Sunday, September 14, 2014


There's something I left out of my attempt to explain TechShop. And that is something about the place and the experience that is strongly emphasized in the Maker Movement; a thing that has gotten interest in Make as a way to rebuild interest in STEM skills in students in our schools.

The idea is permission. And that's something I've been conscious of as I've worked with my niece on growing her skills.

From the point of view of someone who grew up around tools and crafts (who was, among other positions of default permission, male), the significance of TechShop is it removes the barrier between the kinds of tools you can own or rent, and the kinds you need to be a company to have. Certain things were just plain out of reach to the hobbyist. You could chisel wood. You could cast plastic. But to mill it out of metal -- well, you had to find someone willing to do it, and they weren't interested in small one-off projects.

I went through this on the Fury Gun. Just getting a weld done was a horrible problem. I had an underpowered welding rig that couldn't handle the steel of the barrels. I talked to a bunch of local shops -- one even had me come over to discuss it, but he bailed on me when he discovered he just couldn't talk me around to giving him a full eight hours of work on the project (and billing me more than my total project budget).

So for someone like me, TechShop is about being able to finally get access to the machines.

But here's the trick. Not everyone has given themselves the necessary permission. The TechShop attitude is very close to the Maker attitude. The basic assumption is that anyone can learn, and that everyone who becomes a member will proceed with care, being aware at all times of the limitations of their knowledge but always pushing to expand it.

It is a polar opposite of the idea of training -- what I think of as the Dojo Method. This is the idea that there is only one way to do the thing, and you will train and practice with paper and simulations until you can reproduce exactly that sequence. Then you are given access to the real thing, where you continue to copy exactly what you were shown in training.

Maker attitude is about grokking the subject. Makers always ask "why." Even something as simple as...

The other day I was grinding a lathe tool, and one of the TechShop staff came up to tell me I was using the wrong side of the wheel. But he didn't give me a rote instruction. It wasn't "The wheel by the lathe uses the side, the wheel by the cold saw uses the front." Instead he said "Look at the tool rest."

The idea was, you build the necessary rule (use the face of the grinding wheel) out of an understanding of the underlying process (place a tool against the wheel using the tool rest to set the desired angle). Knowing the process, means you apply what is necessary even if you are -- as I was -- free-handing the grind.

So this is what happens on every tool in TechShop. You only get access after you have passed the SBU. The "Safety and Basic Use" class is two to six hours and familiarizes you with the controls and the process and gives you basic safety tips. It also includes hand's on, always in the context of an actual project.

In the case of the Epilog Laser class, we were told verbally how to arrive at the correct power and speed settings for a material, how to look for burn-through and dirty mirrors, what to do in case of fire. And we had hand's on in focusing the beam and setting zero. And then we all engraved a dog tag for ourselves, using templates and materials provided by the shop.

This gives you, as some call it, just enough to get in trouble. You really don't know when you finished the class how to get a clean cut in acrylic, much less a nice burn on leather. That comes with experience, experiment, and, yes, failure.

But what it does give you is confidence. Even though you are on your own -- expected to ask for help from staff or fellow members, expected to read up online or even study books, expected to experiment on test scraps and jot down your findings in a notebook as you grew your laser skills, but still facing a machine without an instructor over your shoulder -- you've already done it once.

You know it can be done. You know you can do it. So even when your next piece, you forget how to set zero, fumble around trying to remember how to start a burn, and end up ruining your test piece: well, you don't take those as evidence that you can't do it. You just take them as part of the process of getting skilled.

And TechShop, just by existing, without you taking a single class, sits as one big case of the whole thing. Just that TechShop is there, and members are there cutting steel and wiring circuits and pulling plastic and serging edges; it says, "We believe you can do it."

It is implicit permission for anyone, including those who never held a tool in their life, to walk in and take the controls of a serious, massive, high-tech piece of machinery capable of doing the kind of professional-looking work we tend to think you have to be a name-brand company to do.

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