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Silhouette June 2015 Build Night at Arch Reactor Hackerspace, St. Louis, Missouri Answered


On Tuesday, June 9th, the Arch Reactor Hackerspace (in St. Louis, Missouri) hosted a Build Night with the Silhouette Portrait. There were an excited dozen people who showed up for an introduction to the device. Many members were seeking to discover ways to use the device for current projects.  Others were eager to learn which materials the Portrait could cut, the limitations of the Silhouette Studio software, and how they might go about using the Silhouette Portrait for other projects in the future.

Process:
I already had the Silhouette Studio software downloaded to my laptop and had the Silhouette Portrait out on the large at the front of the our classroom space.  Those in attendance gathered around as I ran down the features of the device and software and we discussed the use of the cutting mat and how to set the depth of the blade. We then watched the introduction movie and a few others before attempting to use the device to cut a file. 

The Arch Reactor already has a large vinyl cutter in our space, however it shares a keyboard, mouse, and monitor with our very popular laser cutter. Due to the popularity of the laser cutter, it is sometimes difficult for members to even learn how to use the vinyl cutter without making a special trip in on a day when few members are present. Plus, being a larger device, the learning curve seems a bit steep for those who have yet to learn how to use it. It can also only be utilized in our space.

One advantage that was quickly noted for the Silhouette Portrait is that anyone can download the free software and design their project at home, save it to a flash drive or the cloud, then arrive at our location to complete their project using one of our computers or their own laptop. A second advantage is that being so small, the Portrait could be moved to any desk in our 2400 square foot location temporarily, or even checked out of the space by a member to be used at home for a few days. We can even bring it along with us to local demonstrations and interactively challenge others to be creative while introducing them to our hackerspace.  The Silhouette Studio software seems intuitive and one member remarked that it reminded her a lot of Inkscape, which several of our members are already familiar with. The portability of the unit is not something to be overlooked. 

I can see this being very useful for projects that require the same print to be created repeatedly. Such as wedding invitations, or multiple t-shirts. The versatile amount of material that can be cut with it had many present talking about how they might use the Portrait.

Troubles we encountered:
The night wasn't without problems though. Aside from having trouble playing some of the videos, I had forgotten to bring my pack of white cardstock to the event. This prompted us to rather foolheartedly attempt to cut a file with a normal sheet of printer paper. We eagerly stuck the paper to the cutting mat and inserted it into the Portrait. A member attempted to send a file to it from his computer, but nothing happened with the device and he received a message that the cut was complete. I'm not sure if this was a driver issue, a software issue, or an issue with the cutting mat not having been installed properly. We then connected my laptop back to the Portrait and sent a test file to it. The cutting mat was pulled into the device and it began to cut the paper. The problem occurred once the Portrait was finished with the cut and we attempted rather unceremoniously to remove the cut paper from the mat. Normal printer paper sticks to the mat very well, especially with the first or second use. Of course it ripped the paper as we attempted to remove it from the cutting mat and we realized that a thicker cardstock would be needed. This was more naive beginner user error than anything else.  I do not recommend that you attempt using thin paper.

A second issue was the discovery that the free Silhouette Studio software does not allow the import of .SVG files. Many members of our hackerspace are familiar with and use these files for projects. In order to import .SVG files, we would need to upgrade to the Designer Edition for $50 or the Business Edition for $100.  If the Silhouette Portrait gets used as much as I believe it will, this upgrade will likely be a no-brainer for us. 

Once the paper had been carefully scraped from the cutting mat using a former plastic gift card, some of our members set out to make a cut from the Vellum that had been sent with the printer.  This proved to be easier to remove from the cutting mat and the members were very happy with the the lace designs they had cut. Additionally, some members used a few sheets of cardstock they already had to cut out some borders from the files that came with the Silhouette Studio software. 

We are already looking at purchasing some accessories for the Portrait, such as Pens and additional cutting mats. The later would be a huge advantage because it would allow us to prepare a second material for the next cut while the first was being cut or removed from the mat.  Should the Portrait see as much use as I expect it will, we may be looking at other products from Silhouette, such as the Cameo, the Curio, and the Mint. Being used in a hackerspace by over 50 members, the size and additional versatility of Curio definitely would seem to fit our needs better. The additional thickness and variety of materials that could be used with it are of great interest to the creative tendencies of hackerspace members and makers. 

We are also looking forward to Silhouette Link, a new feature coming to Silhouette Studio® that allows customers to send a cut job from any device directly to their Silhouette machine, remotely, through the use of a mobile device app.

What I would have done differently: 
Not only would I have tested the videos we watched on our projector prior to the meeting, but I would have remembered my cardstock on the night of the event. I also would recommend that anyone else hosting a Build Night use the Portrait to cut out several test files in a variety of materials. Definately take a look at the limitations of the Studio Software and decide if you want to upgrade to the Designer's edition for the importing of .SVG files or not, too.

Conclusion:
Overall, the night proved to be a successful introduction for several of our members to the Silhouette Portrait. I think all of us were inspired by what it can do for us as individuals and as a hackerspace.  We already have ideas to make a few t-shirts for an upcoming event using heat transfer vinyl and a logo.  I'm sure many projects will be sporting vinyl stickers and other materials that are cut with it. 

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