Come up with a great invention and make a million. Who hasn’t thought that? But often great ideas never see the light of day. A would-be inventor may not have the equipment to turn the dream into reality. A working model, or prototype, may be required.
TechShop aims to address this shortfall. A brainchild of Jim Newton, himself an inventor, TechShops are do-it-yourself workshops loaded with equipment, tools, software, and some know how. The original TechShop was in Menlo Park, CA (hmm… wasn’t that the name of some other inventor’s place?) and the idea has spread. TechShop seem to be popping up all over the place. Other TechShops have been added in Raleigh-Durham, NC, San Jose is on the horizon, a Detroit TechShop will open this later this year.
As I live close by, I went to visit the San Francisco version. A bit too close to the city’s seedy Civic Center neighborhood, I was glad to be buzzed into a protected chain link enclosed parking lot. Inside, the TechShop is well lit and clean.
The San Francisco TechShop occupies 17,000 square feet on 2 floors.
I am greeted by Joe Menard, TechShop’s COO. I learn that TechShop SF already has 600 members even though it has only been open since January. Where are they all, I wonder out loud, glancing around and spotting less than a dozen people. “Day jobs," explains Joe. I am told the place really starts buzzing after 3pm.
The TechShop is big. This is not some craftsman's dingy dungeon basement workshop. There’s two floors of machines, shop tools, computers…separate rooms for electronics assembly, conferences. The ground floor houses the machines you'd find in factories, not Home Depot. On the second floor are computers with design software. Autodesk Inventor is prominent (more on that later) but also there is Adobe Illustrator, and more. You can sketch in 2D, silk screen, make circuit boards, create solid models, cut metal, plastic, turn wood on a lathe, use a CNC machine, even operate a huge water jet cutter (it wasn’t working but when it does, it can cut through steel an inch thick).
A CNC machine. Yeah, we got that, says Joe Menard, TechShop’s COO.
You can't afford this sort of workshop. Not many people can. I read that founder Jim Newton wanted to create a dream workshop, himself being frustrated by lack of tools with which to build his own inventions.
Everything under the roof is available for unlimited use, just as long as you join up. Membes pay a monthly fee. “It’s like a gym membership,” says Joe. Maybe an expensive gym membership, I think, as individual memberships start at about $100/month, but how many gyms have a rapid prototype machine?
Can anyone walk in off the street and start operating this, I ask, eyeing a scary-looking CNC machine. Not exactly, explains Joe. Members have to take a basic safety course and then be certified. Certification requirements vary by machine, depending on risk and complexity. Joe shows me a business card size piece of metal that has been cut out to show a logo. “That is what someone has to make to be certified with this machine, he says. It’s like their final exam. Certifications are tracked. Members who are not certified cannot operate a machine. Currently, the Dream Coach at the tool crib is supposed to ensure you are certified before giving you a key, but TechShop is planning a badge swipe to automate this in the future.
What about consumables? Like the material used to make 3D prints. TechShop sells some of the materials. A small shop near the front desk is starting to sell plastic sheets and some additional basic building material. However, I think most members would probably come in with their own raw material.
What does it take to set up a TechShop. We’ll do it for about $2 million, says Joe. About $750k goes towards the purchase of equipment. But there are no current plans for TechShop franchises - only corporate owned stores.
Autodesk and TechShop
Autodesk seems to have jumped into TechShop with both feet. It has donated many licenses of its Inventor software. And computers. A pallet of HP desktops sits in the lobby awaiting unloading. I find out later Autodesk may also have invested in TechShop though noone will tel me how much. Autodesk banners fly in the shop and on the website.
Not surprisingly, Joe is sold on Autodesk Inventor. “You can make anything with Inventor,” he says. Maybe after you convert it from SolidWorks? I note that one of the classes offered is called “SolidWorks to Autodesk Inventor Migration.” There are also classes Intro to Inventor, Intro to Sketching, Intro to Assemblies. All are 3 hours long. Many of the 8 seat classes are already full. Inventor classes are 3 hours long, and free to members.
I used to teach CAD and I know 3 hours is just scratching the surface. But, hey, it’s free is good and while it may not be enough to get a job using Inventor full time, it’s good exposure. That, combined with enough motivation and effort, should at least allow a would-be inventor to create a rapid prototype.
Recently, Autodesk added further solidified their partnership (pun intended) with TechShop. Autodesk CEO Carl Bass announced 123D last week, officially throwing his hat into what appears to be a revivival of the maker movement. Both TechShop and Ponoko (which bills itself as a "personal factory") got a lot of mention, as part of Autodesk strategy to "decocratize" design (meaning: reach millions of consumers).
All these toys at your disposal, providing you pass a basic safety course, and possibly certification in some of the machines
A NextEngine noncontact 3D scanner is available.