The Builders

TechShop has turned the mania for tinkering into a growing franchise.

By Ashlee Vance

Photographs by Brian Sorg

On March 5, 2010, Patrick Buckley was overcome with the desire to build something. Apple had just announced the iPad, and he had an idea: a retro case for the tablet that had the look and feel of a hardbound book. “In my mind, I needed to have a product and a website ready to go for that launch day,” he says. Buckley, 31, is a serial entrepreneur. He has built add-ons for Web browsers and co-wrote The Hungry Scientist Handbook, which is something like a cookbook for geeks. He’s done a Facebook app focused on high school sports, an early photo-sharing service, and “a mobile analytics platform.” Making an iPad case wasn’t like building a Web app, though. He needed tools. So he did what a lot of Silicon Valley geeks do: He went to a TechShop.

The TechShop chain is a paradise for people who like to make things. The average facility runs about 17,000 square feet and has all manner of apparatus, from Industrial Age staples like sewing machines, metal lathes, and mills to $200,000 computer-controlled contraptions that can cut precise patterns out of slabs of metal. For about $100 a month, you can become a TechShop member and use all this equipment. For a few bucks more, you can attend classes that vary from Welding 101 to drawing 3D models on a computer.

At the original TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif., Buckley learned how to slice up large sheets of bamboo into smaller pieces and how to fasten them together and smooth them down to make a retro case for the iPad. The result was the DODOcase. Buckley sold about $4 million worth of the cases in his first year and has expanded since. He now employs 25 people and has a factory in San Francisco. “President Obama has a DODOcase,” Buckley says. “You can see it in the Oval Office. I’ve actually never seen a photo of him using an iPad without it.”

The Menlo Park TechShop opened in 2006, part of a boomlet in so-called hacker spaces. Lacking garage workshops, city dwellers created places where they can write software code or build robots, while socializing and sharing their expertise. They’re part of what’s known as the maker movement: DIY enthusiasts who argue that they’re fulfilling a fundamental human need to make things with our hands.

TechShop stands as the retail embodiment of this movement. It’s a maker franchise. Jim Newton, a veteran of the Valley’s computer hardware scene and a former science adviser to the MythBusters television series, founded TechShop after getting hooked on building BattleBots, the warrior robots that fight each other. He ended up taking a machine class at a local college to get access to better tools. Newton proved so good at building the robots and working with the machines that he was asked to teach a class. “Then people kept e-mailing me to see if they could use the machine shop for their own projects, and it showed me that people would pay for access to a shop,” he says.

Newton announced his plans in 2006 at the Maker Faire, an annual gathering in the Bay Area that celebrates handmade creations, and people began handing him membership dues on the spot. More people offered to invest $25,000 each to get the TechShop going, and soon Newton had the $350,000 needed to open in Menlo Park. More TechShops were started in a similar fashion. The company has since found that it can get each site to profitability more quickly with corporate sponsorships. It expects to break even at all of the stores this year. There are now about 3,300 TechShop members.

There are three TechShops in the Bay Area and another in Raleigh, N.C. Earlier this year, a TechShop opened in Detroit via a partnership with Ford Motor meant to provide makers at the company and in the city with a creative outlet. “The crisis we went through in Detroit has driven the rise of a more entrepreneurial spirit,” says Paul Mascarenas, the chief technical officer at Ford. “This is part of an opportunity to bring out some of the innovation.” Other companies — none of which have been named yet — are in negotiations to back TechShops in Austin, Phoenix, and New York (Brooklyn) this year, with Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and San Diego on the agenda for next year.

In Washington, a very big partner has stepped up. In an interview, the Defense Department revealed that it will spend $3.5 million to fund two TechShops near Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. Regular members will work in the facility by day, and then employees of DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will arrive at midnight to conduct after-hours work. Their mission: To design factories that can be reconfigured on the fly. The project is called iFab. For a month, a given factory might use dozens of machines to make parts for helicopters. Then, you reboot the software controlling the machines, and out come the parts for the drive train system in a tank. The DARPA workers at TechShop will try to figure out which tools and methods can be used to rewire factories in this fashion. “They are not there to interact with the general public or look at the ideas people have,” says Nathan Wiedenman, the program manager of DARPA’s tactical technology office. “They are there to work on iFab.”

