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'Fab labs' out front in U.S. push to make manufacturing cool

Sep 19, 2013
In The News

PITTSBURGH -- When you're driving in circles, searching in vain for a parking space, do you wish your car could fold into a scooter?

There are now places where you can try your hand at making that scooter. In fact, someone's already working on it.

Welcome to TechShop Inc. -- your dad's basement workshop on steroids. A TechShop is packed with equipment -- plasma cutters, milling machines, 3-D printers and "iron workers" capable of drilling neat holes in thick steel -- and open to anyone with some ambition and $1,400 for the annual membership fee.

That car-to-scooter idea belongs to Chris Tacklind, 56, who calls his battery-powered vehicle the Twill. TechShop helped him work on his Twill prototype and is home to robot projects he works on as a mentor to high school students.


Anthony Walker (center) and Mary Jo Costello (right) chat with another TechShop member about his project in "the hub" at TechShop Pittsburgh. Photos by Katherine Ling.

"It's just phenomenal!" said Tacklind, CEO of Twill Tech Inc. "Everyone wants a place where they can do stuff. A hacker space is great, but it is nonprofit and might get together $10,000. But TechShop puts a million into a site. Suddenly, you have real serious stuff."

Tacklind belongs to the first TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif. There are now five additional TechShops: in Pittsburgh; San Francisco; Detroit; Austin, Texas; and San Jose, Calif. Three more TechShops are scheduled to open in Washington, D.C.; Chandler, Ariz.; and Brooklyn, N.Y., as early as this year. Inc. magazine just named TechShop one of America's fastest-growing private companies.

Jim Newton, chairman and founder of TechShop, said his goal is to spread 1,000 shops across the country so a million Americans can have access to high-tech machines.

"The thing that makes it so exciting is, it is one thing for [General Electric Co.] to come up with a product and design it and have meetings about it and eventually build it," he said. "It is a whole other thing for an individual with an idea burning a hole in his head, find TechShop and just say, 'I can do this.'"

Newton, a former adviser for the Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" and a contestant on BattleBots, a robot-fighting competition, likes to blow up the status quo. TechShop, he said, "really turns things upside-down, taking new ideas that are formed by people who don't have any business coming up with an idea. It gives them an avenue for them to do it."

He added: "Ideas come from everywhere. They don't just come from universities or R&D companies."

TechShop is part of a budding "maker movement" that its advocates say might lead to a new golden age of U.S. manufacturing.

Although TechShop is not the first "fabrication laboratory," or fab lab, it's the first commercial venture. There are about 40 nonprofit fab labs in the United States and abroad linked to academic institutions and "hacker spaces" in New York City and San Francisco -- all places where people can work and collaborate.

"One of the problems in manufacturing is it is not seen as cool, whereas working at Twitter is seen as cool, and that means there are a lot fewer kids getting into machining, for instance," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). "One of the useful aspects of the maker movement ... is that they can expose a broader range of people to important skills of manufacturing."

Atkinson also noted that fab labs exist because of an "emergence of tighter integration of IT and manufacturing."

ITIF and other stakeholders see digital or "advanced" manufacturing as the future of U.S. manufacturing, and it is at the center of an initiative by President Obama to create a $1 billion private-public partnership called the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (Greenwire, Sept. 4).

TechShop recently teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer free memberships and $350 worth of classes to 3,000 veterans, with additional funding from General Electric Co. The success of that program has led the Department of Labor to partner with TechShop to offer a number of free memberships to unemployed people who want to learn new skills or change their career paths.

A TechShop membership costs about $1,400 a year, but there are also $175 month-to-month memberships, day passes and student discounts.

The membership fee is about the cost of a big-city gym membership -- Newton's business model. For someone looking for more than a hobby, that can be a bargain.

"If we hadn't had TechShop, we never would have done what we did and be successful," said Phil Hughes, president of Clustered Systems Co., which makes a liquid cooling system for data center racks that the company says reduces energy consumption by up to 50 percent.

"A machine shop will charge you $50 to $60 an hour, and without knowing what you are going to build, you have to spend hours experimenting," Hughes said.

Other successful innovations that have been born at TechShops include Square, the white mobile credit card reader for any smartphone or tablet, and DODOcase, a cover for tablets and other electronic devices that looks like a traditional book and uses a bamboo shell for protection.

