Thursday, September 11, 2014


I've been mentioning TechShop a lot of late. So what is it?

TechShop is like a cross between a tool lending library and rented space in a warehouse.

In one sense, this is nothing new. People have been setting up in garages and lofts and building things like the first Apple computers there. And there have always been ways to network around people in the same or a similar business to trade a little time on the tools you didn't have.

What TechShop does is bring this down to where anyone can do it. You don't need to pay rent and utilities on a workshop or loft space. You don't have to have twenty years in the industry and a stack of contacts and favors to trade in order to make a few welds. You just have to have a membership fee.

The modern term for places like this is a Hackerspace. Which starts to imply other things; that it is also a bit like a club (as in, a collection of like-minded individuals who pool their resources to get access to machines no individual could afford, as well as aggregate and share knowledge and experience). And it is strongly connected to the Maker culture, which implies several things as well, prominent among them universal access, learning as a goal in itself, and an emphasis on new technology.

But this is way too theoretical.

What TechShop is, is a for-profit organization that operates several facilities around the country. At each facility is a bit of space to work, so you don't have to try to grind metal in your apartment and end up with metal shavings in your soup. Or try to stitch up a full-circle cloak when you don't have enough floor space to lay the whole thing out flat.

At each space are also machines. They do have some of the smaller stuff you could find in a well-equipped garage. I mean: I live in a small apartment, and I still own a bench grinder, drill press, and scrollsaw. They also have larger and more expensive tools, from laser engravers to engine lathes to such monsters as the 4x8 CNC water jet that can cut elegant scrollwork out of 1/2" steel.

So, yeah. If my apartment was slightly larger, I might be able to cram a benchtop lathe in here. Metal shavings in the soup aside. But with my membership fee at TechShop, I can put a few hours in on a 14x40 inch engine lathe. And this isn't just a "bigger hammer." I could probably do those M40 grenades on a benchtop lathe running $600/800 or so. But such a machine could never handle something like, say, a lightsaber hilt out of stainless steel. And cutting threads would be near-impossible.

The emphasis is on high-tech; at the San Francisco shop are six 40-80 watt laser cutters, a CNC milling machine, three CNC "2d+" routers, the CNC water jet, four 3d printers, a CNC vinyl cutter and CNC embroidery machine. The emphasis is also more-or-less on machines you probably can't afford yourself; no home sewing machines I'm aware of, but at least one industrial and a serger. The metal shop has the usual grinders and brakes and cold saws, but all of them are larger sized than you'd typically find in a garage workshop; the metal-cutting bandsaw can chuck something eight inches in diameter (and the machine alone is about eight feet long!)

This does lead to some oddities.

TechShop is not really a shop cooperative in the model of each member having an area they can work on their project. It has a small membership fee (less than cable and internet) and a large membership and it operates more like a gym. It is drop-in based. Members don't spend all day there, and they don't leave their projects there.

It isn't project-oriented, it is process oriented. You don't go into your local TechShop to build something, you go in to use a machine or do a layout or otherwise complete the parts of a build that are difficult to do at home or at your own shop.

My M40 grenades are about as close as you can get to a "pure" TechShop project, in that 2/3 of the hours I spend on each are spent there. However, I pack in my materials and tools, use a machine for a a four-hour slot I reserve ahead of time, and pack up and clean up after the reserved period ends.

More typical for members' projects would be the Jedi Holocron I built; I prepped the Illustrator files at home, came into TechShop just long enough to use the laser for an hour or two, then went home with the pieces to glue and paint and install electronics.

Would I like the ability to stay set up longer? Everyone would. Having a four-hour slot is really a pain when it comes to something like the milling machines, where you can blow an hour easy just tramming the bed, aligning the work, and doing an air pass with your g code.

Would I like if I saw the same faces more often? Yes; sharing a shop means there is deeper sharing of knowledge and more potential collaboration. Often TechShop SF feels like a library; hours go by without anyone speaking to each other.

But at the same time, the reserved hours/large membership paradigm works. It makes it possible for someone like me, with only a peripatetic interest and not a lot of training, to, with very little monetary investment, do work on a 3 + 1 axis CNC milling machine.

Another wrinkle that comes out of the "come in, use tool, leave" is that the smaller tools and parts can be sparse and sometimes indifferently maintained. You can count on finding a screwdriver, because those come and go on a regular basis and they are practically impossible to ruin. But everyone I know brings in their own lathe bits, drill bits, calipers -- and some bring in their own mill collets as well.

The "reserve the machine, work the reserved period" clashes with projects that naturally span several machines. A sonic screwdriver, for instance, would be equally milling and lathing. And the short reserve period means you really don't want to spend three hours sanding and doing test-fits before finishing your turning. It emphasizes breaking a project up into operations that can be performed primarily on that one reserved tool, maximizing your access to it.

This agrees with some of the Maker paradigms while breaking others. What it breaks is the concepts of exploration and iterative method. The onus is on getting it right the first time. Well; the short reserve periods do make it more natural to iterate; you invest less with each pass, so it feels less onerous to give up for the day and come back tomorrow with a better plan. This is what I did with the Holocron; I made four different visits as I tried out different ideas and evolved the design.

The place where it hooks in closer is with design. So many of the machines are computerized, it becomes practically required to model everything on the computer -- and solve many of what would otherwise be trial-and-error fit-up issues there instead of in metal. This is of course aided by the partnership with Autodesk, meaning high-end software is available on the computers at TechShop (along with desk space and free coffee to tinker with your TinkerCAD.)

Is it a solution for everyone? Of course not. Even me -- if I were turning grenades for a larger community, as well as DL-44 flash hiders, Threepio linkages, and so on, I'd want a lathe I didn't have to commute to the City to use, and the ability to set up a jig and come back to the tool the next day to run off another dozen of the same thing.

The heavy users are prototypers; they are using the TechShop equipment while they tool up, experiment, and attract investors. As they grow their company, they purchase their own equipment and move out.

The other user that comes every day is cottage industry artists; especially leatherworkers, seemingly. They have designed their projects so they can come in, do the engraving and the cuts that would be time consuming to do manually, then return home to finish. The membership cost is significantly less than the amortization to own the tool themselves, so it is sustainable as part of a small-business model.

The last major group of people coming through are the students. These are people who just want to tinker around, either with some project they want to do, or to learn a new process or tool. These folks come in a lot for classes but appear to often let their membership run out without them visiting more than once or twice.

Although I have yet to speak to a user who is only interested in one thing (they all tell me they are looking forward to a class on some other machine or process), there appear to be relatively few generalists; people whose work or projects require they move frequently between wood area, metal area, fabric area, etc. It really looks like the laser people come in and walk upstairs to the lasers and are almost never seen anywhere else. And similarly for the machine shop users (the exception to both being time on the computers with their motherlode of high-end software).

And this strikes me as the oddest part of all. It would seem the most like both Make movement, and industrial art, and the capabilities of TechShop, for projects to appear that were equally on a range of very different processes. But so far, I haven't really observed that. Each area almost seems to have its own culture, as well as what are increasingly a set of familiar faces. And the cross-over is minimal.

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