John Lawton used to go to the White House to pick up presidents, vice presidents, and various heads of states for chopper rides. He was also the White House liaison officer for the HMX-1, the marine helicopter squadron that provides presidential transport. But when he returned to the White House in mid-June, he did so as an exhibitor at the first-ever White House Maker Faire. A veteran with a custom-furniture business, he embodies the inventive, do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit the Maker Faire celebrates.
When his service in the presidential squadron ended in 2013, Lawton relocated to Austin, Texas, a city that he’d longed to live in. “It’s an innovator-, inventor-friendly place,” he remarked. The city suited his tinkering tendencies, shaped equally by his welder father and artist mother. That’s also where he stumbled on TechShop, a membership-based personal manufacturing community with production and training facilities across eight cities (two more locations opening soon). TechShop provides one-year free membership to veterans like Lawton, who served three deployments, two years in Iraq. So he joined the build-and-play TechShop community. Continue reading
Several blocks away from the heart of downtown San Francisco, where pubs and clubs commingle with warehouses, clean, bold typefaces enclosed in a yellow-and-black border painted on a wall announce the pending arrival of TechShop. The two story, 17,000 sq. ft. space is currently empty, save a series of workbenches, dangling ceiling lights, metal cutters, and woodcutters. Come January, the sunny, spacious building will become a members-only do-it-yourself workshop, the fifth in a chain.
Much like its counterparts spread across the U.S. from California to North Carolina, the San Francisco TechShop location will be outfitted with CNC machines, vacuum forming machines, sheet-metal punchers, drill presses, 3D scanners, and HP Z600 workstations. For $125 a month, this could become your manufacturing facility for low production runs and one-of-a-kind hobby projects.
Design software gives people a way to visualize their ideas in 3D, be it a stylized surfboard or a custom hot rod. But turning detailed geometry into a physical prototype is, for most people, not an affordable proposition. Most machine shops and mold facilities are designed to churn out hundreds and thousands of identical units, not two to twenty units of experimental objects with dubious profit margins.
When Jim Newton launched TechShop in 2006, he sparked a wildfire of self-made merchandises and creations. The company now has four open locations: San Jose, California; Detroit, Michigan; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Portland, Oregon. More are scheduled to open following the San Francisco site. Check out the TechShop member gallery and you’ll find that they’re building everything imaginable, from chocolate bars (CNC cut), robots, and woodcut dinosaurs to lunar landing vehicles.
There’s something else you should know about the workstations installed at TechShop — they’re preloaded with Autodesk software (AutoCAD, Autodesk Inventor, Autodesk Alias, to name but a few). Should you need guidance on using the software, TechShop offers classes (9 hours of Inventor training for $499; 8 hours of SolidWorks training for $395). Same goes for hardware too (1.5 hour CNC vinyl cutter training for $45; 2 hour metal shop training for $60).
“Using a mill the old-school way requires lots of math, plus six months to multiple years of experience on the machine to be fluent on it, to learn its nuances, so you’d have to go to a trade school or become an apprentice,” observed Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop. “With the power of the software, if you can learn to use the software, you can skip the apprenticeship and go straight to production.”
“With the advent of so many new composite materials,” saidTerry Sandin, who will be managing the new SF location of TechShop, “people could run their ideas through [CAD-driven finite element analysis or stress analysis] to see if it’ll work.”
TechShop-style engineering reaches a much broader audience, including craft fair folks and artistic types. It’s not confined to the testosterone-driven industrial builders and handymen (as type-casted in the sit-com Home Improvement’s fictional lead Tim Taylor).
“We are in the beginning of the largest creativity innovation the world has ever seen, driven by extremely powerful tools [CAD software] that allow you to visualize things before you make them,” said Hatch. “With TechShop capabilities, you can produce [your prototypes] in days, not months or years. Combine that with the long tail of the internet, you get friction-free ability to market things — we’re in a new space.”
Some TechShop members have reportedly succeeded in turning their ideas into commercial projects, building them in manageable volumes and selling them directly to consumers through eBay, Etsy, and other outlets.
On Saturday May 22, as midday approached at Maker Faire Bay Area, I was frantically trying to reach Paul Grayson, CEO of Alibre. It was 30 minutes past our appointment. He was somewhere in that swelling tide of people (estimated 90,000), rolling through 48 acres of fairground. His PR firm has provided me with his cell phone number and his booth number, but neither was of much help. When I got a hold of him on the phone, his voice was drowned out by the sound of whirling gadgets and buzzing electronics. The map that came with the show guide didn’t include booth numbers. I was about to give up when I stumbled on him in the press room, giving an interview to a reporter.
Maker Faire, an annual event organized by the editors of Make magazine (“Makezine” for those in the know), attracts the do-it-yourself types with a knack for arts, crafts, and science. Know how to put together an autonomous robot that tosses balls? Want to learn how to turn your old cigar box into a mandolin? Have a solely-for-pleasure engineering project you want to showcase? This is where you might come to teach, learn, or share.
The maker-tinkerer phenomenon, one of the cornerstones of American entrepreneurship, is as old as the country itself. It gave us Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, among others. What’s new is the fast-growing maker communities, fueled by the rise of social media and the plunging cost of technology.
For engineering software developers like Grayson, this is a new field of opportunity, with plenty or unclaimed pastures and prairies. With a 3D modeling package selling for $99 (less than the price of an iPod Nano), Grayson believes his product has an advantage over Autodesk, SolidWorks, and other big names among this exploratory, hobbyist crowd. That’s why the six-foot-tall Texan (one of the few donning a dark suit at the fair) is marching down the aisles, rubbing shoulders with DJs who transformed their music into psychedelic colors, a Burning Man crowd that reprised their pyrotechnic centipede, and a composer who automated a traditional Indonesian orchestra (the contraption is dubbed The Gamelatron).
Two days before he flew down to California for the fair, Grayson had his PR people issue an announcement. “Alibre announces Alibre Personal Edition, for entrepreneurs and inventors at Maker Faire.” It’s meant as “an industrial-strength, parametric solid modeling system with integrated 3D solid modeling, part and assembly design, associative 2D drafting, and STL export, all at a hobby-friendly price.”
“We want to make it possible for ordinary humans to make things,” proclaimed Grayson. “And that’s really what Maker Faire is all about. Of course, we’re focused on a particular type of things — mechanical products that’s precise, need to be manufactured.”
People who routinely use CAD programs are no stranger to Alibre. Last year, Grayson stirred the engineering software community by slashing its software’s price from $999 to $99. The Personal Edition is what Alibre has been selling for $99 first, later for $97, then back again for $99.
So why negotiate the $3 difference? Grayson admitted, “I’m kind of a crazy marketing guy at heart. I try things. Sometimes my own staff get mad at me because I keep changing it. But it’s part of my nature to want to try new things, experiment, and see how people would react to it.”
In the past, average people couldn’t afford to cut, finish, and assemble their own custom robots, because manufacturing facilities weren’t (they still aren’t) designed to cater to tinkerers looking for a low-volume production run. But today, with an affordable 3D modeling package, you could export your design as an STL file and print it (yes, print it in 3D) at a service bureau. The same workflow has spawned a viable industry revolving around printing customized avatars (from such online games as World of Warcraft or Second Life).
Perhaps you have heard of Zipcar, the company that lets subscribers pick up and use vehicles from a pool of cars for a low daily rate (for San Francisco, the advertised rate is $73 for weekdays, $88 for weekends, or $7 per hour). Gas and insurance are included in the plan. It’s ideal for those who must drive occasionally, but don’t have to (or don’t want to) own a car.
TechShop is the workshop equivalent of Zipcar. Would you ever need to own a laser cutter, a metal welder, or a milling machine? For most, the answer is, “Probably not.” But sometimes, when inspiration strikes, you might want to churn out a pair of laser-engraved earrings or a welded sculpture. For roughly $125 a month, TechShop allows its members to use its 15,200 sq. ft. facility, equipped with grinders, vinyl cutters, sewing machines, chop saws, band saws, 3D printers, and computer workstations. (Fresh brew coffee, pop corn, and WiFi also come with access to the place.)
Something else you get at TechShop: CAD training (for additional fee, not part of membership). On July 6, for example, you can begin a 9-hour SolidWorks course (3 hours a week), to learn not just how to model but also to export your design to be produced in 3D printers, laser cutters, and mills onsite. If you have more time to spare, you can also take classes on mold making, fabrication, soldering, and basic electronics, all under the same roof where you might later put those skills to use.
Currently, TechShop has two locations: Menlo Park, California; Durham, North Carolina. But more shops are set to appear in San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, and beyond.
“None of this stuff was available to the amateurs 10 years ago,” said TechShop’s founder Jim Newton, waving at the hardware he’d brought along to Maker Faire. “Our members like instant gratification. They want to get something done. It may not be a long-term thing they want to do. So a software like [Autodesk] Inventor is particularly good for that.” With this crowd, a complicated software that takes months to learn just won’t cut it.
“Something interesting tends to happen with TechShop members,” noted Newton. “Somebody would have an idea for a product. They’d make 50-100 units. Then they can put it on eBay and sell it. We’ve had lots of people who spin off a business that way.”
The maker movement is a surging force, driven by personal creativity and the desire to produce something tangible. The outcomes range from mildly amusing, wildly impractical, to possibly market-ready. This is also unfamiliar territory for professional software makers. Whereas CATIA, NX, and Pro/E may carry more weight over smaller brands in automotive and aerospace, should they choose to compete for attention at Maker Faire, they’ll probably need to compete on equal terms with Alibre and the rest.