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TinkerCAD with Joshua Brooks

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Joshua Brooks teaches us all about TinkerCAD, a free and easy to use browser based software for 3D Modeling and Simulation.


Michael: Hello, this is Michael with Programming Electronics Academy. I hope you’re doing fantastic. Thanks a ton for joining me this week. We’ve got a really interesting guest today. His name is Joshua Brooks, and he works for a company called ‘Autodesk’, and they’ve got a bunch of different software, but the software we’re going to talk about is TinkerCAD.


  TinkerCAD is an online 3D design program. It’s used specifically for 3D printing, but it also has a software simulation side where you can create circuits and run them and test them. You can throw Arduino into the circuit, and you can actually test it with the code right there on TinkerCAD. It’s really a neat concept. Those are the kind of things we’re going to talk about, and the reason I wanted to get Joshua on the show is because I know so many people end up getting into 3D printing for parts with their project. At least a lot of people do it.


  It seems like a really handy technology. Obviously, it’s been around for a while now, so I thought this would be helpful. Without further ado, let’s go ahead and start the show. Hello, everybody. I’m here today with Joshua Brooks. Joshua, welcome.


Joshua: Thank you very much.


Michael: Thank you for coming on and talking to us. Joshua works at Autodesk, and they’ve got this really cool program called ‘TinkedCAD’, and it’s this simple online 3D design, and it’s this 3D printing app, and hopefully we’re going to learn all about it today. The reason I wanted to reach out here is because I know that so many people are finding 3D printing, especially as it goes along with Arduino projects so helpful. That’s the angle we’re at here. Joshua, before we start talking about TinkerCAD, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up working with TinkerCAD.


Joshua: Sure. I went to school for actually Electrical Engineering. I decided that I was really interested in electronics, and that was where I wanted to go, and then somehow ended up as life is unexpected, I ended up doing software. My very first job out of college was actually with Autodesk. This is my second time working for them, and I was hired onto the AutoCAD team.


  I cut my teeth at Autodesk on their big flagship product, and I did that for eight years, so I gained a lot of experience with what computer aided design is all about, and then decided after sometime that I wanted to go off and do some travel, and so I did that. I left Autodesk for a while, and then decided also that I wanted to get back into doing electronics, and so I opened up my own business actually designing and building Ground Penetrating Radars, which was really, really, really fun, but also a little overwhelming for me to be running a business. I found that I was not really great at the management side of things. Still came up with a reasonable product, and continued to work in electronics for a memory manufacturing company, designing computer memory for a while. Then, an old colleague of mine had pointed out that Autodesk had expanded into a lot more of the maker kind of space of things, and he seemed, thought it was right up my alley, and I took a look and I found a job opening on the Autodesk’s Circuits team that does an online program for designing and simulating electronics, and I thought that sounded really cool, so I came back to Autodesk doing that.


  Then, at some point in the not so distant past, the simulation portion of that actually got rolled into TinkerCAD, and so I got pulled along with the product I was working on into TinkerCAD. Just to let everybody know, the listeners here know, TinkerCAD is not just for 3D design. We’ve also added electronic simulation, including Arduino, and that falls right into I think the interest of the audience here, and so there’s now an electronic simulator in TinkerCAD where you can go and put down resistors, capacitors, logic devices, and also Arduino, and connect them up with virtual wires and break all the things that you want to because they don’t cost anything, and write your Arduino code, debug it, and all that right there. That’s how I got pulled into working on TinkerCAD.


Michael: Wow. That’s fantastic. We already learned a lot of stuff about TinkerCAD that I didn’t know. Ground Penetrating Radar. That sounds so sweet. I’m sure there’s lots of uses for it.


Joshua: Yeah.


Michael: It sounds pretty interesting.


Joshua: Yeah. Thanks. Yeah. It was very interesting, but way too much work.


Michael: Yeah. I got to tell you, this is going to show you a little bit how ignorant I am here, but just … Autodesk, their company and they make software for 3D, for like you said AutoCAD was one of them, and that is computer aided design like you mentioned. It’s basically professional design of shapes and stuff for manufacturing in different industries. Is that about right or …?


Joshua: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot of focus on that. Autodesk creates generally across the board of products for computer design of real world things. For example, AutoCAD originated with architecture.


