We got to do some fun things at last month’s Go Further With Ford conference, such as test-driving the new Mustang and the purpose-built Police Interceptor. On the final night of the event, however, us conference-goers really got to enjoy ourselves – we got to make stuff, at the Detroit branch of TechShop. In business since 2006, the company now has five shops located across the U.S., all of which provide inventors and other people with access to advanced tools and know-how. We spoke to CEO Mark Hatch to learn more about what the group has to offer, and to whom.

The people

“We describe our members as five basic categories: hobbyists, entrepreneurs, artists, tinkerers, and students,” said Hatch.

Whatever category they fall into, all members have the opportunity to receive training on a wide variety of machines and tools, and then subsequently use them at their local TechShop. Some of the equipment available includes milling machines and lathes, welding stations and plasma cutters, sheet metal working equipment, drill presses and band saws, industrial sewing machines, plastic and woodworking equipment, electronics design and fabrication tools, laser cutters, tubing and metal bending machines, and 3D printers.

Instructors are hired locally, sometimes from right within the membership pool, or from the broader community. TechShop has a core group of 30 to 40 basic classes that are taught at all locations, so the staff set about locating local people with knowledge in those areas when establishing a new shop – they also make sure that those people know how to teach.

Niti Parikh, who makes her projects using the laser cutters at TechShop San Francisco

The projects

When it comes to the different types of members, the artists perhaps take the most interesting approach to their work. “They come at the tools kind of more diagonally from the way most of us would,” Mark said. “They don’t just say ‘Here’s my project, I need to use this tool,’ they’ll come at the tool and say ‘I wonder what it can do.’”

It’s the entrepreneurs, however, that are responsible for some of the company’s biggest success stories. Among the now-successful products that were first developed at TechShops, examples include: Square, a device that allows mobile devices to receive card payments; the Embrace infant warmer, a sleeping bag for babies that incorporates a phase-change material to protect against hypothermia; the Lightning electric motorcycle; OpenROV, a low-cost remote-operated underwater exploration vehicle; and, the DODOcase, a bamboo case for the iPad.

Although it is possible that your own TechShop creation could make you into a millionaire, you do have to spend money to make money – memberships start at US$99 a month (although you don’t have to be a member just to take classes). “We’re for profit,” said Hatch. “We want to leverage the capital markets to put this in every city. If we were a non-profit, it would take too long, we wouldn’t be able to afford the equipment.”

Detroit TechShop member Luciano Golia, who makes double standing basses for professional musicians around the world

The TechShops

While there may not be shops in every American city just yet, a Brooklyn location is slated to join the existing chapters in Menlo Park (California), San Francisco, San Jose, Raleigh (North Carolina) and Detroit. By the end of the year, shops should also be open in Washington, DC and Pittsburgh. These are being financed under a DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) services contract with the understanding that TechShop provide memberships to 1,000 armed forces veterans, so that they can receive training in how to become entrepreneurs over the next two years.

... and it doesn’t stop there. “We hope to come to Canada,” Hatch said. “We’re hoping to do our first international locations next year sometime. I’m not sure of the locations yet, we’re looking.”

You can learn more about TechShop in the video below.