Saturday, July 2, 2011

High Tech for the Masses

TechShop opens San Jose space, giving do-it-yourselfers access to cutting edge tools and machines
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 2, 2011

Ella Vallejo of San Jose checks her soldering of a circuit board in the Solder and Basic Electronics class at TechShop Menlo Park.
Just to see one of Moto Ohtake’s shimmering stainless steel kinetic mobiles spinning in the wind is worth the drive to Sierra Azul in Watsonville. Or to see Kathleen Crocetti’s radiant multi-panel hanging mosaics made from thousands of tiny pieces of stained glass. Or the fascinating eroded sphere made by David Mudgett, made from what looks like rebar for giants. “Sculpture Is,” the 6th-annual June-October sculpture show at Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens, once again has an amazing array of incredible large-scale pieces.

As a maker who leans towards materials I can safely work with on my kitchen table, I can certainly appreciate these sculptors’ facility with materials as daunting as steel, concrete, bronze, and glass, and techniques as demanding as soldering, welding, grinding and sandblasting.

Your creative endeavors are always limited by know-how and access to tools and machinery. And even with training and tools, you might not have an appropriate workspace or the high tech machinery to work as efficiently as possible.

“Build your dreams here” prominently greets open house
 visitors at the entrance to TechShop San Jose.
But now there is TechShop. The equipment-rich DIY Bay Area workshop has just opened a new location in downtown San Jose, near the San Jose State. Seven days a week from 9 am to midnight, members have access to tools and machinery to create just about anything they can think of. TechShop classes are also open to non-members to learn techniques, master the safe operation of high tech equipment, and get a taste of the possibilities.

Classes offered by TechShop such as sewing, wood shop, embroidery and silk screen printing, might sound conventional. However, TechShop teaches these crafts using expensive, state-of-the-art machinery, which is (in the case of the San Jose shop) brand-spanking new.

TechShop’s pride and joy is a state-of-the-art
 3D printer, which can make three-dimensional
 items out of sturdy ABS plastic from any
 3D CAD file, layer by layer.
For example, in “Industrial Sewing SBU” (SBU stands for Safety and Basic Use) you’ll learn how to safely sew thick fabrics like canvas, leather, sails, tents, and nylon straps on an industrial sewing machine. In “Wood Shop SBU,” you’ll build a bench using all the standard woodworking tools and equipment, and be introduced to the CNC ShopBot—an amazing computerized router that carves in every direction for making 3D projects like signs, instruments and furniture.

Take “CNC Embroider SBU,” and you’ll learn to use a computerized machine that creates digitized stitches based on monogramming and logo art as well as clip art style designs. Or take “CNC Vinyl Cutter SBU,” where you’ll make use of software like Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, FlexiStarter 8, and machinery like the CNC Vinyl Cutter—a great tool for making screens for silk screen printing, signs, banners and decorating t-shirts.

I took “Soldering and Electronic Basics” at the Menlo Park TechShop location last week and learned how to solder electronic components for electronic printed circuit board
assembly by making an LED Blinkatron 2000. (!) With a six-student limit, the instructor was able to give individual attention to absolute beginners like me. This is also one of the classes which allow young adults aged 12-17 to participate without a parent. Upon request, I was also given a tour of building by one of TechShop’s Dream Coaches who are always on site to help members with their projects and answer questions.

TechShop Menlo Park describes their bin wall as the world’s
 largest shared junk drawer. Members bring in their surplus
 items and materials and add them to the appropriate
 bin for other members’ use.
TechShop was founded by Jim Newton—formerly a science advisor to Discovery Channel’s MythBusters—who rounded-up lenders and opened the first TechShop in Menlo Park, California in October 2006. Today there is also a TechShop franchise in Raleigh, North Carolina, and TechShop San Francisco opened in January of this year. TechShops Detroit and New York are in the planning stages.

One of TechShop’s success stories is Patrick Buckley, who used the Menlo Park shop to develop a prototype for a handmade iPad case. Today, his San Francisco-based company DODOcase, has sold $1 million in product, or about 10,000 to 15,000 cases. Joe Menard, TechShop’s chief operating officer, said that another member developed a bamboo knitting needle gauge, and today has a $300,000 business. A third is building a lunar lander for an annual NASA-funded amateur contest.

Menard said TechShop’s membership ranges widely, “from kids, to whimsical adults, to serious adults to people with business ideas.” He himself used TechShop equipment to make an audiophile-quality stereo amplifier for his home.

Members work on the vertical knee mill and the metal turning lathe
 in the machine shop at TechShop Menlo Park.
San Jose Dream Coach Kasey Kvamme led tours at Saturday’s open house with obvious enthusiasm. “Our instructors will get you using machines in a matter of hours,” she said to the crowd. “It’s easy and it’s so much fun,” she said about welding. After the tour, she described  Menlo Park as TechShop’s “Millennium Falcon,” in that, San Jose incorporated the features that worked at Menlo Park, and improved upon the one’s that didn’t work as well. “We’ve learned a lot from Menlo,” she said.

Before becoming an employee, Kvamme first came to TechShop Menlo Park for a laser cutting class. In the future she hopes to use the longarm computerized quilting machine (which hadn’t arrived for the grand opening) to make a new bedspread. And, as a dedicated Arkham Horror player, she’d like to build a glass-topped game board.

Memberships are priced at $125 per month or $1499 for an annual membership, and include free Autodesk Inventor classes. TechShop Menlo Park has about 800 members and San Francisco, about 675. Non-members can take most classes, which range in price from $45 to $90, plus materials fees.
TechShop Menlo Park’s main workshop area accommodates classes and provides workspace for members.
At the far end of the workshop is a kitchen always stocked with free popcorn and coffee.

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