Business Manufacturing Startup Culture

Will Makerspaces Jumpstart a New Industrial Revolution?

Making things at TechShop Palo Alto.

Making things at TechShop Palo Alto.

“I’m just a roadie for a rock band,” explained the inventor in his mid-30s, showing off an infrared pet warming device he was working on. “Where was I supposed to come up with $300K to pay for a prototype? Instead, I built it myself for a few thousand dollars here at TechShop.”

I was stunned. It was my first day visiting a warehouse-like facility in Menlo Park, California, called TechShop (the first large makerspace of its kind) – a new idea in 2006 – and this was the third person in the last hour who had announced that by designing and making their product there, he or she had reduced their startup costs by 97% compared to prototyping it in a traditional way. Conversations like this were at the root of my decision to join TechShop nearly 10 years ago.

I realized at the end of that first visit that I was standing in a physical instantiation of the future. “The future is here,” science fiction writer and cyberspace theorist Bruce Sterling once said. “It’s just not evenly distributed.” I hypothesized that if makers could be given access to the tools of the industrial revolution at a cost they could afford, they could change the world.

Nine years later we have innumerable examples of how this access has revolutionized not only who gets to make things, what gets made, and where and how they do it (in other words, it changes the very nature of manufacturing in America). Not only that, but this phenomenon also revitalizes the economies of the communities where a successful makerspace is established.

What has surprised–and impressed–me most is the breadth and depth of the economic impact. The Menlo Park TechShop location, for example, has helped lead to the creation of companies with over $12 billion in shareholder value, $2 billion in annual sales, 2,000 jobs and $200 million in annual salaries. The state of California, assuming a 10% state income tax level, is getting $20 million a year from companies launched out TechShop Menlo Park, and could potentially take another $1.2 billion when shareholders cash out.

Each TechShop location is a 20,000-square-foot, membership-based, do-it-yourself (DIY) workshop and fabrication studio stuffed with every tool you need to make almost anything. I emphasize “every” because that is one of the truly brilliant insights that Founder Jim Newton, an inventor and former science advisor for Mythbusters, had when setting up the original location. You usually can’t finish a full product or even a production prototype with just a 3D printer or laser cutter. Jim’s genius was in not settling for a small space with a limited number of tools. He designed it from the ground up as a way for just about anyone, of any age or skill level, to make just about anything.

TechShop has all kinds of tools.

TechShop has all kinds of tools.

The advantage of creating a large – very large – space is that it is much easier to build a robust community of makers when there are hundreds of diverse and creative members at each location, supported by an educational program, classes, staff, and 24/7 access. When Ford sponsored a TechShop near its headquarters in Detroit, the company saw a 100% increase in high quality patentable ideas coming from its employees in the first two years.

Enabling this platform are a handful of trends that are helping drive adoption: the emergence of computer-controlled low-cost tools and easier-to-use software that drive those tools; access to capital from platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter; and web-driven access to markets through sites like The Grommet and Etsy. People around the country are also showing increasing interest in buying locally.

The bottom line is that makerspaces like TechShop have become a breeding ground for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. We are just getting started, and the impact will be enormous. Now libraries all over the U.S. have expressed interest in opening a makerspace. Soon, large makerspaces like TechShop will open at least one if not multiple locations in every city. American high schools are going to have to reopen “shop class” with advanced manufacturing tools like CNC (computer controlled) machine tools, laser cutters, etc.

I’m certain colleges and universities will soon need a makerspace just to stay competitive. What will happen when everyone has access to the tools of the industrial revolution? It boggles the mind.

Mark Hatch of TechShop is a speaker at Techonomy Detroit September 15 at Wayne State University.

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