Profit Minded

How TechShop is spawning individual industrial revolutions

TechShop Laser“It took the U.S. and Europe 150 years to go through the Industrial Revolution. Now, you can go through your own personal industrial revolution in 90 days,” says TechShop CEO Mark Hatch.

That’s not hyperbole from the former Green Beret with an MBA and spiked silver hair. In an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Small Business on Friday in New York, Hatch, who was in town for the World Maker Faire, relayed numerous near-overnight manufacturing success stories that have emerged from TechShop facilities around the country.

Since the company’s founding in 2006  in Menlo Park, Calif., locations have sprung up in San Francisco, San Jose, Detroit, Austin, and Pittsburgh. Members pay around $125 per month to access $1 million worth of advanced machinery and design software, 7 days a week, 9:00 am – midnight.

TechShop’s $60 million investment offering announced today—perhaps the first to leverage new fundraising rules enabled by the JOBS Act—will help expand some existing facilities and establish at least 11 new ones (in Arlington, Va., Cedar Valley, Iowa, Chandler, Ariz., Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Mich., Los Angeles, New York, Portland, Ore., and Seattle).

The company has emerged as a leader of the so-called “maker movement” by democratizing access to design, prototyping, and manufacturing tools. While Hatch says 18 percent of TechShop members have postdoctoral engineering experience, many more come with no design or manufacturing skills, take classes, and learn to make whatever they can imagine.

Hatch points, for instance, to Patrick Buckley, the creator of the handmade DODOCase, which the web magazine engadget calls “the Rolls Royce of iPad cases.” Within 90 days of taking an Intro to Textiles workshop at the Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, Buckley had designed, prototyped, and manufactured the DODOCase in time for the launch of the first iPad and cleared close to $1 million in sales. He now employs a team of artisans making the cases in his own San Francisco shop and counts celebrities and heads of state among his customers.

TechShop Flow JetOr, Hatch says, consider journalist David Lang, who pens the Zero to Maker column for Make Magazine. Within a few months of joining TechShop with zero “maker” experience, Lang became proficient in Arduino technology. With two co-developers, he raised $111,000 on Kickstarter to develop DIY kits for building open-source, remote-controlled, camera-mounted robots for underwater exploration. They’ve captured attention from scientists at NOAA and now lay claim to being the world’s largest remotely operated underwater vehicle company.

There’s also the out-of-work newspaper ad copywriter who remade himself at TechShop as a jewelry maker and now sells his work in MOMA’s gift shop. There’s the barista who quit her coffee shop job when her designs from discarded book covers made it into 40 stores worldwide. And there’s the accidental dog collar designer: The metal-studded leather necklace he fabricated for himself in a TechShop laser-cutting class drew an admiring inquiry from a pit bull owner. A local pet store now features a display rack of his accessories for dogs. Hatch shares some of those and more TechShop tales in his book, The Maker Movement Manifesto, due out October 1.

TechShop in the Motor City

On a recent tour of the 30,000 square foot Detroit TechShop, education and events coordinator Jason Burton points to industrial sewing and embroidery machines, a 3D laser cutter, an electronics lab, a fleet of Autodesk-equipped PCs, two MakerBots, and several computer numerical control milling machines. “These are the machines that started the industrial revolution,” he says of the latter.

He takes safety-goggled visitors through a welding shop, a woodshop, a metal fabrication shop, and a garage bay with a lift for autos and a massive waterjet cutter. One room holds an injection molder, a heat strip bender, and a vacuum former for plastics manufacturing. Another houses paint and powder-coating booths and a curing oven. A sandblaster is nearby.

The Detroit location alone boasts 850 members, including retirees, families, and engineers from the local Ford plant. A TechShop partnership with GE and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Innovation provides free one-year memberships and training to veterans at locations across the country.

Talking about a revolution

TechShop WeldingBeyond personal industrial revolutions, can the so-called maker movement bring about a major resurgence in U.S. manufacturing? Hatch calls it a “slam dunk.” He says, “The world’s greatest scientists, buried and stifled in academia, can now have access to the same equipment for the cost of a Starbucks addiction.” On any given Friday or Saturday night at the Menlo Park location, Hatch says, “We have crafters, jewelry makers, and t-shirt designers, but we also have research scientists from startup accelerators, Levi’s designers, and HP software developers.”

Several technologies prototyped in a TechShop, he says, “have already changed the world.” Those include Driptech, the world’s cheapest drip irrigation system, now in use in India and China; Embrace, a polymer incubation blanket that “will save 100,000 babies’ lives in the next 5 years;” and Clustered Systems, an efficient data center cooling system that has been licensed by Emerson. Its inventors invested $20,000 building it, and expect to make $10 million in sales annually.

Another TechShop innovation with huge potential for making an environmental impact is Solum, a GPS-enabled nitrogen detection system that tests soil and saves farmers 30 percent in operating costs by preventing over-fertilization. The inventor, a Stanford mechanical engineer, raised $1 million in funding within 16 weeks of prototyping it with two friends, and landed $17 million more in financing last year.

In the corporate world, Hatch says, a project manager with an idea like that might wait 16 weeks to get the go-ahead just to do a focus group to decide if the technology is worth developing. At Tech Shop, creative minds are free to play and build their dreams. “We’re like Maker Faire on a daily basis,” Hatch says.

To learn more about investing in TechShop or to vote for a TechShop location in your hometown visit TechShop online.

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