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.”