TechShop + Kickstarter = A New Paradigm for Manufacturing?
By Allison Arieff, August 2, 2011
It’s odd to think that there was a time, not so long ago, that people had to make everything they needed to survive. There were no weekend trips to Home Depot, no hipster canned good exchanges. If you wanted to live in a house, eat, sleep in a bed and (occasionally) wash, you would have needed at least some of the skills to facilitate those comforts. I’d put money on the fact that most of us could not make soap, butter or bread, let alone build our own homes or sew clothing for our kids. Each technological innovation, it seems, has taken us further and further away from learning, let alone perfecting, such basic skills.
That is, until a confluence of The Great Recession and crowdsourcing turned people back on to the idea of making things. In 2009, Matthew Crawford, the author of the bestseller ―Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,‖ observed that, ―This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale.‖ Crawford ditched his life as an information worker for the satisfaction of motorcycle repair. ―A good job,‖ he observes, ―requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world.‖ For evidence you need only poke your head into the TechShop in San Francisco’s Mission District, a sort of Hewlett Packard-garage meets vocational training that was founded by DIYer and serial entrepreneur Jim Newton. Home to a dazzling array of machinery, this facility attracts everyone from hobbyists to venture capitalists. There’s even a red phone that connects you directly to the U.S. Patent Office. Members have access to a sheet metal shop, waterjet machine, silicon mold makers, wood routers, CNC routers, screen-printers, the full spectrum of Autodesk software, and even something as seemingly anachronistic as a quilting machine. ―Dream Coaches,‖ like the amiable electrical engineer who showed me around, glide from woodshop to machine shop, working as teachers, cheerleaders, and most importantly, connectors, linking folks with experience to those who need it.
People may come into Techshop with the desire to make their own coffee table or motocross widget. Or they skulk quietly into rentable offices to work on ―secret projects.‖ But, explains electrical engineer Zack Johnson, another Dream Coach, soon enough they’re sharing their ideas on the floor — so strong is the collaborative impulse in this machine shop/playground. Techshop is increasingly helping guys (and gals) with a dream transform prototype into product, but to get to the next stage, entrepreneurs have sought an extra boost. To help bridge the ―Valley of Death‖ — the place where good ideas die for lack of funding — a large number of creators have turned to Kickstarter. Since its launch in 2009, the Manhattan-based ―crowdfunding‖ startup has helped everything from feature films to urban gardens to a stylus for touch screens. Together, Techshop and Kickstarter are the dynamic duo of manufacturing.
To be sure, there aren’t a lot of durable goods coming through the roll-up doors. But there may be parts for those goods made here. More typical are gadget-related inventions like Techshop’s greatest success story thus far, DODOcase, maker of handcrafted cases for digital readers that saved the San Francisco bookbinder Gabi Hanoun from near extinction (Hanoun’s business is now thriving). Covering iPads and Kindles in a café near you, the company is rapidly expanding its product line to cover Blackberry Playbooks and iPhones. Founders Craig Dalton and Patrick Buckley are also partnering with artists like Rex Ray to design limited edition covers. The creators of the Oona have also ridden this model to success. Described by its creators as ―whatever you want it to be,‖ the wee Oona is a simple stand for a smartphone that can be mounted as a GPS device on your windshield, used as a reference device on a whiteboard, allow you to watch movies hands-free.
Over 4,000 backers on Kickstarter saw the Oona as a worthy investment—the startup’s request for $10,000 netted it over $100,000. (Of course now Oona needs to deliver its product—which has been a bigger challenge than its founders may have anticipated as evidenced by the comments on their Facebook page.) TechShop’s Johnson predicts the $50 Hanfree will be the next big thing to come out of Techshop. The result of a collaboration between a graphic designer, a project manager, a mechanical engineer and a product designer, it’s a product that offers, well, a hands-free way to experience the iPad. The Hanfree team received more than double their Kickstarter ―ask‖ amount of $15,000. So, with $35,000 in hand they were able to produce and bring to market their product (it’s due out in September) which essentially ―floats‖ the device, allowing users to read, watch or play games ―hands-free.‖
It’s set to launch in September.
A Hanfree concept model. Courtesy Kickstarter
Another Techshop-Kickstarter offspring is the C-Loop Camera Strap developed by Ivan Wong, his brother Ben, and his friend Anne Bui, a trio of passionate photographers who realized they all got annoyed by their conventional camera straps. Unable to find a product that worked, they designed their own solution and put it on Kickstarter. They’d set a target goal of $15,000 but raised over $60,000. They’ve manufactured and shipped close to 2,000 C-Loops, and as reported in Wired, they’re now in talk with distributors worldwide. They’ve also expanded their product line. OK, so we’re not talking airplanes or cars, but soon we might be –TechShop is opening in Detroit this year and hopes to eventually put a tech shop in every massive community across the U.S. In any case, it seems America can make the goods the world wants. But as a recent debate in the Atlantic argued, they have rarely leveraged this potential even though ―growing metropolitan exports is a way to create jobs in the near term and retool our economy in the long haul.‖ The
hyper-local nature of most of the work and production bodes well for sustainable enterprise, and the hybrid prototype to product model outlined here—the antithesis really of preceding manufacturing paradigms that came to define the Big 3 car makers, for example – suggests bigger things to come.
Top image: Photoillustration by Txchnologist
Allison Arieff is an Opinionator columnist for The New York Times. She has written for Good and other publications on design, sustainability, food, cities and suburbs. She tweets @aarieff. Photo/courtesy Tyler Kohloff.