TechShop unites area tinkerers

Photo by Andrea Poteet
TechShop member Tim Sefton uses a Shop Bot at the Allen Park facility to carve a foam mold for a part to a Stirling engine he is building.

Sunday Times Newspapers

ALLEN PARK — When a gust of wind destroyed a favorite lawn decoration, Charlie Knight knew exactly where to go.

Knight, the owner of a Marathon gas station in Trenton, took the battered wooden stem of a lawn umbrella to the Allen Park TechShop to rebuild it with sturdier aluminum.

Knight has spent three or four nights a week at the membership-based workshop — which offers access to tools, design software and machinery ranging from sewing machines to a high-tech water jet that can cut through almost any material — since joining in December.

“I saw what the place was like and realized I couldn’t live without it,” Knight said. “The whole idea of TechShop allows anyone who may have an idea to work with the idea, and it removes the boundaries.”

TechShop could be described as a gym for hobbyists, tinkerers and lovers of all things do-it-yourself. Instead of free weights and treadmills, the 17,000-square-foot facility is packed with $1 million in equipment from laser cutters to old-fashioned lathes as well as Autodesk’s portfolio of Digital Prototyping software. Instead of a trainer, skilled Dream Consultants draw on their experience in a variety of fields to guide members through their projects.

The brainchild of serial entrepreneur Jim Newton, TechShop was started in 2006 in Menlo Park, Calif., with the goal of giving like-minded people access to the tools they needed to accomplish their dreams. It now has additional locations in San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; and Raleigh, N.C., as well as the Allen Park location, which opened in December and will celebrate a grand opening from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 5 and 6. The event will include tours, demos and activities and additional evening events. TechShop plans on opening at least three more locations in the United States this year.

“Our mission is to engage, encourage and empower people by providing the tools of the next Industrial Revolution for anyone to build their dreams,” Newton said. “Detroit has a rich history of innovation and we want help bring more of those great ideas to life by providing affordable access and a supportive community.”

Photo by Andrea Poteet
TechShop Dream Consultant Shawn Simone operates a water jet at the Allen Park location.

In the Allen Park location, at 800 Republic Drive, member Tim Sefton is using that access to build a Stirling heat engine, after constructing a smaller prototype on his own.

“I thought it would be cool to make it bigger,” Sefton said. “But it needs more than what I have in the garage. With this place, I can get access to multi-thousand-dollar machines and build a really solid product.”

The engine is the first project Sefton has attempted at TechShop, after an online ad for the facility caught his attention a few months ago.

“I just thought it sounded like a great idea,” Sefton said. “It leverages innovation. To have access to these tools is a unique situation.”

Another unique aspect of TechShop is its community atmosphere. Anyone struggling with an idea can run it by other members, who may know more about the topic than they do.

“Our members are part of an amazingly creative and supportive community,” Will Brick, manager of the Allen Park location, said. “They meet all the other members, and share what they know and have learned. Their questions get answered. The cooperative spirit at TechShop helps the community grow and thrive.”

In the Menlo Park location, one member wanted to invent a tool to help curb the high infant mortality rate in developing countries, where a staggering number of infants die of hypothermia because of the scarcity of incubators. He had an idea for a sort of sleeping bag that would protect them from the cold and happened upon another TechShop member — a textiles dealer — who recommended a material that would expand when soaked in water and keep babies warm until they can be transferred to an incubator. The invention has the potential to save thousands of babies a year.

More and more of those simple ideas conceived at TechShop are becoming more than just a hobby for their creators. They’re becoming big business.

A variety of projects, from a DODOcase for an iPad, to Square—an easy-to-use personal credit card scanner—have been prototyped at TechShop and emerged into full-fledged business ventures.

Whether a member makes a silk-screen printed T-shirt or launches a million-dollar business, TechShop does not collect any proceeds from the invention. For a monthly membership fee, with additional workshop fees for Safety and Basic Use classes required before using some tools and machines, members have access to the machinery and workshop space during the location’s operating hours. Interest-specific classes, workshops and seminars are also a part of the TechShop experience, and members can seek the help of Dream Consultants when needed. Classes and community events are open to members and non-members alike.

The Allen Park location’s estimated 500 members range from beginners to experts on various pieces of equipment, Brick said, adding that they may come in with a fully formed idea or with none at all. Many dedicated members started out just simply wanting to learn how to use a table saw or to silkscreen.

“Sometimes it is hard to know where to start in a new world of possibility,” Brick said. “It’s not so much just, ‘Here’s this machine,’ it’s more about ‘Who do you want to be?’ or ‘What do you want to make?’ or ‘What inspires you?’ We try and make all of those dreams come true.”

And for Knight, who continues to refer family, friends and customers to TechShop so they can start to build their own dreams, the facility could not have come to the area at a better time.

“So many people are laid off,” Knight said. “Their hobbies aren’t doing anything for them. They are just watching TV. When they show up here, they become productive again. It’s empowering.”

Photo by Andrea Poteet
TechShop member Charlie Knight carves foam with a computer numerical control milling machine at the Allen Park location.