Low Volume Manufacturing – An Online Course

When I was deciding whether to go back to uni, I had a myriad of options before me;

  • Keep doing what I was doing
  • Push harder at freelancing in my preferred field
  • Supplement my work with online study
  • Build my own education with online study, one-off workshops, work experience and books.
  • Study a one-year self-directed post-grad degree
  • Study a full-time undergraduate degree

The ‘build my own education’ option was likely to be the best option. This way I could tailor what I did to suit what I wanted to get out of it – and it would be a lot cheaper.

Having spent a long time working freelance and a long time accepting jobs that I didn’t enjoy doing, I was fully conscious of the fact that being alone makes me depressed, being depressed makes me unmotivated and motivation is the most important element for self-directed improvement.

My first degree taught me a lot, but not nearly as much as work experience taught me. The most important thing it gave me was an understanding of the type of tasks required to be done on a day-to-day basis in my chosen field and connections friends, collaborators and people working and hiring in the outside world. I couldn’t imagine doing any kind of meaningful work experience without this kind of foundation.

So, you can understand my outrage when I was informed that, as of this year, all Uni SA degrees must have a minimum of 20% online courses. Low Volume Manufacturing was one of these courses.

Rather than being taught how to manufacture things in low-volume with hands-on workshops and Q&A sessions, the course was a series of short inductions, online videos and digital submissions. Naturally, the majority of the course participants couldn’t give a shit about this course. It wasn’t engaging, there was no external accountability leading up to submissions and there was no allotted time when the bunch of us would be working side-by-side on our projects sharing ideas and energy.

I’m usually a distinction average student – but for this course, all I could be bothered to aim for was passes. It was a real shame, because the times I was learning things, I found it really interesting, especially where it was applicable to the things I was trying to do in my internship.

Below are my assignments. I’m not proud of them, but they were capable of averaging a credit for the course.


First we needed to experiment with the various automated machines that were available to us. We were given short inductions on each machine – to a group of 50 it was difficult to see the various buttons and indicators that our instructor was pointing at. The room had a super loud exhaust system so it was difficult to hear what was being said. It was also pointless to ask questions because we hadn’t tried to use it ourselves yet so didn’t yet know which questions would be relevant.

For the laser cutting, I’d already done it before so felt confident in setting up a file. Over the course of my internship, I used the machine a lot, so the tech eventually taught me how to operate the laser cutting machine myself.

The 3D printing was difficult to source the correct software for, as there were many versions available by the same brand. Some students eventually found the correct software and we passed this information along to one another. I still don’t know how to calibrate the thing properly, despite reading the manual from cover to cover. I just try to keep my parts away from the outer edges to avoid issues.

The wire bending machine was the worst. I hadn’t absorbed much of the induction and the manual was difficult to understand. We had to do a lot of trial and error to understand the machine’s limitations. We were given wire that is too thin to be practically used with such a machine so the whole exercise seemed like a bust and has disincentivised me from ever wanting to experiment with the machine again.

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The bulk of our course was to design a letterbox using sheet metal. We never once played with sheet metal, but were given online lectures about some of its properties and constraints.

For an assignment where we had to assess existing sheet-metal products I tried to do as little work as possible. The first product consisted of a single sheet. The second was a product from Behance, which already had the cut-plan and other information available online.

The concepts were fun to come up with, but they were almost entirely theoretical. I had a very basic understanding of how sheet metal worked and no idea on how machinery could bend and shape it, only on how it could cut it. All the info on fasteners was expected to be pre-existing knowledge, so I felt pretty silly having to request a private meeting so that I could learn what rivets were. This could have been the perfect opportunity for us all to learn how to weld, but that topic wasn’t touched.

The final designs were cut out of cardboard. I added a rain cover which was cool. My lecturer didn’t like the idea of mounting the box against a wall or a side-post, so I had to add a base attachment. I tried making a tail curl around the post as a 3D printed part in Solidworks, but couldn’t get it looking good.

One of the cool things I learned was how to use a website to assess the sustainability of our products. It’s cool for comparisons between design versions, but I have no idea what the numbers mean on their own.

We also learnt how to setup a file for a CNC router. There’s only one computer in the uni with the software to do this, so who know’s how relevant this might be in the future.

The funnest part of the course was the group-assignment. I actually had the chance to work with other people! We were given a selection of chairs to choose from and so we chose one that looked interesting and that we knew there was a copy of at the uni. When we realised it was an injection-moulded chair and just how expensive injection moulding tools were to make, we decided this was a high-volume product and were very confused as to why it was a research option in a course on low-volume manufacturing.

We visited a local small-scale injection-moulding facility to research the project and were astounded by how friendly and informative the staff were. This was by far the best part of the course. Hands-on knowledge.

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