Surviving Fab Academy

advice and suggestions

I would like to use this space on my web site to describe what I have learned in a personal way. If you are planning to join the Fab Academy I would like to give you some advice and suggestions which hopefully make you enjoy even more those 6 months.

Document as you go

Your documentation is the way you have to show your work to the world. If you don't document it, you haven't done it. And try to document as you go: work, take photos/videos/screenshots of everything and document each step, do not wait until the end of the week to upload all the documentation.
During the first month, I documented all the work the last day of the week but it is a pain to spend the whole day doing it (let's be honest, documenting is not the most exciting task in the world ....), and secondly, it was impossible for me to remember all that I had done five days ago...

Manage your time: Plan your week

The Fab Academy is a very intense and time demanding course. Plan your week, decided what are you going to do each day. Every week you should try to do your best and make a great work, but some times is not possible to reach your goals because multiples reasons, but don't let that the time wins the fight. If during the input devices week you wanted to test three different sensors but finally you only had time to test two, that's fine. Upload the documentation and be focused in the next week. Try to have everything up to date and to not leave any week pending.
Time management was very important to me. My Fab Lab was closed during the weekends, that means that I had Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday with access to the Fab resources. I decided to work very hard the first two days (Thursday and Friday), so if I needed to fabricate something I would do it before the weekend, and then to use the rest of the week for the rest of the tasks. Even if your Lab opens on weekends, I really recommend you to decide as soon as possible what you want to do for that week and then start working.

Choose your final project as soon as possible and focus all the assigment towards it

The sooner you decide what you want to do for your final project, the easier it will be to reach that goal. If you already have something in mind from the beginning, you could use the whole Fab Academy, each assignment, to go developing the project: test different output and input devices, learn different techniques to fabricate it, explore diferent option about how to program it... In this way, when you reach the last weeks of the course, part of the work will be already done and you only have to put everything together in an integrated system.
And that is what I did: in the input devices week I tested a phototransistor (lo read the ambient light level and turn off/on the lamp according to that) and distance sensors (to read the presence of the user); during the output devices week I worked with motors (because I needed to move, fold and unfold, the exterior layer of the lamp): during the networking and communications week I learned how the send the information between the PCB of the phototransistor and the main PCB through serial bus; in the wildcard week I developed the packaging... etc etc etc. That helped me a lot, saving a lot of time, and allowing me to achieve a final project (almost) totally finished. (You always can continue improving!! ;)).

Think/design/make achievable projects in the time that you have

The Fab Academy is the course where you will learn how to make (almost) anything. And that's right but the development of a project is always linked to the time you have available to invest in it. For the computer-controlled machining assignment you only have one week, so do not try to build the structure for a Fab Lab House, make a house for your pet instead. Time management is one of the most important skills that you are going to learn during the Fab Academy. If you take a look at the schedule, you only have the two last weeks to develop the final project (it's crazy!), so think in an achievable project. You have to be able to prove that you get mastery of the different skills of the course, but your final project doesn't need to be the masterpiece of you life.
For example, my idea for the final project always was to make something with a small size, so that if I need to cut, print or mechanize something again it wouldn't take too must time. Also, I divided the project in different systems that could work together but independently, in such a way that if for some reason I couldn't develop one of those systems, the rest of the project continue being a complete object. My main goal was to have, for the final presentation, a finished project as integrated as possible. And after a lot of work, I got it! :D

Work in spirals

Start with the most simple and basic task and then go growing and growing... Do not try to do the most difficult thing from the beginning. Your projects should be like an onion, you should go adding layers of complexity as soon as you go completing the previous system/circle. Do not try to do everything at the same time: first one circle; when it's done/completed, the next one; and so on.
From my experience, this is the better way to work, above all if you are a beginner/inexperienced as I was XD. I have to say that, working for 5 years in a Fab Lab, I already had some experience in digital fabrication (laser cutting, CNC milling, 3D printing...) but I didn't have any experience in programming or electronic design and production, nothing, zero. So I started with the most basic things, which help you a lot to understand why and how the things work (or not work), and bit a bit I was adding more and more complexity. That was the workflow that I followed to develop my final project.

Lean on your instructors

A fundamental part on which the Fab Academy is based is its instructors. The Lab where you go to make the Fab Academy may be the most famous and have the best facilities and machines in the world, but without an instructor by your side who will advise and help you through the 6 months that the Fab Academy lasts, you are lost, you have no chance to get away with this. It seems that the protagonists of the Fab Academy are the students, however, the instructors are the basis that allows us to shine, and all without demanding recognition of a part of the merit. Trust them and ask all your doubts without fear of looking foolish, they are there to help you.
My case was something particular since it was a remote student, which means that I had the possibility of working on my own Fab Lab but supervised by a remote instructor, in this case, Nuria Robles, from Fab Lab Leon. This means that for me the Fab Academy was harder than it already is, but it also means that for the instructor it also was to be, it means being a mentor of students that you should help without having the possibility of seeing them face face, that you will not be able to supervise them in each one of the steps they take, or that all contact you will have with them should be through messages or videoconferences, and that supposes a very big amount of effort on the part of the instructor that in my opinion must be valued. I would like to thank publicly and deeply the work that Nuria Robles does. The degree of commitment of Nuria (and her team) is worthy of appreciation and thanks. She really is a fantastic instructor.

Investigate, know what others have done and give them credit

During the Fab Academy, you have a lecture of 1,5 hours each week. And each week is about a different topic. Neil is a really good professor and he is going to give you a tour of the many options that you have and he will explain the basic concepts of each one. Then, it is your time to investigate on your own. Look for what others have done and how they have done it, what techniques and tricks they are using. The "maker family" is amazing, we love to share our knowledge and experience if that helps other people. But remember: if you inspire or use another person's work, always give them credit.
I am a strong advocate for sharing my work so that others can learn from it. Sharing knowledge and experience is necessary for the continuous development of technology. However, feel very bad when someone takes your work and appropriates it as their own. Please, never do that, never. It is very unfair to the other person, his/her work and effort deserves to be recognized. It is fine if you take the other's work for learning: imagine that you are having problems with one of your PCBs and you don't know how to solve it, you don't know where is the mistake, so you decide to take the other person's PCB and use it. That is totally fine if you use it for learning and you give him/her the credit. (He/she did it, you don't). Then, when you understand how it works, you can do your own PCB. Document it and explain your workflow, that is ok. What you can never do is to lie, take someone else's work and say it's your invention. Please, do not be that kind of person, because that kind of attitude does not represent what it is to be part of the "maker family". Be honest and give credit to others' work.

Enjoy! The Fab Academy never ends!