  It’s also been expanded to do things along the lines of civil engineering and that kind of thing as well, but then, we’ve got design programs for movies and TV, for doing animation, and sketching, electronics, 3D design. There’s a huge gamut of products that Autodesk designs, and it’s really all about creating the tools so that our users can design whatever they want for the real world.


Michael: Okay. I see, and so TinkerCAD was along that line and it’s just maybe abstracting some of the higher level stuff into things that are just a little more user-friendly for somebody who needs to make an enclosure say for example for an electronics project or something along that line?


Joshua: Yeah. Yeah. TinkerCAD, it’s a free web-based tool, so there’s nothing to install, and it’s really designed for people who had really not had a whole lot of exposure to 3D design, specifically for 3D printing, but we also have professionals using it, so it’s kind of our, help people get a foot in the door, a program that’s one if its key points there, and so we try to approach everything as simply as possible for 3D design and for electronics.


Michael: That’s nice. That sounds a little bit like Arduino’s approach I feel like to their integrated development environment. It’s just really streamlined and straightforward. You can get stuff done, but there’s not a bazillion other things trying to pull in your attention.


Joshua: Right. Exactly. For example, let’s say that you wanted to get started with Arduino and you had no experience, and you asked me. I would recommend going into TinkerCAD and going and creating a new circuit, and we have starter circuits that are in there. We can actually just drag and drop an entire circuit onto your work plane, and it will already be a working circuit, and it can have an Arduino, and then you can go and edit the code, see what happens, try it out by simulating it and seeing if you break anything or what …


  Just, you can really learn the environment there. One of the other things that I find that I use it for … By the way, I’m a huge advocate of what I do. I love what I do. I love this program. I do lots of hobby electronics, and a lot of them are based around Arduino or around like the ATtiny, which is Arduino compatible.


  You can write code for it using the Arduino IDE, and what I will do is I will use TinkerCAD to completely design my software before I ever try and put it onboard. One of the nice thins about Arduino is that you can iterate your design pretty easily. You’re in the IDE, and you make some code changes, and then you upload it to your board, you wait a little bit, and then it does some things. You can actually do that as well in TinkerCAD without ever having any real hardware, where you go and edit your code, try it out, and see what the simulating says it’s going to do, and so I will completely debug all of my code and get working there. One of the also really cool things …


  I don’t want to sound too much like an advertisement. Again, it’s just I love what I do. I think this is a great tool, is that unlike the Arduino IDE, there is a built-in … A debugger. You can actually effectively stop time and inspect all the variables that are in your program, and step through your code one line at a time and see how it’s affecting your circuit.


Michael: That sounds really neat. That’s a neat change in workflow. I’ll have to check that out. I haven’t done it yet. It sounds like … You said this is a browser-based program.


Joshua: Yeah.


Michael: Does that mean … It’s browser agnostic. I can grab any browser. It’s operating system agnostic for that matter, I suppose.


Joshua: Yeah. That’s true,


Michael: Okay. That’s neat. Now, I also understand it is also a 3D printing app.


Joshua: Yeah.


Michael: How is that … You can design it on there. I imagine that’s one tool set. How does the printing side of it come into effect? Is it …


  I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to 3D printers. I don’t have one yet. I guess I’m a bit uninitiated there, which is a shame. It won’t last forever, but could you walk me through through that a little bit?


Joshua: Absolutely. You can think of TinkerCAD as being kind of two editors. There’s a 3D design portion of it and there’s a circuit design portion of it. The circuit design portion of it was added this year, and so we’re still in process of getting those two work spaces to have a lot more overlap, and so I’m digressing here just a little bit because I want to get the connection back over to 3D. One of the things that we’ve done is to create these things that are called ‘Circuit assemblies’, where what that is is some simple electronics and 3D printing pieces to go along with them. For example, everyone knows you can take or a lot of people know you can take a three volt coin cell battery and put an LED across that, and it’ll light up.


  It’s not the optimal way to light up an LED, but it works really well. You generally don’t break them that way, even though you are not limiting the current, and so that since that is something that gets done so often, we went ahead and created a 3D printable holder for both that coin cell and the LED, and then that can be … If you’re into 3D design portion of TinkerCAD, you can pull in a circuit assembly for this, and let’s say you wanted to embed that in some other design, like for example you want to make, I don’t know, an animal with a light-up nose. You could take that portion and stick it where the nose goes and within your design, and then when you go to print that, you’ve now got the space to put those electronics already really well-designed for you. I want to get and bridge that gap from electronics over to 3D designing.


