The first time Nicola Smith walked into Made In Workshop she was stared at.

Nicola is a petite woman who looks a lot younger than her years, and it’s difficult to imagine her small, feminine hands operating heavy-duty machinery. So it’s no wonder that she looked a bit out of place.

“The Made In Workshop members, mostly men, came to respect me quite a bit,” says Nicola, who is an industrial designer by trade. “They eventually saw me as a resource because I really enjoy the process of making, and I started helping some of them code their projects.”

Nicola Smith in her natural habitat at Made In Workshop

Nicola came across Made In Workshop when she was tasked to machine prototype patterns for Homefarm, a South African start-up that developed a hybrid hydroponic-smart unit that grows microgreens. After talking to Made In Workshop’s owner, Henry Levine, she realised that machining the 15 moulds for the units at the makerspace would cost less than it would to outsource a SINGLE mould to another manufacturer.

Nicola has always had a knack for making things with her hands; when she was a girl, instead of playing with dolls she played with machines.

“My dad has a full workshop at home and I’d help him do little odd jobs around the house.”

After school she wanted to study visual art, but “by luck” her mom gave her a pamphlet advertising an industrial design programme at the University of Johannesburg, so she decided to do that instead.

Her first year was tough, and she didn’t want to carry on.

“I decided to push through and, slowly but surely, I found a lot of love in the processes behind the product.”

The CNC mill at Made In Workshop
The CNC mill at Made In Workshop

Through industrial design, Nicola also came to understand that she could have an impact on the world, especially when it comes to throw-away culture and consumerism. “Most smartphones will last for about two years – it’s built into the design to only last that long, and that’s exactly what I want to go against. I want to make products that last and can be repaired, rather than support this horrible consumerism loop that just carries on,” she explains.

Nicola spent seven months at Made In Workshop machining the vacuum-forming positives for the Homefarm units, as well as laser-cutting all the necessary components that the prototypes needed. However, before all of this could happen Nicola had to learn all the CNC ins-and-outs before she could fully jump in.

“At first I was a little bit scared of using the CNC machines because they are incredibly powerful. It took me about a month and a half to learn how to use the most advanced machines, as well as the risks and responsibilities behind programming them correctly. Henry helped a lot – he’s super safety conscious which put me at ease, too,” says Nicola.

Nicola was blown away by the range of machinery housed at Made In Workshop.

“It was incredible because I’ve always had an interest in 3D technology and machinery. When I was

an industrial design student I never had the opportunity to use these kinds of machines at UJ – like CNC wood- and metal mills; they just didn’t have them.”

Nicola is a full-time industrial designer at Wolkberg Casting Studios, but in her spare time she gives her hands a little “ceramic therapy”, which has turned into a side hustle.

Industrial designer Nicola Smith

“I started pottery classes as a therapeutic hobby, but I realised I could apply machining skills when it came to ceramics, too. I’ve also been interested in optimising clay to be more environmentally friendly; it eats at my brain that when I fire up the kiln, it hurts the environment even just that little bit.”

Although it used to bother Nicola that men didn’t take her seriously in the industry, it has less of an effect on her these days.

“There are still times when I will go shake the hands of the (male) designers on a team and they won’t shake my hand because I’m a woman,” she shrugs.

“I used to have big beef about it when I was at university, but I understand that it’s still a male-dominated industry. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder or any of that; I’d rather have my actions speak louder than my words.” Find out more about Made In Workshop by contacting them on 087 701 4156, or pop by and take a look around at 65 Maria Street, Fontainebleau. To find out more about Nicola’s side hustle, Kilnhouse Design Studio, go here.