What If Santa's Workshop Was Crowd-Sourced?

TechShop founder Jim Newton ruminates on the origins of his unique makerspace franchise, 3D printer technologies, and the future of the Maker movement.

Founded by Jim Newton in 2005, the TechShop is a subscription-based workspace, intended to be a playground for creativity. Part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center, it gives makers, tinkerers, artists, entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens the opportunity to access over $1 million worth of professional equipment and software for a modest monthly charge. In addition to its resources, collaborative and creative environment, TechShop offers its members comprehensive instruction and expert staff.

The TechShop has already distinguished itself as one of the primary catalysts for the Maker movement's evolution from a social phenomenon to a disruptive economic force.

3D Printer World: Can you tell me a little about how TechShop came into being? What sparked the idea for a subscription-based workshop? Did you experiment with any other concepts before TechShop?

Jim Newton: I started TechShop because I needed a shop and all the tools so I could work on my own personal projects. I thought the health club business model might work for a shop, and it turned out that it worked very well. We did not try any other models before we launched the current model, although we have certainly tweaked the details over the last 7 years.

3D Printer World: Creating a space which gives its members access to a couple of million dollars worth of equipment for a monthly subscription must have been as daunting as it is exciting. Can you tell us about some of the problems you encountered which were especially challenging, and how you overcame them?

Jim Newton: The biggest challenge in the beginning years was just getting people to know that something like TechShop even exists. People don't expect that there are places that you can go to and use their equipment, so they don't bother looking.

3D Printer World: When I visited your original operation in Palo Alto 3 years ago, it seemed like it attracted a lot of interesting people there, doing a lot of unusual things. Do you have an idea of what percentage of your members are Maker/hacker/hobbyist types versus people involved with commercial ventures? Are there many members who don't fit neatly into either of those categories?

Jim Newton: The actual percentages are difficult to determine. I mean, who doesn't want to make a nice living from working on their hobby? Many of our members would love to have their projects transition into companies, but the percentage of our members who are doing that right now is probably around 35%. Our members don't all fit into a certain category, but many of them do. The major categories that we see are hobbyists, entrepreneurs, artists, tinkerers, and students.

3D Printer World: Do you have many oversubscription issues on some of your equipment, and how do you handle them? For example, how does TechShop deal with situations where 10 people all want to use the water jet cutter or a specialized 3D printer on the same day?

Jim Newton: Just like health club equipment usage loads, everything just sort of works out. Members can reserve equipment in advance. Of course, with around 1,000 members at each location, everyone needs to play nice.

A Techshop member using a water jet cutter