  Now, we can just talk about 3D design. Within the 3D editor for TinkerCAD, you can pretty much design whatever you want based on … We can start off with things like cubes, and spheres, and cylinders, and so forth, and then adjust those however you want, and then add them and subtract them together. What I mean by that is if you take two objects and have them overlapping, you can then group them and combine them, and now, they’re one object. Now, let’s say that you wanted to make a housing for an Arduino project.


  What you could do is take a box, solid box, and then subtract out another box, so you take a box that defines the space that the Arduino is going to take up, and you actually turn that into what is a hole. If we were thinking of this mathematically, that would just be a negative, and when you combine a solid positive with a negative hole, you subtract out that hole from that positive, and so you’ve then just made a place for your Arduino to go. I hope that made sense and works.


Michael: Yeah. No. It does. Like the idea of having … When you say box, I’m imagining like a three-dimensional rectangle or cube.


Joshua: Right.


Michael: Okay. Great. All right. Then, you’re basically, you’re making the space for the enclosure in there, making the space for whatever stuff you want to put in there.


Joshua: Right, and so one of the things that …


Michael: Okay.


Joshua: Sorry. I’m goin got interject here real quick. Along with the circuit assemblies, we’re putting in a hole or the space that’s already needed specifically for an Arduino, so you have access to the header pins and you have places for the mounting holes as well, so that’s actually effectively a primitive object, and TinkerCAD where you can just say, “Hey, here. I want the cavity for my Arduino.”


Michael: Nice, so it’s almost like its own circuit … You had a word for it there. The circuit assembly. Okay.


Joshua: Yeah.


Michael: Wow. That’s really neat. I love the circuit assembly dea. Are there a lot of them. Is it something that …


  It almost sounds kind of like a little parts library almost. Is it things that you’re making or is it things that the community is contributing?


Joshua: At this point, it’s things that we are making. We’re going to expand it up to the community, but right now, we’re going through in finding, because again, this is all relatively new like I said. The circuits portion got added in this year, so we’re really ramping that up right now. The circuit assemblies that we have right now are largely based upon integrating the most commonly used electronics with their 3D-printed counterparts. For example, taking a vibration motor to make something vibrate or move, to make yourself like one of the that goes called ‘HEXBUGs’, the vibration brush guys that will walk around on solid surfaces. Things like that, and putting in simple motors to do things. Right now, we’ve only got a handful of circuit assemblies, but that’s constantly being added to.


Michael: I’m just trying to wrap my head around what it would, like the workflow would be, so I opened up this program. I opened up TinkerCAD program let’s say specifically to three modeling portion of it on my web browser, and I imagine I’ve got some buttons on the right, some tools, and then this work plane, and am I essentially just selecting shapes and pulling them over onto the work frame, and then manipulating them with other tools?


Joshua: Yeah.


Michael: Is that how it’s going?


Joshua: Yeah. Kind of. When you grab your objects, your cylinders, your cubes, all those kind of things, you can go and grab them and drag them onto your work plane, and then it’s very, very easy to go in and make … Everything starts off at a default size, but it’s really easy to adjust the size and position of everything, and again, we’ve looked at getting the tools for manipulating those objects to be as simple as possible. There are programs like again, AutoCAD is one where the options can be a little overwhelming.


  There are so many things that you can do to manipulate objects there. Here, we focused on, “What are the most common things?”, and it really doesn’t limit what you can do. It actually tends to streamline the way that you do things, so we’ve got very simple alignment tools and very easy ways of adjusting the size and position of objects.


Michael: Yeah. That’s fantastic. Sometimes it’s like too much information, too much ability is almost overwhelming, especially when you’re just getting started and you don’t quite have that baseline yet for what’s even possible.


Joshua: Actually, real quick, a anecdote here. Like I said, I was an AutoCAD developer for many years. Every time there’d be a new version of AutoCAD, all the toolbars would disappear while we were developing because they would be redesigning the toolbars, and so AutoCAD has command line, and so why we do all of my development and all my own personal working using the command line. When I came back to Autodesk and got a fresh, new copy of AutoCAD on my computer, I opened it up and was completely overwhelmed by the toolbars. There were so many options, so three years later, I’m still using the command line.


