Economists and policy wonks are increasingly predicting that manufacturing, from start-ups and creative entrepreneurs, will become an important part of urban economies.
If making things is going to become big business again in Washington, ground zero may be a shop class playground for adults that will open in Crystal City this month.
This is the eighth outpost nationally of TechShop, a membership-based chain of places for building things. Inside are shops for metalwork, woodwork, painting, electronics, textiles and bicycle repair. “The idea is that you can come in and use this space to make whatever you like,” said Mark Hatch, TechShop chief executive.
Many of TechShop’s 6,000 members are hobbyists, students or teenagers. But it also serves as a laboratory for start-up companies, which is why it has become the darling of big research and development backers like General Electric, Ford and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Hatch argues that although Apple, Disney, Harley Davidson and other giants began in garages, for all those successes there are millions of other ideas that never got their chance because of the cost of access to the tools needed to build the first prototype.
For instance, a laser cutter, which can intricately cut or etch almost any material, costs $25,000 and it sure doesn’t fit in a millennial’s apartment. TechShop has four of them, and they’re available to anyone willing to pay the $125 monthly membership fee, just like everything else. It’s a short walk from the Metro.
“This is the least cost solution for doing a hardware start-up on the planet,” Hatch said. “It’s two orders of magnitude cheaper than any other method…When you move something from $1 million in development costs, or $250,000 in development costs, down to $2,000, $5,000, you now enable anyone in the middle class to innovate. And that is new to the world. We’ve never operated, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, in an era where the middle class had access to the same kind of tools that the big boys do, and now they do.”
Hatch, who also wrote the book “The Maker Movement Manifesto,” argues that America is entering a revolution of small-scale, niche manufacturing, even in white collar metropolises like Washington.
“There are a bunch of things working in our favor,” he said. “Computers are making it easier to make things. So you can design on a computer screen — make all your mistakes or the bulk of your mistakes on the computer screen. The software is getting easier and easier and easier to use. Ten years ago it was impossible to use unless you spent six months or a year learning how to use it. Now you can pick up AutoDesk 360 Fusion and learn it in a couple days.”
He said this is happening at the same time that consumers are looking for more unique, locally produced goods.
“Americans have gone through a fairly substantial analysis of how they buy things. They care more about quality, they care more about sustainability, about recycle-ability, whether it’s local or not. I would describe it as they prefer to buy goods that have story associated with it now,” he said.
Hatch isn’t alone in thinking the tech and the manufacturing sectors feed off one another. As Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley wrote in “The Metropolitan Revolution” last year: “Manufacturing and innovation, once thought to be two entirely different aspects of the U.S. economy, turn out to be closely intertwined.”
There are now numerous examples of TechShop members turning their ideas into big businesses, largely from the company’s locations in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Calif. Among the successes there’s Square, the mobile credit card reader; Embrace baby warmers, which keep prematurely born babies alive in third world countries; Dodo Case, a custom iPad cases made of bamboo and bookbinding (of which President Obama has one); Lightning Motors, maybe the world’s fastest electronic motorcycle; and Oru, an origami kayak.
The Arlington TechShop, consisting of 21,000 square feet at 2110-B Crystal Drive, has the tools that made the prototypes for all these companies. There are 30 computer terminals, each loaded with $30,000 worth of software. The wood shop has every kind of saw, lathe and hand tool. There are four laser cutters, three 3-D printers and a waterjet that can cut through five inches of anything. There is a vacuum forming machine that is popular with Star Wars fans. “I guarantee you one of the first things to be made on this will be a Storm Trooper outfit,” Hatch said on a tour before the opening.
TechShop offers a class for every machine, about 150 a month, plus less formal networking and learning, under names like Lasers & Beer, Welding & Wine and Welding & Whiskey. (“The sequence is important,” Hatch jokes, since the activities are not to be done at the same time.)
Each new TechShop relies on funding from companies interested in generating innovation and manufacturing talent. In Detroit it was Ford. In Arlington the benefactors are DARPA, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, General Electric and the building’s owner, Vornado Realty Trust.
TechShop is not alone in the making resurgence. GE has also opened a skill-building center, GE Garage, on Connecticut Avenue in the District. And in Southeast D.C., as part of the Yards development, Ideaspace plans to open a high-tech work space.
For Vornado, by far the largest property owner in Crystal City, TechShop is part of an effort to make the neighborhood more relevant to tech companies and apartment renters. Hatch said he plans to hold a more formal ribbon-cutting for the Arlington TechShop in June. Naturally, the ribbon will be a metal one and it will be cut with a plasma torch.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz