TechShop Mines Detroit’s Innate DIY Culture With New Location

[Corrected on 12/30/11, 1:25 p.m. See below.] Roughly 18 months after Menlo Park, CA-based TechShop announced it was partnering with Ford on a new location in metro Detroit, the communal, membership-based DIY maker space is ready to welcome the public next week at an open house on Dec. 27. [Paragraph has been updated to reflect the correct amount of time that has passed since TechShop announced it would open a Detroit location. We regret the error.]

“Detroit needs a place like this,” TechShop’s CEO Mark Hatch says. “That’s abundantly clear by the number of hacker spaces popping up, almost more than any other city. Detroit has an innate desire to do it yourself, not to mention thousands of engineers. It’s the right place at the right time.”

I arrived for my tour of the approximately $1.8 million Allen Park facility—about a 15 minute drive from downtown Detroit along I-94 West—and was greeted by a man wearing a t-shirt that said, “Trust Me—I’m An Engineer.” It was an appropriately lighthearted garment for a place that aims to give everyone from pre-teen hobbyists to garage-workshop inventors to seasoned engineers a pleasant, affordable space in which to bring their homegrown inventions to life.

And what a space it is. The long, slanted front desk was fabricated in the shop and is meant to inspire members by showing them how simply all the parts fit together. Walls are painted scarlet, teal, royal blue, and hot pink; natural light floods shop spaces that are a serious departure from typically dark and dank industrial facilities.

The atmosphere is bright and welcoming, and contains a tinkerer’s smorgasbord of machines, tools, and software: 3D printers, laser cutters, industrial-grade sewing and textile equipment, mills, lathes, saws, shopbots, an injection molder, a flow jet, a computer lab, a room for large projects that is big enough for a hovercraft, and even a “dirty room” for sandblasting. It even has an auditorium.

Anchoring the facility is a wireless-equipped open space with 4 x 8 work tables, each with access to power outlets, compressed air, and a vise. The various labs, organized by discipline, branch out from around this central hub. A common tool bin sits in the back of the room, and members can bring parts from home or purchase them in the small retail store that will eventually be located in the lobby area.

“We want people to have as few roadblocks as possible to getting into their creative zone,” says shop manager Will Brick.  “We can help them become the person they want to be—TechShop can be a substantial transformative experience.”

Once members complete a safety and basic usage class—two to four hours in length depending on the machines they want to use—they can reserve blocks of time to experiment in the labs. Shop employees are on hand to answer questions as they pop up. Brick says he’s particularly impressed by the broad cross-section of the community that the shop staff represents: men and women ranging in age from 21 to 60, selected for their skills, personality, and enthusiasm. On the day I visited, they all sat down in the central hub and ate a lunch of Chinese takeout together.

The metro Detroit location is TechShop’s fifth, and its first partnership with a “Fortune 10” company like Ford. Hatch recalls the day he was told he had missed a call from “Bill from Ford.” Not William Clay, as it turns out, but Bill Coughlin, president and CEO of Ford Global Technologies, a Ford subsidiary that manages all aspects of intellectual property for the automaker and its brands. Ford already invites the public to submit “innovation solutions” on a website. By partnering with TechShop, Coughlin says the company is taking the idea-submission process from the online realm to the physical.

He says “lots and lots” of Ford engineers will be on hand at TechShop to keep an eye on what’s being made.  If Ford sees something it likes, Coughlin has instructed his team to reach out to the inventor and begin the process of helping him or her obtain a patent. Coughlin says Ford will arrange for others in the auto industry to come down to TechShop to check out the new creation. (TechShop’s cental hub is designed to be a space for inventors to display their creations and meet with investors, whether they’re from Ford or elsewhere.) What Ford hopes is that the resulting relationship with the inventor will give the company a competitive advantage in the licensing process.

“We want to create an atmosphere not just for making things, but to help commercialization happen,” Coughlin says. “Since TechShop is in Ford’s backyard, my hope is we’d be the first to see it. But all of our competitors will have the opportunity to see the same thing.”

Coughlin doesn’t sound much like an auto executive when he waxes poetic about open innovation. “We’re advocating from the inside to find that nugget of innovation that Ford can use to help our customers,” he says. “But we’re hoping [TechShop] doesn’t just help Ford, but our industry and our community.”

Coughlin stresses that TechShop isn’t just for people who are already working on the next great automotive idea, but for people like, well, you and me.

“It’s not just for the super brains out there,” he adds. “Average people can come here and learn, create, and have fun.”

Hatch is unabashed in his admiration for Ford’s interest in the open innovation space, and says the’s thrilled with how quickly TechShop Detroit came together and the community’s enthusiasm for it. What he appreciates about Detroit is an embedded culture of physically building things, something he finds refreshing after living in Silicon Valley, where he describes the local obsessions as Facebook apps and the amount of revenue they can generate.

“The innovations that will come out of TechShop Detroit in the next three to five years will blow your mind,” he says. “I don’t believe the people who live in Silicon Valley are any smarter or innovative than people in Detroit. I’ve had enough talk about ad dollars. Let’s make something.”

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