Building Out a Workshop

My team is now a 3rd year team, and we are growing, in team size and in team skill. Around this time every year, I keep starting to think about what more to do to allow the team to gain and grow technical skills.

I want to put together a proposal to our school to build a workshop that would be primarily utilized by FRC and FTC teams at school. The room would ONLY be used to build robots. Basically, no tools outside, and no non-robot work inside.

Some background as to why:
We’re still a very young team (with a not highly mechanically skilled mentor, me), and we are still climbing the ropes together when it comes to new tools. We primarily use powered and un-powered hand tools, and a Chopsaw this year. Last year was primarily un-powered hand tools.

Currently, our “workshop” (for chopsaw and storage) is a 6 foot by 15 foot space. It’s difficult to build in here and so un-powered hand tools and building is done in the adjacent computer classroom. That also proves a little difficult as we don’t have any proper benches and end up using the floor (darn stable bench, downside is the floor loves to make bolts/nuts/wrenches disappear).

It’s dawned on me (actually ever since we started) that if the team has any future there needs to be a proper investment. A proper workshop with space to build and eventually expand the depth of tools, I think is opportune for a team at our stage. 3 years is when most teams get lost, and I think it would benefit us to make an investment and stand firm. Quick side note: I don’t think we’re ready for any advanced machining tools (lathe, mill, CNC) but I do want to keep that in mind for 2 or 3 years down the road.

So my main questions:

  1. What is a good size for a future-proof workshop dedicated to building robots?
  2. Any specific power, structural, extraneous feature recommendation? Think dream-workshop from scratch…okay…dream budget workshop.
  3. Our next tool to be purchased will likely be a drill-press and potentially a bandsaw. Any tips or recommendations here?
  4. I’ll also take recommendations for organization. We currently have a “cheap” Craftsman tool center purchased this year, and a bunch of stacking bins to do a bit of re-org.

If you have any more input on how to better or properly train students with regards to tools and machining, post away. We as a team are about reaching the limit of my knowledge, and this is an attempt for me to try to stay a few steps ahead.

How many students do you currently have and what do you expect your growth rate to be over the next few years?

We currently have 10 students. I expect us to continue growing to about 30-40 students over the course of 4 to 5 years.

Regardless of team size or growth, there are a few staple items that would be good to have.

-Central compressed air (Our school has a compressor in the basement that we are plumbed into. If your school has something similar it shouldn’t be too difficult to add)

-Multiple circuits of 120V and 220V (240V? I’m not excatly sure on the standard, but look it up for what you might use to power a mill or lathe) power and possibly ceiling mounted cord reels to get power wherever you need in the shop

-Garage door. It sounds silly but without it getting robots in and out is way harder, and you may not be able to move machines into the shop in the future

-Good internet/WiFi and potentially a server to store team files on

-Lots of organizational storage spaces. Think shelving units for parts, hardware, small raw material, and anything else you can think of ever wanting to store. We go up pretty tall on ours, and it works as long as you keep light stuff at the top (foam, rarely used supplies like car wash stuff, pneumatic and surgical tubing, tread, etc). Also, racks for raw metal and wood, including common bar and tube stock, shaft stock, and sheets/plate materials. Additional closet space to store assemblies and to organize parts by subsystem is also incredibly helpful. Basically as much storage as you can get, try and fit it in everywhere. You will always have something new that you decide to keep around and useful stuff just accumulates. Obviously tool organization is very important too, including even seemingly stupid things like a spot to charge drill batteries.

-Potential benchwork around the outside of the shop, and also caster-mounted mobile benchtop spaces for the middle of the floor work well. You can also put storage within your benchwork.

-If possible, tables and chairs to sit around, or chairs for the benches. Nobody wants to stand for hours on end every night and it gets tiring (Also people like to sit when they eat). Also, try to get a carpeted area for the CAD/Programmer people so they don’t have to work in a crowded, loud, dusty shop where their electronics can get damaged. This carpeted area can double as a place to test drive your robot if you don’t have space for a practice field, as long as the carpet is similar to FRC carpet.

-A fridge and possibly a microwave or more if you can get away with it, even if just to keep cold drinks around

-Never underestimate the power of speakers, having some music in the background (at a safe level) is nice because it discourages students from using headphones, and most people like having something to listen to while they work (I stress again, do not play music at a level where clear shop communication is impossible or any unsafe condition is created)

-If your team does a lot of bearing work or broaching, consider getting an arbor press. It’s a really useful tool for a lot of different applications, and something that will be noticeably missed if you get one and then take it away

-I prefer free-standing drill presses and bandsaws to benchtop ones, they are generally bigger, more robust, and more comfortable to use. I also find that they are generally of a higher quality as well, and can do more heavy-duty work. That being said, if benchtop is all that is in your budget or size restrictions, then by all means, the difference isn’t that big of a deal

-Make sure your workspace is bright. All of our mills and lathes have clamp-on spotlights (super cheap, and wonderfully helpful) attached and extra fluorescent tubes overhead, as do some of our other tools. I am of the firm belief that a bright work area is a safe, accurate work area, and it just makes everything easier.

