TechShop: Geek Heaven
One of the challenges that geeks, inventors, hobbyists, hackers, burners, and artists who are trying to change the world face is finding a place to do their work. Ideally, it would have lots of equipment, supplies, and other geeks. Until the last year, they would have to set up their own workshop or beg for space at a machine shop. Now they can go and hang out at TechShop in Menlo Park, California.
Jim Newton founded TechShop in the summer of 2006 because he needed a world-class workshop so he could work on his projects and inventions. After having access to full machine shops at both the College of San Mateo when he taught a BattleBots class and at the studio set of the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters show when he was the science advisor, he found himself without a place to work on his projects after these positions. He was surprised to find that there were not any places like TechShop already, so he decided that he would open one himself.
TechShop provides its members with a huge variety of tools, machines, and equipment in a 15,000 square-foot workshop environment. The equipment at TechShop is not likely to appear in the hobbyist’s home workshop. The range of tools and equipment covers machining, sheet metal, welding, casting, laser cutters, rapid prototyping, CAD, CNC equipment, electronics, sewing, automotive, plastics, composites, and lots more.
Membership is modeled after a fitness center, and several levels of membership are available. There are currently approximately 350 monthly, yearly, corporate, and lifetime members. The facility can handle around fifty members at a time, so TechShop have set the membership cap at 500 members so the shop and workspace does not get over-crowded. There are only about 150 membership slots available until membership is full. The hours of operation for TechShop are currently 9 AM to midnight, 7 days a week. Jim tells me that they plan to open 24x7 when they reach the membership cap of 500 in the next month or two.
One of the guiding principles of TechShop is to make it affordable and accessible to everyone. Memberships are priced at $30 for a day pass, $100 for a month pass, or $1100 for an annual pass. Family and corporate memberships are also available. Lifetime memberships are not for sale, but are given only to TechShop’s angel lenders.
The community of people at TechShop is probably the best part of working on a project there. All sorts of interesting, smart people hang out at TechShop and work on projects ranging from electric vehicles from bikes to motorcycles to cars to commercial vans, self-balancing human transport devices, robots, inventions, prototypes, Burning Man projects, and everyday hobby projects. The hallway discussions at TechShop are unlike any you’d hear anywhere else, and usually involve pretty geeky topics. When you get stuck on part of your project, there are always lots of people around who can give you advice on how to get through it.
This is one of the banners in the front lobby at TechShop. This one was hand-made by Jim’s mom, Heather, and presented as a grand- opening gift to him when he started TechShop in October, 2006.
This is TechShop’s main workshop area. There are twelve 4’ x 8’ work tables, with enough room to seat seventy-two people working on their projects at once. This room is also used for occasional public events, such as the two Tesla Motors presentations in May and Dorkbot-SF meeting in August.
This is TechShop’s “Bin Wall” which is essentially the world’s largest shared junk drawer. Members bring in their surplus items and materials and sort it into the bin wall. One member’s trash is another member’s treasure! All members can use the items for their own projects at TechShop for free. The TechShop Bin Wall is modeled after MythBusters host Jamie Hyneman’s wall of bins that can be seen on the show…Jim worked on MythBusters as the Science Advisor for season 3, and was so inspired by the value of the bin wall that he built his own for TechShop members.
This is part of the Tool Room at TechShop. The Tool Room is self-serve, and members take the tools they need and return them when they are done. Lots of members donate tools to the Tool Room, so the collection of tools actually grows, and there has been no “shrinkage.”
TechShop has a state-of-the-art 3D printer, the Dimension BST. It can make a part out of sturdy ABS plastic from any 3D CAD file, layer by layer, and can make a part up to 8” x 8” x 12” tall. The resulting model is nearly as strong as the final injection-molded plastic part would be. TechShop members can use this 3D printer whenever they want and only pay for the plastic they use.
Here is an ABS plastic robot arm and a cowling for a mechanism that were made on the Dimension BST 3D printer at TechShop by TechShop members. The parts can be made in many colors, but most members make their parts in either white or black ABS plastic.
This is the powder coating system at TechShop’s Finishing Room. Members can powder coat their projects whenever they want to. Also in the finishing Room is an anodizing system for anodizing aluminum parts in lots of different colors, a spray table, and a filtered drying hood.