'Fail faster, fail better'

TechShop's work floor is accessible with just a swipe of a picture identification key card. The card also keeps track of who has passed safety classes required before members can run more dangerous machines that are kept behind yet another card-access sliding glass door.

But members have immediate access to 3-D printing machines, 3-D modeling software known as "computer-assisted design" (CAD) from top companies like AutoDesk Inc. and MakerBot Industries LLC, silk-screening equipment, industrial-strength sewing machines, poster-size printers, vinyl cutters, a wide range of hand and power tools, and "the hub": 4-by-8-foot tables with multiple electrical outlets.

"There are no prerequisites, which is great," said Anthony Walker, a former Army paratrooper and medical pilot and now a corporate pilot. He uses TechShop to make signs and dog beds for his wife's pet store near Pittsburgh, Bark-N-Go. Walker said it reminds him of workshops on military bases, where officers could tinker.

One of Walker's favorite machines at TechShop, the full-size ShopBot, can autonomously cut, drill and carve almost any material based on a computer 3-D design. A three-hour safety class opens the door to the machine, which Walker said was easy to learn to use. He used it to make a counter for his wife's shop with boards shaped like dog bones and a three-sided sidewalk sign.

TechShop monster

TechShop members take a class on welding as the "monster" fume hood looks on. The hood's "costume" is courtesy of TechShop staff.

TechShop General Manager Matt Verlinich said the technology offers hobbyists and budding entrepreneurs a luxury, time.

"Fail faster, fail better," Verlinich said. "That is TechShop's unofficial motto."

Verlinich, who has a master's degree in engineering science from Pennsylvania State University, said it is critical to quickly know whether an idea is going to work, so the creator can push forward or move to another project.

Verlinich learned from his own startup company, built on a biodiesel he created at school. The company didn't work out, so he took a job at Westinghouse. He moved to TechShop when it was opening here in March for the joy of "more creative endeavors."

He's joined here by "dream consultants" who hold similar high qualifications in different disciplines such as industrial design, computer-aided design and machining. They're paid to help members bring their ideas to life. Machinists and other craftsmen also teach the classes at TechShop.

"These guys are awesome. You just say, 'Hey, help!' and they come over," said Mary Jo Costello, a former member of the Navy Reserve who is starting a nutrition-education company, Wynk, to focus on children's health. Costello said she is enjoying TechShop so much, she doesn't mind the hour drive to get there and is working with children at "Maker Camps" this summer.

"This is probably the best benefit I have ever received from the military," she said. "This is superior because it goes above and beyond. For the young kids just coming out of service, it is phenomenal. In the military, everything is structure, structure, structure."

One of the unspoken benefits of TechShop is the community, Verlinich added, as staff and members provide suggestions or ideas.

Many companies and products have been created from these TechShop conversations, which the workshop encourages by providing meeting rooms with white boards for brainstorming.

'We are planting the seeds'

Verlinich sees TechShop as a key element in the future of U.S. manufacturing by emphasizing innovation, flexibility and personal relationships that companies need to thrive.

"We are planting the seeds rather than fertilizing a forest," Verlinich said.

Brad Markell, executive director of AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Council, also is positive about how TechShops and the maker movement expose more people to modern manufacturing, although he doesn't think it can provide the full professional training the manufacturing sector needs.

"It is a really neat idea," he said. "They help coalesce a creative element wherever they are. ... I just think it is the kind of thing that is exciting for the image of manufacturing and gives a taste for what tools are like and how technical it can be even at the entry level."

Last March, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) introduced a bill, H.R. 1289, to create a national network of digital fabrication facilities like TechShop to provide community access to advanced tools.

ITIF supports this bill, Atkinson said, but a larger national strategy is also needed to promote U.S. excellence in advanced manufacturing.

"What is exciting about the maker movement is it is moving that system into making things rather than assembling bits," he said. "So that is pretty exciting and cool. It has the potential to unleash the flowering of all the innovation."

And in fact, TechShop is already having an impact on original equipment manufacturers. Ford Motor Co. was a major force in bringing TechShop to Detroit about a year ago and is providing free three-month memberships to about 2,000 employees to work on new ideas for the company.

So far, the partnership has led to 50 percent more patentable ideas for the company by employees, Ford said.