TechShop’s “Innovation Cathedral” Comes to San Francisco—Serving Craftsmen and Entrepreneurs on the Gold’s Gym Model

12/16/10Follow @wroush

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describe itself. [TechShop] is truly a third place for creatives. The all-you-can-eat pricing model encourages you to hang out. You have no idea who you’re going to run into, but I guarantee it’s going to be interesting.”

The 800 people who’ve joined TechShop’s Menlo Park shop, which opened in October 2006, apparently agree. And Hatch’s belief that many makers join TechShop in order to turn their avocations into vocations isn’t just a theory anymore. Real companies like Dodocase, a San Francisco-based maker of premium iPad cases, and Clustered Systems, which makes high-tech cooling systems for data centers, have used TechShop as their launchpad. (There’s more on each of these companies below and in my audio interview with Hatch and Newton—see page 4.)

TechShop machine shop area

TechShop machine shop area

That track record has won the company big fans at places like the Kauffman Foundation, which spends millions each year on the search for better ways to promote entrepreneurship. “Lots of people have great ideas, but many can’t act on them, because they lack the tools, equipment, and knowledge to turn those ideas into marketable products,” says Carl Schramm, the foundation’s president and CEO. “TechShop is a place where idea people can literally build their dreams today, becoming tomorrow’s inventors and entrepreneurs.”

TechShop exists because Jim Newton, a lifelong tinkerer and inventor, wanted a world-class shop for his own projects. “I was on Mythbusters for a year, so I had access to their shops. [Then] I was teaching at the local college, showing people how to make combat robots, and I just taught that class that so I could get access to the machine shop…When I got done with that gig, I didn’t have access to a shop, and I thought about what is it going to take to build my own shop.”

Quilting machine

Quilting machine

Newton could have paid for a full shop by going into the prototype fabrication business, but he didn’t want to work on other people’s projects. That was when he hit on the gym-membership concept. “If you think about this as a health club, it’s exactly the same,” he says. “There are some nuances, like safety and training. But there are no hourly charges for the equipment, with rare exceptions like the 3D printer, where you have to pay for materials, and the water-jet cutter, which costs $1 a minute to cover materials and disposal of the slurry. Everything else, it’s come and use it as much as you want.”

What makes the whole membership concept plausible, according to Hatch, is the last two decades’ revolution in computer-aided design and manufacturing software, which can help users analyze virtual prototypes right down to the level of specific materials. If you’re building an engine and you’re trying to decide whether to use Alcoa aluminum or Nucor aluminum, for example, the newest Autodesk systems “will allow you to model how your engine will perform based on the different melt temperatures,” says Hatch. “The ability to do that on software that I can train you on and have you producing products within weeks is new to the world. Fifteen years ago, you would have needed a $15,000 computer and $10,000 in software and six months of training.”

Over the same 15 years, competition from Japan and China has drastically lowered the prices of the powerful machine tools needed to build actual prototypes. A numerically controlled Tormach milling machine that costs $17,500 today would have cost $250,000 in 1995, Hatch says. “That is a … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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