This is one of TechShop’s two Epilog laser cutter and engraver systems. This one is an older unit that has a 25-watt CO2 laser, and the other one is a very new Helix 45-watt CO2 laser unit. These machines take just about any computer artwork, and cut out or engrave the design in acrylic, wood, cardboard, paper, cloth, leather, and lots of other materials with incredible precision. Jim tells me that these laser cutters are by far the most popular machines at TechShop.
Here are a couple of sheet metal brakes that are used to bend and fold sheet metal. TechShop has an entire manual and power sheet metal fabrication area for members to use.
What do you do when you need to punch a few dozen half-inch holes in some sheet metal? You use TechShop’s Rotex sheet metal turret punch, of course. It allows any size die to be selected and used to punch clean holes very quickly in sheet metal, plastic, and other materials.
Jim shows me how the English Wheel can be used to form a piece of aluminum into a fender. TechShop also has an air-powered planishing hammer and a shrinker and stretcher for forming sheet metal into all sorts of shapes.
This is a power brake that is used for folding and forming sheet metal and thicker pieces of metal. Lots of machines, including this one, can be very dangerous, so they can only be used by members after they have received proper training from TechShop staff.
This is TechShop’s power sheet metal shear. It can instantly and accurately chop steel sheet metal up to 1/8”, and aluminum sheet up to 1/4” thick.
This power horizontal band saw makes it very easy to cut large pieces of thick steel or aluminum stock. The material is clamped into the vise, and the saw lowers itself down into the material as it cuts. It can even cut a large I-beam!
This is one of TechShop’s desktop CNC milling machines. It is automatically controlled from a computer, and can cut very detailed and complex 3D parts out of plastic and aluminum.
These are sand blasting cabinets used to clean paint and rust off of surfaces in preparation for finishing. TechShop’s Grinding Room also offers grinders and sanders for metal, an abrasive tumbler, and chop saws.
This is a small part of TechShop’s Wood Shop. The equipment in this room includes a table saw, band saws, scroll saws, and a radial arm saw, all of which can be used for wood and plastic.
TechShop has five Bridgeport vertical milling machines for members to use, and Jim tells me these are the second most popular machines at TechShop. They are all equipped with digital readouts that are accurate to 0.0005”, and power feeds on the tables.
TechShop also has five manual metal lathes for members to use. These lathes are used to spin pieces of metal so they can be cut down into the desired diameter and shape. This is the largest of the five lathes.
Lots of geek projects involve canvas, cloth, or heavy leather, and the industrial sewing machines in TechShop’s Sewing Room can handle just about any task. There is even a computer-controlled embroidery sewing machine that can sew your company logo onto a polo shirt to help you push your brand a little further.
TechShop’s electronics Lab is stuffed full of all sorts of test equipment, power supplies, tool sand equipment for building and fixing electronic circuits.
This is the filtered clean room drying hood. Members at TechShop can paint their projects, and then place it in this chamber to allow it to dry without any hairs, dust or dirt falling on the wet surface.
I thought it might be fun to cut the Truemors logo out of solid metal plate. Here is the Truemors logo imported into the control software for the CNC plasma cutter in preparation for the cut.
My daughter gets ready for the big plasma cutting demo.
Tom Atkins, TechShop’s facilities director and instructor of the plasma cutter classes, supervises the plasma cutter as it cuts the Truemors logo out of stainless steel. The cutting head is automatically moved on the X and Y axes by the computer as it cuts the metal to reproduce the artwork. TechShop’s plasma cutter can effortlessly cut shapes out of up to a 4’ x 8’ sheet of 1/2” steel plate! Tom Conroy, TechShop archivist and member, can be seen in the background taking a picture of me taking a picture of the plasma cutter.
Success! The Truemors logo cut out of solid stainless steel with TechShop’s CNC plasma cutter by Dustin Still (left), TechShop’s director of advanced technologies, and Tom Atkins (right), TechShop’s facilities director. Dustin and Tom teach a variety of classes at TechShop, including carbon fiber fabrication, CNC and manual milling machines, lathe, powder coating, and anodizing.
Here are five of the fourteen members of the TechShop team that were on site in the morning when I stopped by TechShop (left to right): Liz DeSpain (TechShop’s office manager), Tim DeSpain (TechShop’s director of membership services), Robert Thomas (TechShop’s director of education services), Jim Newton (TechShop’s founder), and Pat Dear (TechShop’s videographer and assistant office manager).