Michael: Nice. Yeah. I’m not trying to beat the options down either because I think sometimes, especially as you get more skilled with a software suite, then all those options become amazing and awesome and can really save you time, I think, but –


Joshua: Absolutely, and that’s what they are. They’re for … Once you learn how to use them, they’re great. They’re fantastic. It’s just getting there.


Michael: Right. Okay. I’m the kind of person who I have a hard time drawing a three-dimensional cube on a piece of paper. That’s where my level of design is.


Joshua: Right.


Michael: Is it … Let’s say I went to the TinkerCAD today, hopped on, signed in, logged up, whatever, and I tried to, I don’t know, make a, I don’t know, like a three-dimensional snowman or something. Is that something that I can intuitively go in and figure out, do you think or …?


Joshua: Okay. I think that if you were to go in completely blind, you might have a little bit of difficulty with that. I’m thinking of one thing specifically, which is if you’re going to make yourself a three-dimensional snowman, you’d probably just go grab yourself now three spheres maybe. Knowing how to manipulate those in space is, you might be able to figure it out just by clicking on things and looking at what handles come up because you manipulate the objects largely through these little handles, and there’s one that’s this little … It’ll be at the top of the object, and it’s a little cone arrow, and if you grab that, that will move the object up and down off your work plane, so if you think of the work plane as being X and Y for those of us who are familiar and comfortable with Cartesian coordinates, so you think of that work plane as X and Y.


  I’m talking about the Z direction, and so it might not be absolutely obvious to begin with if that’s what you need to do to move it off the work plane is to grab that little thing. You might be able to poke around and figure it out.


Michael: Okay.


Joshua: What I would actually recommend to users is, to anyone that wants to get started with it is there are a handful of tutorials, and they take a couple of minutes, and they’re largely designed to get you through, “Hey, here’s how to move objects around and manipulate them”.


Michael: Okay. All right. Great. Okay. That sounds something like I can definitely accomplish.


  All right. The other thing I wanted to talk about was the whole 3D printer app side.


Joshua: Yeah.


Michael: We said that the TinkerCAD is kind of browser and OS agnostic. What about 3D printer? Do you have to have like a specific … Again, this is, I feel ashamed because I know so little about 3D printing, but is there some standard that 3D printers use that it doesn’t really matter what the design software is kind of thing or …?


Joshua: That’s an interesting question. There are a couple of file formats that 3D print software will pretty much all tend to use. One of them is STL, which is Stereolithography file if you wanted to know what the STL is for or an OBJ file. Both of those are 3D design formats, and typically, most 3D printers, they’ll have their own software that will accept those files, so in TinkerCAD, the workflow for your average every day 3D printer would be to your design in TinkerCAD. Then, you have away to export that file.


  It’s either an STL or an OBJ, and then you go into your printer’s software and set that up. Now, some printers can take that file directly. Others require manipulation. There’s a desktop product, and this is something that you have to install that’s by Autodesk that’s called ‘Print Studio’ that you can set that up to create the file that natively a lot of different 3D printers will use. Now, additionally, there when we’re adding these as we go, but we’ve just recently added the ability to print directly to certain printers out of TinkerCAD, but that’s a very new feature that I don’t have a whole lot of experience with.


  There is a … The MakerBot has recently added a 3D printer that has a web interface for driving. You can actually control it remotely, and it even has a camera on it so you can see when your print’s done, if you want to check up on your long 3D print that’s running through the night, but it’s running at your office or running at your workshop or what have you and you don’t happen to be there, you can actually take a look and say, “Hey, how’s my print going?”


Michael: Wow. That’s really cool.


Joshua: Yeah.


Michael: That’s handy, and I can see where that would be, like this kind of like upload design from TInkerCAD or something like that feature in different 3D printer sets need idea or print to X, Y, Z 3D printer. That would be cool. Are there controls in TinkerCAD that you can set so that you’re not designing something that you can’t actually print with your 3D printer?


Joshua: Here’s the workflow for how I do things. Also, I’m actually not … I have experience, but like I said, I’m more on the circuit side of thing, but here’s my general workflow for 3D printing things, is every 3D printer will have a what is known as a ‘Bed size’. This is the printable space that the printer can handle, and so if you’re designing for a specific printer, you can find out what that bed size is, and you can go into the work plane grid settings in TinkerCAD and set your grid, that visible work plane that you’re working on to be the same size as your printer , so that you know, “As long as I fit my object within this space, I can print it”. The default work plane is actually pretty good for a lot of printers.


