The End of TechShop and the Rebirth of the Maker Movement

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Last week, TechShop announced that it was shutting the doors of its locations around the country, and filing for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. The announcement rippled through the maker world with stunned sadness. TechShop, for the uninitiated, was a central pillar of what the “Maker Movement” was all about: they were the professional prototyping and production shop for everyone — a membership gym for geeks. Each location filled with just about any tool you could need: full wood and metal shops, laser cutters, electronics benches, sewing machines, waterjets and everything in between. They were the highest-end of an explosion of new makerspaces that cropped up in cities, libraries, and schools over the past decade, providing access to the tools of production as well as serving as a physical place where like-minded people could meet and share ideas.

Put simply: TechShop was a place where ideas and dreams became real.

In a world filled with vapid marketing bluster, it’s easy to write off that statement. But I can personally vouch for it. The place changed my life for the dramatically better. In 2010, I met Eric Stackpole, who had been using the laser cutters at TechShop to prototype the first versions of his idea for a low-cost underwater robot. After we met and I joined the project, TechShop became a second home as I navigated a job loss and career re-skilling plan. We used the facility to build and produce the first several hundred OpenROV kits until we could afford to move into our own space.

Again, simply: OpenROV would never have made it off the ground without TechShop.

The closure is sad news for me personally, and even harder for all the employees and small business owners who rely on TechShop as critical infrastructure in their life. Many of them are actively seeking ways to remedy the situation, while others in the community are offering ways to help those folks get through. I applaud and support those efforts. But I also think this is the time to take a long-term perspective on the situation and the opportunity for the future of the Maker Movement.

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” — Rahm Emanuel

In many ways, this moment was predictable. The unbridled idealism of 2012 — when Chris Anderson’s Makers came out, and hundreds of new 3D printing companies were sprouting up around the world — has turned stale. But this always happens. As technologies coalesce around the latest trends, and that mixes with irrational human psychology, we always put ourselves in this position. We get overly optimistic and then excessively pessimistic. This expectation management problem even has a name: the Gartner Hype Cycle.

But what has changed since 2012?

If you look closely, the trend has only strengthened. The entire digital fabrication tool stack —from affordable CAD programs to desktop manufacturing devices — has gone from kind-of-working kit to reliable products. New services like Plethora have made custom machining more accessible than ever before. The number of makerspaces and Maker Faires around the world has grown every year. Even Kickstarter creators are getting much better support around the realities and challenges of creating mass-manufactured products (with the help of their new Hardware Studio). All in all, the Maker Movement has a much better foundation than it did even five years ago. The only thing that’s changed is that it’s lost the hip factor. The digerati have moved on to AI and biology as the next frontiers to hype up and fund.

Don’t be fooled. It’s still the best time in human history to be a creative maker of things.

Yes, let’s mourn the loss of TechShop, but let’s not lose sight of the big picture. A future where everyone has access to the tools of creation and production is within our reach. Now is the time to settle in and build it.

Entrepreneur and writer working at the intersection of science, conservation, and technology.

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