“Carvey” is definitely cutting it at Phillips Academy.

This 3-D carving machine has been at the school’s Oliver Wendell Holmes Library for a year now, and Library Director Michael Barker is pleased with its performance.

“It’s a computerized carving mechanism,” he said. “You send it plans, and then it will cut into wood and other materials. ‘Carvey’ gives our kids an opportunity to learn how this equipment works, but at a price we can afford.”

“Carvey” is the opposite of a 3-D printer, which creates something by pulling material together, while a carving machine makes a design by cutting material away. There are a number of similar machines at The Nest, an area in the library’s basement that serves as a maker space, which helps to prepare students for 21st-century careers. 

“We’ve got a laser cutter, a 3-D printer and a ‘Carvey’ and some other things — sewing machines and stuff like that,” Barker said. “We use the space in so many different ways — it’s kind of an idea space for kids, with all this lightweight prototyping equipment. If you have an idea, you can throw it up in a 3-D model and within a day or two you have a physical model.”

These machines are used for hands-on projects in a variety of classes at Phillips, in subjects ranging from physics to art. “Carvey’s” $2,500 price is a fraction of the cost of industrial CNC (computer numerical control) machines, which are unsuitable for libraries in other ways.

“A CNC router is really loud, and hard to have in a classroom space, but with ‘Carvey’ you drop the lid and it’s pretty quiet from there,” Barker said.   

Zach Kaplan, CEO of the Chicago-based company Inventables, created “Carvey” because he appreciates the value of hands-on learning. He built a scale model of a roller coaster in a class at high school, where shop skills were taught along with the formulas of physics, and Kaplan missed that approach when he studied mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois. 

“In college, the mechanical engineering program focused on a lot of calculus —it’s applied calculus,” Kaplan said. “We didn’t have that many opportunities to build projects like I did in high school, and I wanted to get back to that.”    

In the early years at Inventables, which was founded in 2002, he developed CNCs for companies like Pitney Bowes, Nike and Black and Decker, and remembers touring a Harley-Davidson factory where the carving machines were the size of refrigerators. Three software programs were required to run them and their human operators needed mechanical engineering degrees along with six months of training, while the machines cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“What we did at Inventables was ask, can we combine all this software into one — can we make it free? — and have it run in the browser on a normal Mac or laptop?” Kaplan said. 

The answer to all those questions was “yes,” and Inventables launched Easel in 2014, which is available to in the cloud and allows anyone to design their projects and carve them on a “Carvey.” Kaplan said all the software and information that are now available on the internet, combined with financing from crowdfunding, have not only changed the way machines like CNCs are made, but also how they are used.

“In a world where we had 3,000 manufacturers, it’s coming to a point where we will have about three million, but they don’t look like the ones from the 1980s,” Kaplan said. “They’re smaller, more independent, more niche — and serving deeper niches. That is starting to happen because the software is free and the cost of the machines is low, so even places like a library can afford them.”

Maker spaces like The Nest train students to thrive in that world, and they fit perfectly with the evolving mission of libraries.

“Libraries of the past were places where we stored ideas and made them findable,” Barker said. “Now they’re more about sharing ideas and creating them and bringing them to life.”

 

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