Jim Newton talks about the high-powered equipment at TechShop like a car geek talks about fuel injection, horsepower, and torque. Many terms are even the same; as he walks past a Jet vertical milling machine, he mentions its 3-horsepower motor, variable speed, and digital display.
Newton is the founder of TechShop, the (arguably) first and (almost certainly) most well defined makerspace. At 18,000 square feet, their flagship San Francisco shop is filled with his favorite tools and equipment.
He loves the Tin Knocker hand turret punch for its precision and the clean holes it creates, the cold saw (also from Jet) because he always wanted one but could never justify buying it for himself. He calls the manual lathe “one of the workhorses of the industrial revolution.” All these tools — including 3D printers and laser cutters — add up to a big part of what makes TechShop TechShop.
The company stands out among makerspaces, while the “makerspace” category itself remains somewhat ill defined. TechShop tends to be the Platonic ideal. That’s not to call it generic; it’s simply come closest to defining the category, partly because of its standardization and partly because of its scope. With eight stores in strategic U.S. maker markets, they’re the biggest membership-model shop around.
Still, TechShop has bigger plans. According to CEO Mark Hatch, it intends to scale up to between 60 and 100 locations around North America, essentially growing by around a factor of 10. To do so, it will need to depend on a fairly strict set of parameters and methods that will go into every new location, sort of a “TechShop protocol.”
Hatch and the TechShop crew aren’t secretive about it. He doesn’t see much in the way of competitors because he doesn’t think others can do the same — it’s just too expensive. “It comes down to capital, and these are very capital-intensive businesses,” he says. “It’s hard. It’s expensive. The price points are pretty low at $125 a month. This is not an easy business by any stretch of the imagination.” Each shop, he says, costs between $2.5 and $3.5 million to open.
The newest one, in Arlington, Virginia, passed the 500-member mark prior to opening in June, with an additional 3,000 free memberships for veterans in a partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Innovation. He partly attributes that success to a campaign that signed up 200 members before its April soft opening.
TechShop has a history of promising big things. The early promotion of the Arlington shop helped sell those memberships, but in a few towns it backfired. A franchising experiment went awry, and shops in Portland, Oregon and Raleigh- Durham, North Carolina closed, while one in Brooklyn has been in the works for three years without getting off the ground.
To Hatch, those are simply growing pains. They just need to stick to the protocol and adapt it to handle new challenges. The company no longer licenses franchise deals. Newton notes that the Portland and Raleigh shops were opened when they had just one location (in Menlo Park, California). “We didn’t really know how we were even running that one. I couldn’t hand someone a franchise book and say, ‘Here’s how you operate a TechShop and make it profitable,’” he says. “What we told these guys was … ‘look at TechShop Menlo Park, figure out how it works, and you need to replicate it yourself.’”
Ultimately, Newton blames the location choices — neither the Portland nor Raleigh shop was near an urban center. Location is now essential in their protocol; each new shop should be situated where people want to be, near restaurants and bars and transportation.
That’s a contrast to many grassroots makerspaces, points out Peter Hirshberg, chairman of the Re:Imagine Group and the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. Makerspaces based on activities like machining and welding are often in industrial areas where they can take up space, says Hirshberg. “TechShop, on the other hand, is this new form of advanced manufacturing that doesn’t need such a big space.”
The company learned one other lesson from Portland: All new locations must feature brand new equipment.
Equipment is still probably the biggest single aspect of the company’s protocol. TechShop’s website has a list of core tools and equipment, and they don’t vary much from location to location — down to the machines’ brands and model numbers. This allows them to standardize training, repairs, and safety, and members can walk in and use equipment at any location, thanks to an RFID tag in their badges.
John Taylor, who helped with TechShop’s national rollout, fought to standardize the list. He worked with architects to customize the locations, pointing out that the electrical engineers needed that information to correctly design the circuits and outlets. “Dealing with layout was a constant battle of trade-offs,” he adds. “Executives wanted big open sight-lines, while those with a maker background expressed the need for walls, vertical storage, and partitioned program areas.”
The San Francisco location compromised the two, and it’s the only multilevel TechShop. On the top floor are quieter, cleaner tools like laser cutters and 3D printers, as well as a lounge area and a bank of computers loaded with company partner Autodesk’s software. Below, on a split-level, a conference room with a glass wall overlooks the machine shop, where the vertical mills and hand punch live alongside a 60,000 psi Flow Jet water jet and a big, red and black Lincoln Electric ventilation system that clings to the east wall like a spider. A wood shop is set to the side, with four walls and a wide entryway emanating the whine of saws and the smell of sawdust, though a humming dust collector and air-filtration system keeps much of it from escaping into the rest of the shop.
