Friday, October 10, 2014

TechShop Suggestions

I was reading a thread recently at Practical Machinist about how the forum members (most of them professional machinists with their own shops) feel about TechShop. And, as I'm getting ready for East Bay Mini Maker Faire I'm thinking again about talks I've heard there and through Park Day School about how kids learn technical skills.

TechShop is a successful business model and has an organizing philosophy I can get behind. That recognized, there are some stumbling blocks. Their funding covers the capital expense of the machines, but doesn't cover tooling, or sufficient skilled staff to achieve a high level of maintenance.

It is a similar problem many theaters (the building, not the organization) suffers; if you don't have a resident company, then maintenance and infrastructure suffers. No renter is going to put extra effort into cleaning up the mess from the last renter, and leaving the building better than it was when they got it. Even if they desired to do so, rental periods means they just aren't in there long enough.

TechShop, like a gym, has more members than could fit in the building at once. To control traffic at the larger, more expensive machines they use a reservation system. At some of the tools the maximum reserved block is a mere two hours. At lathe, mill, and CNC mill the period is four hours.

This is barely enough time to do the job and do a basic clean-up. It becomes difficult and frustrating when the tool was not restored properly or parts are broken or missing. I've spent as much as the first hour of a reserved block just tracking down the right wrenches,  finding tool holders in working condition, and assembling a dial caliper.

Which is not exactly a complaint; this is well within what should be expected for the fairly small membership fee, and it isn't in any way a game ender; I've been doing production work and even made a couple bucks profit off it under those same conditions.

In any case, one of the suggestions made at Practical Machining was to offer turn-key services.

Swap Board

I think, within the philosophy of TechShop and the Maker movement, this would work best in a more ad-hoc, bulletin-board sort of arrangement. There would be a central, organized marketplace for this, overseen and vetted by staff, with standards and guidelines. Approved projects could be taken by qualified members. This is a way that members who don't have the time or inclination to learn a new skill set just for one aspect of a larger project, and non-members who don't have the time or inclination to be a functioning member of TechShop, can get the kinds of small projects done that fall outside of the ability of professional shops to bid realistically on.

This might be developed into a sort of second tier of users; people who have specialized within certain skills, who get some degree of official support, and who as a result could be expected to take a more proprietary interest in maintaining certain pieces of equipment. In a perfect world, this pool would have a large intersection with staff and instructors; people who already are expected to spend a lot of time at TechShop and of course already maintaining the tools.

Among the many risks is this risks locking out the average users; less access to some of the tools with large blocks set aside for the turn-key bids, possibly more personal or "staff only" tools that are kept locked away from ordinary users. Which is all rather in opposition to the philosophy of TechShop.

There very much is a need for this. There are a lot of artists, in particular, who find themselves needing a weld or something and the number of hoops they need to jump through to do it themselves is daunting. And they lack two things to go to the existing infrastructure of small shops; the money to make it worth the small shop's overhead, and the ability to speak the language.

They need a sort of super-interpreter. They need someone who does what a good Technical Director does to a Scenic Designer; to translate ideas into materials. Someone who can plan a weldment, generate g-code, CAD up a shape, or even just understand drill sizes.

In the real world, this is a junction full of rough edges and, thus, friction (often resulting in heat!) In the prospect of a TechShop member accepting a task, they would be in many (if not most) cases accepting that they will be spending a lot of non-machine time planning, communicating, and teaching.

My thought is this is something some of us would enjoy. Given the right situation (stable finances, time to work), someone could get a lot of enjoyment in doing this kind of heavy lifting for an artist or small business person who thinks they want a weld done but doesn't understand enough about the materials they are working with to understand the potential problems.

Somewhere, somewhere in there is, I feel, a way to fold in the TechShop Instructors, the paid staff, the need for better shop maintenance, the pooling of skills that is part of Make and TechShop, and the marketplace of small-volume manufacturing that a small agile shop filled with CNC equipment can do.

Production Machines

Right. Enough on that.

I'd like to see two other things. The Tormach CNC is doing okay right now but the kinds of projects people bring to it require larger blocks than can be reserved. The result is at least one start-up that got memberships for half their staff and tag-teamed the machine, keeping it tied up for weeks on end.

Right now, the Trotech Laser is the only machine set up on a production basis. Anyone can come in and use the Epilog lasers for no additional charge, with only a two-hour maximum reservation. But if you have heavy production work, you reserve the more powerful Trotech and you pay an additional hourly fee.

I think we should do that for the Tormach. And possibly a few other tools as well. There are I believe enough users who would pay the additional hourly to allow longer machine sessions that you could capitalize the machine for it.

Outreach Class

In addition, I love TechShop and all, but I haven't been afraid of learning new tools since my first claw hammer. And not everyone is like that. I think a lot of people are scared off. I like that the TechShop philosophy is that anyone can learn, and each SBU is based on the assumption that six people off the street can successfully run a mill after just a few hours of familiarization. That's wonderful.

But there are a lot of people that look at all this heavy metal and complicated bits of machine and whirring computers, and hear all this chatter about feeds and speeds and g-code and TiAIN coatings and it is too much for them to handle.

I don't know what a truly introductory, get-your-feet-wet-in-the-wading-pool class would look like. I don't know how you detox it from the Burning Man, heavy industry, skilled-and-proud atmosphere. Maybe offer it somewhere outside the facility?

But there are kids and adults and artists and all sorts of people who don't believe they can learn this stuff, and we need to keep reaching outside of our own community and help them.

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