The Innovators Club

Interest in TechShop's neighborhood workshops is growing

Photo: Timothy Archibald

Sparks fly—literally and figuratively—at TechShop, a community workshop in Menlo Park, Calif., founded by Jim Newton [foreground].

You don’t need your own exercise equipment to get fit, so why do you need your own machine tools to build something cool?

Such thinking led Jim Newton to found the first TechShop, a highâ''tech workshop open to anyone who pays a modest membership fee. Think of it as a health club for geeks. Instead of treadmills and elliptical trainers, you’ll find laser and plasma cutters, milling machines and lathes, oscilloscopes and frequency generators. What’s more, you’ll run into like-minded folk who can give you tips on everything from tungsten inert-gas welding to computer-aided design, either through organized classes or informal coaching.

That first TechShop opened its doors in Menlo Park, Calif., in October 2006. Now it’s branching out. Two new facilities, one in Durham, N.C., and another in Portland, Ore., are opening soon, and more are in the planning stages [see sidebar, ”A New Crop of Shops”].

Newton, who used to be the science advisor to the popular television program ”Mythbusters,” created TechShop to have such a workspace at his disposal for building what he describes as his own ”crazy inventions.” At the start, it wasn’t clear to him how to support such a facility other than by doing lots of dreary jobâ''shop work. Then Newton conceived of making it a community-supported resource. But that model came with its own shortcomings. Wouldn’t klutzy people maim themselves and then sue the business into bankruptcy? Wouldn’t insurers refuse to provide coverage for that very reason?

As it turned out, Newton got his liability insurance. One reason was the emphasis he has put on safety instruction. His latest system for allowing only trained members to use the more dangerous pieces of equipment is a very sweet hack, appropriate to the whole TechShop philosophy. Each tool has a pair of safety lights, one of which shines red unless the member using it (identified by an RFID badge) has been instructed on the safety and basic operation of the tool, in which case a database is updated and the other light shines green. ”If we catch you using that machine with the red light on,” Newton says, ”you’re gone—you’re out.” But the badge system has proved to be almost unneeded for safety, because of a basic human quality: ”People,” he says, ”have a very strong sense of self-preservation.”

Even if ensuring safety isn’t a problem, doesn’t a shared shop necessarily suffer the tragedy of the commons? Don’t people abuse the tools or even walk off with ones that aren’t bolted down? Newton says you have to expect that things like endâ''mill cutters will get dulled but that those members wanting sharper tooling are free to bring their own. And he has found that stuff hasn’t been lost to theft—just the reverse, in fact. ”We actually have the opposite problem,” he says. Because of spontaneous donations, the number of tools on the shelves has grown with time.

The number of participants is growing too. There are currently some 400 individual members, the more ardent of whom have to be thrown out when the shop closes down at midnight. Once membership reaches its planned limit of 500, Newton will keep it open 24/7. ”You can live here if you want,” he says, jokingly.

TechShop also boasts a few dozen corporate members. Some are small companies that need access to equipment they can’t afford. But they also include such California heavyweights as NASA’s Ames Research Center in San Jose, PDI DreamWorks in Redwood City, and Frog Design in Palo Alto, an industrial-design consultancy well known for its work on some of the early Apple and Sun computers. That such enterprises have signed on to TechShop, when they surely have access to other machine shops, shows that its real value lies in the rich community it offers.

That community raises a potential problem, though: inventors may see a risk in doing prototype work at TechShop—having their ideas stolen. And even if nothing scurrilous takes place, using TechShop could conceivably compromise an inventor’s ability to obtain a patent.

Newton is sensitive to these worries and plans to incorporate a blanket nondisclosure agreement into the membership documents. That way, no one demonstrating a cool new gizmo to other TechShoppers could be viewed as putting the invention to public use.

TechShop indeed caters to budding entrepreneurs. It hosts ”inventors-alliance meetings” and, Newton hopes, may eventually be able to offer them seed money to get their businesses launched. ”As a frustrated inventor,” Newton says, ”I know I would like to see that.”

To Probe Further

For more on TechShop, see Slideshow: A TechShop Snapshot

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