Despite the secrecy, DARPA has worked over the past 10 years to harness the creative resources of the public. It’s used contests and prize money to spur innovation in areas like robotic cars and artificial intelligence algorithms. And it’s looking to flood high schools with 3D printers, design software, and computer-controlled machines. DARPA has invested in TechShop as part of a broad mission to see if regular citizens can outinvent military contractors on some of its weirder projects. (The Department of Veterans Affairs, meanwhile, will be giving 1-year TechShop memberships to 2,000 veterans.) “We are pretty in tune with the maker movement,” says Wiedenman. “We want to reach out to a much broader section of society, a much broader collection of brains.”

Walk into the three-story TechShop located south of Market Street in San Francisco, and you’re greeted by a dream consultant — yes, that’s an official title — like Danny Garcia. He studied architecture for five years, then got stir-crazy and completed metal and woodworking apprenticeships. Members can give their dream consultants an idea of what they’d like to make and receive advice on how best to achieve the goal and what classes to take. Garcia, like many TechShop employees, often works from 9 a.m. until the location closes at midnight. He goes home with his pants covered in sawdust, and loves it. “I volunteered here until they hired me,” he says.

TechShop members are a mix of hobbyists, artists, retired engineers, and budding entrepreneurs. The first prototype of the Square, a device that turns smartphones and tablets into credit-card readers, came out of TechShop, as did Lightning Motorcycles, maker of the world’s fastest electric motorcycle, and Embrace, which built a cheap infant warmer now distributed worldwide by GE Healthcare.

Each TechShop is divided up into sections. There are large, cordoned-off areas for bulky and dangerous equipment like sheet metal rollers and chop saws and handheld plasma cutters. There are special areas for tasks that make a lot of noise and a lot of mess like the sand-blasting cabinet and spray-painting studio. Most of the people, though, end up in shared common spaces that are filled with workbenches. There’s free coffee and popcorn.

On a Wednesday afternoon in March, about 50 people are in full maker mode at the TechShop in San Francisco. Anton Willis is building an origami kayak, which works like it sounds. Before a hiking trip, you fold the kayak up and stuff it in your backpack and then unfurl it at the waterside. While made out of corrugated plastic, the kayak has proved sturdy enough to support Willis on dozens of trips. “It’s perfect for the Bay,” he says.

The people consuming the most space in the shared area are Adam Ellsworth and Bryan Duxbury, who have a full-on manufacturing operation. They created a lamp that looks like one of the question mark cubes from Super Mario Bros. You know, the ones that spit out gold coins when hit by a character. Similarly, you punch the 6 x 6 x 6-inch lamp to turn it on and off and every now and then it makes a noise just like the cube in the video game. “I think the sound is what keeps people coming back,” says Ellsworth. “It really touches on their nostalgia.”

They’ve sold hundreds of the lamps for about $75 each and take up three large tables to perform the assembly. Plastic squares stamped with yellow question marks and white backgrounds sit in stacks with bins full of electronics nearby. “We have one full-time worker now and two people that work 30 hours a week,” says Ellsworth. “USPS comes here every day and takes a cart of them away.” He estimates that the amount of equipment they use to make the lamps — laser cutters, screen printers, and the like — would cost more than $150,000, meaning they would never have even tried had TechShop not been around.

Each TechShop location has a different look and vibe. The Menlo Park site remains gritty and has an experimental air. The new site near Detroit shows what practice and some corporate backing can do. It’s a gleaming 38,000-sq.-ft. facility in a modified Ford building in Allen Park, Mich., just a few miles from the company’s main offices. Executives from TechShop and Ford performed the grand opening in early May by slicing through a thick metal “ribbon” with a plasma torch.