-A sink and running water is absolutely invaluable to a shop, as is a first-aid kit and safety goggles cabinet. Also, some small lockers for students to keep their stuff is always nice to have (I always kept my personal safety goggles, calipers, and a couple other oddball tools locked up so as not to lose them, and it is nice to not have to take them home all the time)

-Additional tools to consider if you are thinking about doing more precise work include a few good calipers (I prefer dial over digital, but to each his own), micrometers, possibly a scale to weigh the robot, and more accurate punch sets

With regard to machine safety, obviously nothing is as valuable as common sense, but there are some things that every student needs to know about before entering the shop. Here is a pretty comprehensive safety list from the wonderful Team 358. Also, before buying a new tool of piece of equipment, read up on its particular safety precautions and procedures, as every tool has its quirks. For technical information and other general robot stuff, 358 has some amazing stuff on that as well, as do some other top teams, like 1114.

This seems very comprehensive, but in submitting such a big proposal to the school, you should plan everything out meticulously, once you have a hint that it might be possible to move forward, in order to prove that you are truly dedicated to the task and prepared to see it through in a constructive, futureproof, and responsible way. Generally, showing that you did your research will make administrations more willing to help you out, since they can bank on your plan actually working. Obviously not everything here will be ideal for your team, and there may be other things that you deem necessary to your shop, but this is a general outline for what I would do for a dream shop on a limited budget. Best of luck, this would be an excellent step forward for a growing team.

There are a ton of great tool and machinery recommendations in this thread:

For storage of large items like wheels, sprockets, motors, etc, the FRC Kit of parts/2015 game piece totes work great.

For storage of small parts like screws, nuts, pneumatic fittings, etc compartmentalized storage trays are a good choice. Since you’re asking about a dream shop, then I would recommend the “Design-Your-Own Steel Small-Parts Drawer Cabinet” from McMaster, as they are very heavy duty and having the drawer slides for each tray is very convienent:

Have a large open building space with power and compressed air drops that hang from the ceiling on retractable coils; this way there is always a close source of power without the tripping hazard of cords/hoses running on the floor. Have plenty of really heavy duty workbenches and tables - ideally at a light color to make it easier to find a dropped screw. Light-colored epoxy floors are great - again, the light/white color is great at helping to find the inevitable dropped item.

Have plenty of whiteboards around. Have a few computer workstations with large monitors near the building area for CAD/part reference while building. Have good shop vacs and cleaning equipment - a clean shop is a safe shop. Fridge, freezer, microwave and coffee makers are not to be underestimated. Good speakers are a valuable asset. Have a few comfortable chairs/couch/hammock to relax for a few minutes during long meetings.

Funny… you two guys just described 1197’s shop. At least to a point. I didn’t realize it was quite so ideal.

We’ve got a large open area with workbenches around the outside, a small loft (used for leadership/mentor small meetings), a room for electronics (why that has one of the compressed-air drops is beyond me), and a storage/meal room.

And yes, we’ve got speakers and some random degree of organization (read: 90% chance of finding what we’re looking for and the rest is finding something that will work) and the fridge/microwave/coffeepot. Some lockers. Plenty of power drops in the ceiling, and yep, they’re retractable. Not a lot of practice space, but getting out through the garage door isn’t hard and there’s a parking area out there that we’re able to largely keep empty.

That big room used to be the auto shop at the school. The lifts and such are long gone… but the robotics team has been busy.

In many ways cars are (or are about to become) most people’s most intimate contact with robotics. The suitability of the auto shop is not just functional, but symbolic. :slight_smile:

I’d suggest considering what the shop will be used for “the other 46 weeks” of the year. Summer workshops? Classes? Headquarters for pursuit of a Chairman’s award?


In our case…driver practice, prototyping, and other FRC offseason activities. It’s not open as often, though.

We have yet to find the ideal workshop. This year is pretty good, though. The Pre Engineering classroom is now in the old Print Shop (progress?), and there are several nice work benches with drop down power cords above, a roll up door, and a little bit of storage space. Unfortunately it’s a classroom every day, so we have to put our stuff away when we’re done with it. But the lighting is good, the teacher plays music often, there’s a table to serve dinner, plenty of computers with CAD software, etc. There is a carpeted hallway where we can play with robots, and just a short hike to a larger play area. We even used the shop air once.

Somehow our team has managed to stay about the same size for ten years, with about ten “core” students, and another dozen or so that hopefully are getting something out of it. Since we don’t seem to be able to get more mentors involved, I guess the size of the shop is just fine.

I’d also suggest a bin cabinet for storage. When I was on 2220, we had a couple that we mounted on caster wheels that stored everything from safety gear to seven seasons of partially disassembled gearboxes. They’re a bit pricy, but they’re fantastic things, both for teams that have a dedicated build space and those who have to be more nomadic-- especially the latter, though.

