the “toolbox”. We talked about support strategies and how part orientation can minimize the need for support. We also explained that this can result in stronger parts, reminding students that the part is weakest along the Z-axis. We showed them how to modify the Ultimaker and the Ultimaker Cura settings to use 1.75 mm filament on one of their machines. They had many spools left over from their previous machines, before they were replaced with Ultimaker printers, and printed a test to demonstrate the open filament system. We also talked about mold making and some post processing options, including sanding, using Smooth-On’s XTC, or acetone for ABS, and even using a tumbler for metal-filled filaments.



Late Friday afternoon, we left the ThinkBox trainees with enough information and hands-on experience to troubleshoot, maintain, and answer the questions that might arise from visitors with confidence.


Working on light box
Yanzhou and Kevin working on a light box project


Yanzhou and Kevin's light box project

ThinkBox hours:

Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 9am-6pm.
Tuesday & Thursday from 9am-10pm.
Saturday from 10am-4pm.
Sunday from 12pm-4pm.