Ford’s executives heard about TechShop and hit on it as a way to pull more innovations out of the company. Ford’s employees were always thinking about new gizmos and needed a place where they could mock up prototypes quickly and test out their concepts. Instead of waiting to reserve equipment through Ford’s official channels, the employees can hop in their cars and drive three minutes over to TechShop. Ford employees that submit invention ideas that management deems patentable now receive free TechShop memberships.

Bill Coughlin, the chief executive officer at Ford Global Technologies, which handles intellectual property matters for the carmaker, expects Ford executives to greenlight more ideas when they can hold actual prototypes in their hands, rather than just see the early form of an idea on paper. He’s taken classes on 3D design software and laser printing; about 1,000 Ford workers have been given access to TechShop to date. The facility has a large showroom that will soon be filled with dozens of exhibit stations so that other TechShop members can demonstrate their technologies to car industry executives. “My hope is that this lets us connect to the maker community out there,” Coughlin says.

Mark Hatch, the CEO of TechShop, has tried to fund each site with local investors. It’s a time-consuming approach that’s slowed the growth of the company. Through Ford, though, Hatch has hit on a new model. Ford guarantees a certain number of members and, through its sponsorship, ensures that TechShop will at least break even for a few years. “Anyone with a heart could feel what went on here through the last downturn,” Hatch says. “To come here and provide this kind of resource is awesome.”

The size of the Detroit facility has Hatch dreaming up extensions to the TechShop business. “We’ll add services desks, so that we’re not all DIY,” he says. “Someone can send us a file, and we will 3D print the object for you or laser cut it, and you can pick it up.” In this scenario, TechShop turns into the equivalent of the Kinko’s of the maker movement.

For Luciano Golia, the current setup at the Detroit facility is just fine. He’s a luthier from Italy who has made basses for professional musicians for 25 years. During a trip to Michigan for a conference, Golia fell in love with an American woman and recently moved to Allen Park so their daughter could be born in the U.S. He gave up his studio in Turin and $20,000 of equipment and had no idea what he’d do until his wife heard about TechShop. “When I found out about this place, it was just a beautiful gift,” says Golia. He now spends about eight hours a day at TechShop.

For some, TechShop represents a raised fist in the age of Made In China — and an opportunity to opt out of mass-market consumption and unleash their own creativity. They are tinkering at TechShop, testing out ideas at a rapid pace, and getting help from the other makers around them. “Specific movements come and go, but the basic phenomenon is big and growing,” says Eric von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “People are not finding what they want on the market and are choosing to create what they want.”

Tamim Hamid has felt the benefits of TechShop on a visceral level. For years he watched as male pattern baldness set in and started eating away at his wavy, black hair. A Silicon Valley biomedical engineer, Hamid dreamed up a helmet outfitted with dozens of lasers that would fire on the scalp and stimulate hair follicles. He developed the science behind the machine and then went to TechShop to find industrial designers who could develop the helmet and others to create the packaging for the device. “The folks who hang out here are good,” he says. “They’re always getting a lot of work.”

Later this month, Hamid will begin selling the Theradome. It started out as a crude 3D-printed plastic model and was then milled out of foam with a carrying case produced on industrial sewing machines. Now, it’s a superslick blue-and-white helmet that has an industrial design reminiscent of an Apple laptop. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the device, which people are expected to wear three times a week for 20 minutes. “We’ve tested it on hundreds of people to show that it’s safe,” Hamid says, running his hand through a now-thick mat of salt-and-pepper hair. “It works on anyone.”

Buckley, meanwhile, plans to expand way beyond the DODOcase to fashion all types of accessories for gadgets. In each case, he wants to marry Old World manufacturing techniques with high-tech devices. TechShop served Buckley well once again when he took his girlfriend for a welding class to see if she had the mettle to be a maker. “It was a test, and she passed,” says Buckley. “She’s my wife now.”


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