Do you have a hankering to make something, but lack access to a laser cutter or machine tool? You might want to check out a local TechShop. Founded in October 2006, TechShop Inc. is a membership-based (about $100/month), do-it-yourself (DIY) workshop and fabrication studio that provides access to more than $1 million worth of high-quality machines, tools, and software, as well as classes and workshops on the technologies. TechShop is open to people of all ages and skill levels. It is based in Menlo Park, Calif., with locations in San Francisco, San Jose, Raleigh, N.C., and Detroit. Locations in Arizona, Pittsburgh, and D.C. are being planned.
Detroit facility Director Will Brick says as the shops evolve, TechShop personnel are increasingly dialing-in their layout and design to let users work more efficiently. A big central room features several large work tables. All the different technology areas, such as the laser, electronics, and industrial-painting studios, sit off the central room. “This arrangement encourages people to use the central room to work together on projects,” he says. “In fact, many entrepreneurial partnerships have been made between people sitting next to each other at one of these tables.”
The computers in the central room each feature more than $20,000 worth of engineering-design software from Autodesk Inc., San Raphael, Calif. Programs include Inventor, AutoCAD, Maya, and Revit. The central room also hosts a hotline to the U. S. Trademark and Patent Office through which TechShop users can file a U.S. patent or find out the status of one. The central room also features the now-iconic coffee maker and popcorn popper. The 17,000-sq-ft Detroit facility is clean, spacious, and airy. Many windows face both outside and internally to each of the technology areas, helping make the TechShop a pleasant place to work.
The machine shop, one such area, houses a lathe, a vertical-milling machine, and a Tormach four-axis CNC mill that can be fitted with various accessories such as a motorized rotary table or a mechanism which fits on the table top to let users cut intricate forms, tapers, and cylindrical objects. “People use the mill all sorts of ways,” says Brick. “For example, one designer came in to make aftermarket car parts, which he modeled in Inventor. He took a Tormach machine-tool class and then machined his first prototype. We helped him make a fixture so he could produce four or five parts at once. He now has a small business.”
Another technology area, the wood shop, features a three-phase table saw, a big wood lathe, a router table, and a pair of CNC wood-router Shop Bots, one with a large 4 × 8-ft work surface and one with a smaller work surface. “The machines have the same spindle, same controls, and same interface,” says Brick. “They just provide two different options for different project sizes.” One of the machines is getting upgraded with a more-efficient vacuum pull-down table designed in-house.
Yet another technology area provides both TIG and MIG welding. It features a large, stable welding table to which clamps, jigs, and fixtures can attach. Users can, for example, cut up tubing for a motorcycle frame, clamp the pieces down, and then tack them together. The resulting frame will be straight, true, and flat. A clean, sealed-off grinding area houses equipment such as pedestal grinders. All chips, dust, and grit flow into a collector. And an industrial spray booth lets users paint objects such as complete bicycle frames.
Before using any of the machines, TechShop members must first be certified in the technology by taking in-house courses in CNC, fabrication, laser cutting, metal shop, welding, or wood shop. The classes teach basic machine operation as well as shop safety.
Dan Herrell, an engineer at dredging-products manufacturer Cable Arm Inc., Trenton, Mich., uses Inventor- CAM, which works inside Inventor, to design injection molds for the TechShop’s injection molder. “I take the 3D model, import it into InventorCAM, create the toolpaths, and then cut the aluminum molds in the machine shop. Basically, I take mold designs from computer to reality.”
And in a work-related task, he uses Inventor to create a quick prototype part for measuring the draft angle of a barge. “The tilt sensors on the part are accurate to 0.01° — they measure the barge’s position relative to gravity and thus its depth in the water. I used Inventor to do the part’s mounting, electronics, and hardware, as well as the sealing needed because the part is on a ship.”
In another example, Juan Martinez of Detroit is using the TechShop to build a prototype electric cargo bike from the ground up. He envisions the bike as being appropriate for users such as single mothers needing to pick up their groceries. He says Inventor came in handy to lay out the dimensions of the bike frame.
“Despite my lack of experience in 3D, I didn’t find it hard to learn Inventor,” says Martinez. “I took one 2-hour TechShop class, and between that and asking other folks here how to use the software, I’ve was able to make the frame. The software lets me easily change a line drawing into tubing as well as extend a tube, say, by 1 in., and miter or even notch it.”
Additionally, Martinez used Inventor to design a lightweight truss to go across the bottom of the bike. He cut the truss from sheet metal on the TechShop waterjet. Martinez also used Inventor to perform stress tests on the frame. “I tested it for 500 lb, but realistically would not carry more than 300 to 400 lb on a bike,” he says.
The electric version of the bicycle includes a suspension, while the bottom of the frame holds large batteries and, thus, provides good stability. The electric bike can go about 35 mph. “The nice thing, too, is users don’t need insurance as with a motorbike,” says Martinez. “The bike is still just an electric bicycle.” His ambition is to finish the prototype and then open a small shop as a source of employment for his neighbors.
And lastly, Richard Jeryan, a retired Ford research engineer, is using the laser cutter to make sets of punch cards that program a card-driven loom. He is the weaver at the weaving shop in The Henry Ford museum, located near the Detroit TechShop. “I am helping rebuild a Jacquard loom,” he says. “As the first numerically controlled machine, it can be thought of as one of the original binary computers. All machine tools derive their ancestry from that loom. It was developed in an attempt to speed the manufacturing of fabrics for the French aristocracy. From that, came the idea of storing data and controlling machines.”
Basically, the museum sends Jeryan information about the pattern. He then programs the pattern into a CAD program that will operate the laser cutter. “The laser cutter produces a nice part,” says Jeryan. “All I have to do is remove the scraps from the holes, and the parts are perfect every time.”
According to Jeryan, the TechShop is an exciting place. “Lots of interesting people come here and they are excited about making things,” he says. “I expect to see this place grow and become a haven for entrepreneurs.”
Ford Motor Co. and TechShop
Working with TechShop and other organizations, Ford is helping entrepreneurs commercialize their creations. For example, Ford’s Patent Incentive Program provides Ford employee-inventors who come up with potentially patentable ideas, a three-month free membership to Tech- Shop Detroit. And the company’s Motor City Innovation Exchange will be an open meeting place for inventors to showcase what they create in TechShop. It will provide a way for inventors to negotiate, network, and sell their prototypes to manufacturers, suppliers, start-ups, and research institutions in the automotive industry.