TechShop first popped up in SF circa 2011. Think gym membership, but sub a CNC mill for the Stairmaster. Our own Dan Slaski swears by it. Adam takes a field trip to see what he’s been missing.

Put succinctly, TechShop is a big, clean, well-equipped space for making stuff. One monthly fee gets you large-scale CNC milling and routing, a waterjet cutter, a full machine shop, wood shop, welding stations, spray booths, sewing machines, soldering stations, laser cutters, FDM printers, banks of computers (each with the full Autodesk suite), work tables, cage lockers, conference rooms and, not least, ample floor space.

If it sounds too good to be true, you’re not alone. I was skeptical when I first heard of it five years ago, and so little was our general enthusiasm that I was appalled to find that a search for TechShop in our archives turned up almost nothing at all. For shame.

I guess it just sounded like a typical Bay Area sky pie that would never be of use to me here in Northern Virginia. Except that it is. I heard about it when the buildout first began a couple of years ago, but never took the time to check it out in person. (At the time my excuse was a vague notion that traffic and/or parking would be too annoying to deal with. I now know that TechShop validates garage parking for the mall so… yeah. No excuse.)

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A Personal Quest

I’ve been an independent contractor for eight years. It’s great. With a beefy laptop and a solid broadband connection I can work whenever and wherever is convenient for me and my family. Someday I may extol the virtues of the Indy Life in a purpose-written article. For the moment, suffice it to say that there’s a lot to love.

One of the biggest disadvantages of independence is a lack of access to a proper machine shop. And when you live in urban areas like I do, it’s hard to find the space to set up a passable workshop. Sure, it can be done, but it’s expensive, time-consuming, very limiting, and far from ideal. I don’t care how space-efficient you are, MIG welding in your spare bedroom fits squarely in the bad ideas category.

Another disadvantage of the Lone Wolf is a general lack of community, not to mention physical movement. There are days when I go to bed with the realization that I quite literally never left the house nor spoke to another living being. Pathetic? Absolutely. Hopeless? Not with TechShop.

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Tour

Last week I met with Steve Davis over at TechShop for a walk-through, and it made me Happy. It’s huge, beautiful, and located in the middle of a busy retail complex in Arlington.

I can haz

I tried to play it cool, but wtf? How on earth did this startup manage to pay for a 20,000 square foot lease in one of the busiest malls in Arlington?

And why here? The Bay Area makes sense: tons of little hardware startups, tons of just-out-of-college kids with big dreams and small wallets. I get it. But Arlington?

As I looked out the window of the machine shop, I realized exactly why this location makes so much sense. The building immediately across the street is a giant Lockheed Martin office building. Raytheon and Boeing both have similar buildings within a block. And while those companies clearly have no need of TechShop, the types of people they draw to the area certainly do.

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Northern Virginia is actually a perfect place for something like TechShop: high population density (i.e. no space for backyard workshops), high cost of living (i.e. well-heeled population), an unusual density of engineering talent (obvious), and–while not very well-known–a thriving startup culture, especially in the defense and civil services.

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(And yes, some guy just happened to be building an airplane at TechShop.)

Too Good To Be True

So let’s see: I have a place to work, free parking, and all of the tools required to build my own full-scale Mech Warrior. What’s the down-side?

Well, at the Arlington location, it’s currently priced at $150/mo with a discount rate for students, teachers, military (veteran or active duty), and first responders at $95/month. (As of the date of this posting.)

Depending on where you live, that might sound impossibly expensive, or shockingly cheap. Given that I live in one of the most expensive cities in the nation, my needle definitely skews toward the “wow, that’s a bargain” side of things. I’m guessing our friends up in the Bay Area feel similarly.



If you’re living in rural Arkansas, the TechShop model might not make a lot of sense. It may be expensive to buy and maintain your own machine shop, but that’s really your only option. But with population density comes economy of scale: I don’t need to buy an entire machine shop, store it in a barn behind the house, and maintain everything myself. Instead, I can share one with a few thousand of my closest friends, and we all come out ahead.

And yes, there are makerspaces and hackerspaces in the DC area as well. Those are cool too, and much more affordable. But the difference is clear. A makerspace is perfect if you need a table, a box of tools, and a makerbot. But I have yet to see a makerspace sport one of these bad boys:

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Verdict

I’m sold. If you’re living in the DC Metro Area you know damn well that $150 is a steal for access to 20,000 square feet of super-equipped fab shop goodness. (The average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Arlington is nearly fifteen times that much at about $2200/mo, and that sure as hell doesn’t include an NC mill.)

It would be worth it even if I weren’t self-employed. For me, it’s ideal.

See you at TechShop.

Author

Adam O'Hern is an industrial designer, designing products ranging from laptops to power tools, classroom toys to bathroom fixtures, and pro audio gear to guitar tuners. In 2008 he founded cadjunkie.com, and in 2010 co-founded EvD Media with Josh Mings of SolidSmack.com, and the two collaborate on the EngineerVsDesigner.com podcast.