Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My TechShop Experience

Last May I took a fabulous trip to the San Fran area, in part to explore a new business called TechShop.  It is kind of like a gym membership, except inside there are dozens of high end machines, such as lathes, CNC machines, laser cutters, injection molding machines, even quilting and sewing machines, etc.  Basically, anything you need to work on cars (including lifts), woodworking, metalworking, plastics, fabrics or electronics.  I took three classes, learning a lot about the different machines, casting and molding techniques, etc.  I am excited to say that they are coming to Chandler, Arizona mid-summer 2013, and to help get the word out, I wanted to share my experience.  

The minute a wantrepreneur, tinkerer, hobbyist or otherwise nerdy individual walks through the door, they are immediately greeted by exposed technology, hipster-style branding and a nerdy cool factor that makes you feel, well, maybe not at home, but that you were always meant to come here.  At one location, we were provided a parking pass.  After getting the membership paperwork and photos done, we asked for a tour and were guided through the various rooms storing treasure troves of machining equipment, open work spaces, computer labs, etc.  There is free popcorn all the time, and a kitchen area where you can do your own thing on breaks.  The monitors on the computers are huge, enabling the work being done here to be that much more awesome.  

As we walked around, the energy wasn't flying high, but you could tell that amazing work was being done here.  People at the computers were collaborating quietly or clicking away on their own.  People on machines were artfully handling the equipment to produce something that must be spectacular.  At one location, we saw some impressive flowery drawings carved into wooden doors by a CNC machine; our tour guide informed us that this man had made these beautiful front doors for his wife for their anniversary, and she was so impressed that she insisted he make all the other doors of their house match.  So he had been coming for months, working on a couple doors at a time and designing ever more beautiful patterns to carve into the wood.  We also walked past the garage area, where cars were up on lifts to make it easier to work on.  We were shown an application for the 3D scanning and 3D printing system in which someone had brought in a broken car part, scanned it, modified it using the software, and then printed out a plastic version that could be used in creating a mold.  

The first class we took was on the laser cutter.  The class was focused mostly around safety, which I'm sure is an important aspect in the insurance policy of a place like this.  By the end of the class, we had learned a bit about the various software packages that could be used and we entered our names or whatever cute little phrases we wanted, and then watched as the laser cutter carved out our messages onto colored dog tags.  During our class, all the other laser cutters were being used individually by various patrons; these were high-demand machines.  

At another location, we took the RTV moldmaking class.  This class had no specific equipment involved, just a small measuring cup and materials.  So the class was held out in the general workstation area, with big tables and electric hookups for laptops and gadgets.  We stirred up the ingredients and casted our gear (which happens to be an integral part of the TechShop logo - clever branding!) and watched as the color changed, indicating it was hardening.  Then we mixed some other ingredients together and made a mold in our measuring cups.  It felt a little like arts and crafts day at Vacation Bible School, but I didn't mind how easy it was, because it was truly remarkable that a flimsy mold could produce a real casted plastic item.  While we were working, my eyes couldn't help but wander over to the sewing area, where a woman was using a huge machine I learned to be a long-arm quilting machine or something like that.  She worked diligently and without any help or interaction, and seemed to be in the "zone" creating a masterpiece.  

My last class was an injection molding class, the one I was most looking forward to.  The machine was in a small room pretty much by itself, and cost over $10,000 new.  As with the laser cutter class, there was a lot of safety instruction involved.  Then we each loaded the plastic pellets into the machine, and took our turn pressing the mold and creating gears again.  

What impressed me most about the classes was the vast experience and knowledge of the instructors.  These were the stereotypically "if you can't do it, teach it" kind of guys, these were men who had spent most of their careers in their respective fields, and were now teaching, maybe as a form of retirement, maybe in resistance to retiring.  Either way, they were brilliant, and I wanted to spend hours with them coaching me one-on-one.  

TechShop has Dream Consultants, and really, any company that has positions alluding to dreams is just cool to begin with.  The Dream Consultants are there to be personal mentors, and as the name implies, help you fulfill your dreams, of whatever you're trying to make or do.  I'm also excited for the potential  In some ways, it's a place for prototyping and proving new design concepts.  In other ways, it's a place for tinkerers and hobbyists to build and repair their toys.  In other ways still it's a place to have meetings, to host parties, to see the next big thing.  In all ways, it's a place of creation, invention, innovation, and coolness.  And I can't wait to have one practically in my own backyard!  

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