Michael: Okay. I’m jumping around all here, but back to the circuit simulation side of TinkerCAD, how many different types of components do you have in there and how complex of a circuit can you build?


Joshua: Okay. We have right now somewhere between a hundred and 200 components, and that actually represents in the real world a lot more components because as we all know, things like capacitors and resistors and so forth can have different values, different values of resistance, different values of capacitance, so in the circuit editor, each one of those is actually one object, but then, you can just click on the object and set that value, and you’re asking how complex your circuits can be? I’ll give you some examples of different things that you can do or that I’ve done. I’ve made lots of Arduino projects that include things, various sensors like passive infrared sensor, distance sensors. You can do things like control motors, including Servomotors on there as well, so that’s really nice since controlling servos within Arduino is very easy in software. We want to make sure that that was an area in our simulator as well.


  As we have lots of digital chips, everyone’s favorite, in the 7400 series of logic, I actually just as an experiment went and created … I wanted to create a digital counter that worked in decimal, instead of binary or hexadecimal, so with count and display, it would add to two values in decimal and gives the result in decimal, and managed to do that with just discrete logic chips, so that was cool.


Michael: That is cool. What community aspect is in TinkerCAD? Is anything built in there like I can see what other people are doing or I can maybe borrow their designs, use their designs as … Is there a gallery type thing where I can look at stuff that’s already been done and maybe just modified a little bit for what I needed or …?


Joshua: Yeah. There’s exactly that. I’m not talking about a couple things here, so yeah. There are galleries of other people’s designs. If you want to have something that you create be available for other people to view, and so you can change the privacy settings, but by default, every new design you have is yours and yours alone, but if you want to share it, you can turn it into a public design, and then other people can view it.


  One of the things that you can do regardless of whether or not you have a design of your own, whether it’s public or private, you can share that with specific people by creating a … There’s a ‘Share’ button that will give you a link that you can give to somebody, and then they can now view your design, but additionally, you can also have them collaborate at the same time. TinkerCAD allows you to actually have multiple people working on the design at the same time. I’m going to digress here with a small anecdote. Recently, I taught a two-week design bootcamp for the Interact Project, which is a nonprofit focusing on teaching design to underserved youth, and we had the students designing using TinkerCAD, designing lamps.


  We gave them basically, “Here’s the electronics”. We have some parts that were IKEAish kind of parts where all of this is just a cord and a socket for a bulb, and said, “Here’s where you’re starting. Now, design some lamp to serve some purpose”, and we had opened up using TinkerCAD and Fusion. Fusion is the more professional version, or it is a professional 3D design tool, but it turns out that pretty much all the students were really happy with TinkerCAD and decided to stay there. We had them in groups of three working on their designs, and so typically, what they ended up doing or actually, what a couple of them ended up doing was working actually on the same exact design at the same time.


  For example, there was one group that was making a telescoping lamp, and they had a lot of different parts to it, but they were doing that all within one workspace in TinkerCAD.


Michael: It’s like happening in real-time essentially?


Joshua: Yeah.


Michael: Wow. That’s neat.


Joshua: Yeah, and that’s true for both the 3D design and the circuit design. Both of those are collaborative.


Michael: Cool. Awesome. Hey, I can’t wait to go log into TinkerCAD and check it out and start doing a simulation, and now, I have to go buy a 3D printer. I have no choice now, so this would be sweet. Hey, thanks a ton for taking the time to talk, Josh. I appreciate it.


Joshua: Hey, you’re very welcome. My pleasure.


Michael: Cool. I hope you enjoyed that talk with Joshua as much as I did. I’m still thinking about Ground Penetrating Radar. That sounds pretty sweet, but TinkerCAD. Wow. That’s pretty neat.


  Definitely worth checking it out, set up an account and seeing how it goes. I can’t wait to get started myself with it. Hey, if you have a chance, wow, I’d appreciate if you could go to iTunes. Maybe leave a comment or review. If you like the show, really appreciate that, and if you haven’t yet, you can always subscribe to our show in iTunes or whatever podcast feed you’re using.


  Hey, that’s it this week. I look forward to seeing you next time, and I hope the rest of your day, night, whatever it might be for you is just wonderful. Have a good one. Bye.



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