“Geeks and nerds are often portrayed sitting alone behind the glow of a laptop screen,” writes Bre Pettis in Hackerspaces: The Beginning, an e-book from 2011. “But now, in many cities big and small around the world, hackers gather to solder electronics, share programming skills, teach classes, and build a community of intelligent, inquisitive, and clever people.”
It’s true. We already know that the burgeoning culture of maker/hacker/“geeks” has redefined do-it-yourselfism, creating a culture that blurs lines between design, hacking, art, and business in interesting ways (and is the focus of Wired Design, a useful “vertical” the magazine launched online earlier this year). So the fact that bands of such like-minded tinkerers have pooled resources to fill often-raw spaces around the world with milling machines and laser cutters and 3D printers makes sense: a reminder of how important physical gathering spots remain, even in the screen age. Visit, say, NYC Resistor (a hackerspace in Brooklyn co-founded, as it happens, by Pettis) and you can sense you’re in a special place.
Which is why perhaps the most intriguing bet on the of mainstreaming maker-ness is a small chain called TechShop, which aspires to become a “Kinko’s for geeks.” The first TechShop, opened in Menlo Park in 2006, was a kind of supersized hackerspace. Founder Jim Newton stocked it by dreaming up a couple hundred product ideas and figuring out what equipment would be required to create all of them. High-end tools from laser-cutters and 3D printers to professional-grade lathes and industrial sewing machines filled a whopping 15,000-square-foot space; it made money from membership dues, and classes. Today there are five locations. Earlier this year I visted one, in an industrial park on the outskirts of Raleigh, in North Carolina’s famous Research Triangle.
“Make Anything!” chirped a sign attached to a vintage Dodge truck in front of the blandly bricked façade. The location's founder, Scott Saxon, whose idiosyncratic resume includes stints as a Navy engineer, recording-studio owner, and operator of unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan, gave me a tour. (He encountered Newton a few years back and had an instant-conversion moment that inspired him to open this outpost in 2009.) Passing through the well-stocked woodshop, we found member Mark Lindsay using the massive ShopBot computerized-numerical-control router to make wooden butterfly cutouts for his daughter’s camp project.
Around a corner, a TechShop employee with the title “Lead Dream Consultant,” Evan Daniel, advised another member who was building a metal-and-wood coffee table from his own design. Hulking industrial tools jammed the machine shop; there was a top-end Dimension fabrication machine; not far away, a guy was welding a piece of what he described as a sculpture. Upstairs, Saxon showed me the screenprinting studio, the vinyl cutter, the textiles equipment, and the $30,000 Epilog laser cutter that he said is the shop’s most popular device.
I came back later that evening and visited an informal conference room where some local Arduino enthusiasts were having their monthly gathering. (Arduinos are open-source microcontroller circuit boards, highly popular with hardware hackers; TechShop sells starter kits.) Paul MacDougal, a software guy at nVidia by day, showed me the customized odometer/clock he’s making for his car, and consultant Justis Peters tested the connection between a headphone-like NeuroSky “brain wave sensor” set and his laptop, via an Arduino Bluetooth chip, part of an “open EEG project” he’s embarking on. While the group egged each other on techno-language I could barely comprehend, I noticed several bolts of fabric stacked in the back of the room, “for the Etsy meet-up” the next night, according to a handwritten sign.
It was impressive. (And since that visit the Raleigh TechShop has gotten a major equipment upgrade, replacing some the more, um, “vintage” machinery; I got the company to send me some recent pictures to accompany this post.)
It was also somewhat overwhelming. This may be an inevitable side effect of the all-inclusiveness of TechShop’s makers-meet-the marketplace strategy, as Mark Hatch, the chain’s chief executive, explained it to me: Making stuff — an eternal human instinct, probably — has acquired a cultural cachet attached to tinker-ish creation practices that span numerous seemingly distinct categories. Thus TechShop’s business proposition revolves around attracting the whole “hodgepodge” of aspiring DIYers: customers of Lowe’s, Michael’s, and Radio Shack, in addition to, say, Make Magazine subscribers.
TechShop also touts itself as a kind of business-incubation hub: the proverbial enterpreneur’s garage, tricked out with thousands of dollars in equipment. Square, the now-well-known maker of a smartphone-compatible credit-card reader, made its final prototype in the Menlo Park TechShop. The creator of a time-lapse camera add-on called eMotimo makes his product in another TechShop. The founders of Blocklets, which sells snap-together wood-and-acrylic pieces for making Lego-like sculptures and forms, worked out their prototypes on the Raleigh outlet’s laser cutter.
Recently, a column on Forbes.com argued that Radio Shack should save itself by in effect emulating TechShop. But the “Kinko’s for geeks” scenario has so far proven elusive. When he met Newton a few years ago, Hatch figured building a chain with 40 to 100 locations would be “a slam dunk.” In reality, TechShop’s first shot promptly caromed off the 2008 financial meltdown and landed in the ensuing economic slump. An outpost in Portland proved to be a “misfire.” These days TechShop seeks out corporate “partnerships” for new locations— its fifth, opened recently in Detroit, involved a deal with Ford.
Hatch, it should be noted, wasn’t really on board with my comparisons to hackerspace culture, which struck him as too narrow a comparison point. And to be clear, I don’t see, for instance, the TechShop I visited as some kind of competitor to Hackerspace Charlotte or Splat Space in Durham. A hackerspace like NYC Resistor feels very different, as a place: more chaotic, messy, impromptu, off-the-grid, with the same sort of vaguely outlaw vibe that adheres to the word “hacker” itself.
That’s exciting, but it can also be intimidating. TechShop’s vast spaces and shiny equipment mean to welcome a wider crowd, like any other aspiring chain. If a hackerspace feels special, maybe the idea is that TechShop aims to feel normal. And maybe, given what people do there, the success of that notion would represent something pretty profound.