Industrial tinkering space

Wouldn’t it be great to have a full machine shop at your disposal, with dozens of industrial tools also at your disposal, and all you have to do is contribute to the upkeep? TechShop is just that — a membership-based fabrication and invention shop. I’ve been a member since before TechShop really even started, back when it was just some guys passing out flyers trying to gauge interest. For $100 a month, members can use any tool in the shop on which they’ve received training. MUCH cheaper than buying your own gear. The list of equipment is pretty extensive, too, and new items are arriving frequently (like a new hot-wire foam cutter).

I’ve spent the most time with the laser cutter and the plasma cutter, and a bit of time on the mill and lathes. The laser cutters are the best “deal” since even a novice can start building really intricate objects out of plastics quite rapidly, and the fact that the laser cutters simply “print” with a laser beam makes them the most approachable for people who want to work off-line and who come in just to cut materials. The plasma cutter is a bit more picky, and requires a jump up to a ‘real’ CNC computer, which is not difficult and is just as rewarding. One of the first things I did at TechShop was to build a gib key puller for a particularly obstinate key on the flywheel of a 50+ year old diesel engine I’m restoring. The robotic plasma cutter made short work of cutting what would have been otherwise a difficult piece, and I learned basic CNC methods in the process. I’ve since progressed to fairly advanced CNC operation skills, which have been useful in more intricate object construction. I’ve used the lathe to finish off some custom valves, the laser cutter for cutting gasket material and making signs, and I’m itching to try the 3D material printer.

TechShop offers classes on their equipment, as well as general classes on various methods and skills. The safety classes are typically very good, focused on safety and basic operation of the equipment. Classes are required for any equipment as a ‘basic’ instruction set, though some equipment has advanced classes for better technique and more complex jobs. Classes typically cost between $20 and $30 dollars for the basic safety class, but that’s still a bargain. This is just what I’ve been looking for, since most machine shop instruction I’ve seen has been terribly expensive, and has been geared for “lowest common denominator” instructions, which are typically agonizingly boring. The TechShop classes are taught for safety and rapid understanding to try to bring members to the point where they can start producing their own objects as quickly as possible. There is still going to be some trial and error, but the feedback loop is very short and it doesn’t take long before you’re comfortable and confident on the equipment. This is industrial arts instruction for people with a high level of clue.

Motorcycle customizers, automotive gearheads, robot war fanatics, electronics fabricators, modelmakers, metal benders, burning man artists, startup companies, mechanical engineering students: I’ve met all of these at TechShop, and I’m sure quite a few others that defy categorization. If you have any interest in making things, or modifying things, then TechShop is for you. Having spent years and a lot of dollars in outfitting my own shop, I can say that the TechShop concept beats anything I could possibly hope to have done on my own with the added benefit of the people that one meets at a shared space like TechShop.

While the tools and physical resources of TechShop are excellent, there is a hidden benefit to participating: the other members. The breadth of skills of the members and projects underway is perhaps the most impressive and fascinating part of TechShop. At any one time, there are a half-dozen people working on fantastic and innovative things, either as hobby projects or as budding startups who have found an inexpensive way to bootstrap themselves into prototyping a better mousetrap. Here’s a word to the wise for smart venture capital folks: find a hobby that requires TechShop and spend some quality time in the building doing your project. You’ll get amazing things done on your own project, and get to review a few hundred of the most clever projects happening as well as meet the working engineers that are often so difficult to find otherwise.

The downside to TechShop is that it is still only in Menlo Park, California. Later this summer, additional locations are scheduled to open up with the expansion. [EDIT: Several other locations are now open.] Other downsides: there are often waits for the laser cutters, since those are the most popular items in the shop. And, of course, if you are a “top-secret” inventor, you won’t find much privacy — plan on people being very interested in your project and asking lots of questions. There are also almost no places to store materials between visits — pretty much everything needs to go home with you.

I typically am at TechShop one or two evenings a week when I’m in the Bay Area, but my work schedule has made that less frequent than I’d like (I commute between PDX and SFO for work). The good news is that with the planned expansion one of the nine prospective cities is in my home town of Portland, OR. This will be welcome, as most of my projects involve objects that don’t fit well into carry-on luggage.

-- John Todd 04/28/08



4' x 8' CNC Metal Plasma Cutter



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