I’m also a fan of good workbenches-- whether it’s a station work table like this or a more table-y table like this (as a side note, I’m not recommending this specific supplier-- these are just examples of what I’m talking about-- research is key!).

As for size, I’d lay out precisely what you want in it-- even if you can’t afford it all now. If you want to have a Bridgeport and a tooling cabinet in there, but can’t afford it now, lay that out. If you’re talking 10-15 people in the shop now and maybe 30-40 later, I’d plan for 2-4 workbenches plus whatever machinery you deem necessary.

I’d definitely second/third the idea of having a “clean” side of the shop-- keeping everyone in close proximity is huge, so if you can swing it, go for it.

Best of luck with your pursuit of a new shop space, and keep us updated! It’s always cool to see what teams are capable of getting accomplished!

Speccing out, purchasing, and creating operating plans for model shops and makerspaces at universities and corporations is my job. I would like to share with you some pitfalls that are too easy to fall into.

  1. Maintenance and operating costs money. Remember that you are going to need replacement parts, consumables like cutting tools, oil and grease. All of these cost money. Make sure you budget for these. If you are purchasing through a school, build operating costs for a minimum of 5 years into your budget. Always be thinking about sustainability.

  2. Plan for training. Just because someone there right now knows how to use these tools does not mean they will be there in the future. Make sure you have a plan for training at least a few people. For manual machine tools this may just be watching some youtube videos. For CNC machines and other more complicated machines, you may need to pay to have someone trained by the manufacturer or put together resources for learning how to operate it.

  3. Remember you need tooling. budget 20-50% of the purchase price of a machine tool for work holding and tooling. In similar vein; Make sure you have the software you need. For example; a CNC mill is not a whole lot of use without CAD And CAM software. It can be a killer if your school gives you a grant for that $50,000 vertical machining center but not for the CAM software to drive it.

  4. work space is just as important as the tools to go in it. Make sure you budget for work benches, storage, power distribution etc.

  5. focus on the basics, then move to the more complex stuff. Make sure you have a good set of hand tools before you start moving to machine tools. With machine tools stick with the most universal stuff first then move to the fancy computer controlled stuff.

Additionally, you can save a ton of money by building shelving and workbenches/tables from scratch. Use good dimensional lumber for the support, and thick, smooth plywood for the benchtops. We like it because it’s cheap and easy to replace, meaning you can mount stuff to it and when the tabletop gets really unusable its not too difficult to change to a fresh top. For example, we usually build plywood “walls” around the bench that holds our bagged robot after bag day, so that students in the shop (it’s also a classroom space) don’t mess with the bag.

If you go down this route and end up with the machine without the software, the student licenses of SolidWorks work just fine with HSMWorks Lite.

Some of the features are disabled in the Lite version but you can do a lot of the basic stuff with it.

Another CNC issue is make sure you understand all the parts of your CNC system before you buy it. A CNC plasma table without the plasma cutter is not very useful. A manual mill with retrofit and no control is equally an issue.

Sorry - meant to post on another thread.
[strike]Any ideas on how to learn to use these tools should we buy them? Whether a lathe, a CNC, milling machine, or whatever, we don’t have any mentors with experience using these tools.
Example: Off the top of my head, I can’t figure out what I would do with a lathe that I couldn’t do with a drill press and a bit of patience. Based on the posts, there’s obviously something else they’re good for.
Are there any on-line tutorials that cover use of these tools, or will each turn into a high-priced coat rack unless we find a local person who can teach us to operate it?[/strike]

HSMworks told me that the will be adding the full version to the autodesk student site making it free for teams.

It’s already free. You just have to do some legwork to get in touch with a rep and get licenses.

We’ve been doing that for the past few years. It usually takes a while (2-6 months) and the licence they give us only allows for one installation. Autodesk education makes it a one click download.

I think people overestimate the necessity of 3D CAM for frc, we’ve never found the need to do anything that HSMexpress couldn’t handle.

As far as machining, these are some of my favorite Youtube channels that I’ve learned a lot from:
-Tom Lipton
-Keith Fenner
-Keith Rucker
-Arduinoversusevil (not machining centric but hilarious)

Also, here are some decent resources from MIT: Overview and videos

We spent quite a bit of time before the season started getting HSMWorks license for all of our computers through autodesk education. Eventually, somebody emailed us a code that we could use many times, but it won’t work unless the same user logs in on the same computer to use HSMWorks.

The HSMExpress still comes with adaptive clearing/pocketing feature and the same set of post processors, so there’s almost no reason to go after HSMWorks.

or South Bend’s how to run a lathe.

I second Jared entirely. South Bend’s How to Run a Lathe is definitively the best single source for instruction on lathes. The link below links to some free online PDF versions, and there are newer copies available online. The book literally explains everything about lathes.