In the woodshop are two ShopBot CNC routers, a medium and a large one. “We’ve been working with TechShops and other kinds of makerspaces, trying to develop strategies for supporting customers in environments like that, because it’s quite a bit different than a small business or a manufacturing operation owning a tool,” says Ted Hall, ShopBot founder and CEO. “You have dozens of people using a tool in a given week, and they’re all using it in different ways. Mostly, they’re relatively inexperienced, so it’s a tough environment for a technology tool to be robust and reliable in.”
That’s where Dream Consultants come in. Along with many other responsibilities, these TechShop employees help keep up the machines. They also police the equipment, offer general help, and act as a friend and liaison to the community.
“You’re kind of a central hub for not only knowledge but social capital. You know what everyone’s working on, pretty much, within the shop at all times,” says Mel Olivares, who trains DCs, as he calls them, across the system. “You’re part of the glue that makes the atmosphere happen. It’s much more than just a manufacturing consultant.”
That community is a crucial part of the protocol, too, both Hatch and Newton note. They have settled on a minimum goal of approximately 500 paying members per TechShop, not just because that makes them profitable, but also because they believe that’s where the community hits critical mass. “There’s magic that happens around the community aspect once you hit 500 members,” says Hatch. “There’s a flip in their mindset; they come in because they want to, they want to experience the community, they want to see their friends, they want to hang out a little bit longer.”
The community factors heavily into one of their favorite success stories: Type A Machines. Type A built 3D printers at the San Francisco location. As the company grew — it has sold more than $1 million worth of printers so far — it moved to a manufacturing facility in nearby San Leandro. Though many run businesses out of TechShop, it really isn’t suitable for large-scale production runs, largely because someone may be using the machine you need when you have to get a shipment out. But Type A kept its headquarters in a rented office on the company’s top floor and a membership for R&D and prototyping. “This TechShop location has an unbeatable team and we couldn’t have done it the way we did without them,” says Miloh Alexander, co-founder and hardware engineer for Type A.
“We use the SF TechShop tools like the mill, laser cutters, and other tools to build parts for our plywood machines and our 2014 folded metal machines, which we ship fully assembled and offer service and support for,” adds Alexander. “From the start we’ve needed TechShop tools to be able to closely manage the process of building strange machines that … make a variety of strange things.”
Building strange machines, in a way, is what led Newton to found TechShop. He entered a BattleBots competition and built a 220-pound fighting robot. He had no lathe or mill to build the gearboxes or axles, so he enrolled in a shop class at the College of San Mateo, just to use their tools, and it became a model. “I realized right there that … it’s so hard to get access to a good complement of equipment, that people would actually pay for access,” he says.
Despite the demand, exhibited years ago by Newton and other makers enrolling or even teaching classes just to get access to shops, it remains a tenuous business model. “As more makerspaces come online with community at their core, I think a new sustainable business model will emerge,” says Taylor.
TechShop attacks the problem via partnerships at its new locations. Ford in Detroit and Lowe’s in Austin, Texas, have given employees memberships. In Arlington, TechShop also teamed with DARPA. In the next shops planned in Dublin and Munich, the company is partnering with Dublin City University and BMW, respectively. A planned Los Angeles shop is in partnership with a maker community called The Reef, and one in St. Louis is still seeking investors.
Hatch tossed out 2020 as a possible date for his 60- to 100-store goal, but added that he has no idea if that’s realistic. Beyond that, he sees the company getting into distributed manufacturing, design, and prototyping services.
“We really see TechShop eventually looking and operating similar to how Kinko’s operates today, where people can choose whether or not to come in and make something themselves, or they can ship us the file and we can make it for them,” says Hatch, who was formerly director of computer services at Kinko’s. “As manufacturing continues down the automation path, continues down the digitization path, and we continue to open up more locations, working on more sophisticated tools, we will be able to position ourselves as basically the largest distributed manufacturing company in the world.”
Mastering TechShop in 12 Easy Steps
- Get set up with your photo-equipped RFID badge. You’ll need it to get in the door and to get certified on TechShop equipment.
- Meet the staff and Dream Consultants; they’re there to help you and they’ll get you engaged in the community.
- Take a safety class for a machine you know you’ll need.
- Go shopping at the TechShop retail store. They have many of the materials you need in small quantities, perfect for a single project.
- Build a project you’ve been planning — or dreaming of — for a long time. Hire a Dream Consultant if you don’t know how.
- Take a 3D design class; it’ll introduce you to many tools, from 3D printers to laser cutters to CNC mills and routers.
- Create something and give it away.
- Buy an expert a beer and pick her brain.
- Pick a class that looks interesting, something you’ve never tried before. That machine will become a tool in your belt — you’ll see its potential and come up with ideas for how to use it.
- Reverse engineer something.
- Go back and build something again, but better. That’s how you become an expert.
- Create something and sell it. There have never been more ways to sell your projects, from Etsy to Kickstarter to Tindie.
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