DARPA and corporate America funding the "Maker movement"
If scientists, inventors and entrepreneurial creators of intellectual property had to visualize their idea of a Nirvana on Earth, it would probably look something like TechShop.
TechShop is a chain of workshops where entrepreneurs can pay a fee to use a facility equipped with everything they could possibly need to bring their ideas to life. The first TechShop opened in Menlo Park, CA in 2006. There are currently five facilities and many more planned for the near future. Each facility is at least 15,000 square feet and includes workshops, classrooms, a brainstorming lounge, and a retail store where members can conveniently buy supplies.
Some very well-known creations have already come out of TechShop. The DODOcase for the iPad, used by President Obama himself, and the first prototype of the Square credit card reader were both built in TechShops.
This idea, however, is not the first of its kind. Hackerspaces are "community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects" and usually provide electricity and computer servers for community members to use free of charge. Some of the better-equipped ones provide tools and materials for working on projects and most hold social events or activities for members to participate in. TechShop is an example of a for-profit hackerspace, but the non-profit ones have begun popping up all over the country. Hackerspaces are also becoming more common on university campuses, such as MIT's Hobby Shop.
These workshops are part of what is called the Maker movement, which is a subculture which includes any kind of DIY project from traditional arts and crafts to 3D printing. The idea is to get innovators back into producing things with their own hands. The rise of Maker subculture has been attributed in part to hackerspaces (both for- and non-profit) themselves because they give everyone from entrepreneurs to hobbyists an outlet to share ideas and collaborate with other inventors.
DARPA wants to take this concept to the next level. The organization has decided to form a $3.5 million partnership with TechShop and the Department of Veteran Affairs to “create a foundry to rapidly design and reconfigure manufacturing capabilities to support the fabrication of a wide array of military vehicles.” The partnership is called Instant Foundry Adaptive through Bits, or iFab. Basically, DARPA has asked TechShop to create what they call insta-factories for military weapons and vehicles. The factories will follow the military so that when upgrades or repairs need to be done, they can be done on-site rather than thousands of miles away.
The shops will open in Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh and will be open to members during the day. At midnight, DARPA will take over the facilities, but strictly for work on iFab. “They are not there to interact with the general public or look at the ideas people have,” says Nathan Wiedenman, DARPA's tactical technology program manager. “They are there to work on iFab.”
Outside of military application, several corporate organizations have also recognized potential in TechShops. Ford sends its employees to the TechShop in Detroit to work on prototypes rather than waiting for company equipment to become available. They also plan to set up displays at the TechShop facility so that other members can check out what Ford is doing - and show off some of their own ideas and how they could apply to the automotive industry.
The juxtaposition of modular design methodologies with locations that can can provide the resources for industrial prototyping has traditionally been the domain of small companies with little bureaucracy and red-tape. The recognition of the effectiveness of these small "shops" by organizations like DARPA validates the legitimacy of the model they represent. TechShop and Hackerspace may not be viewed as a Nirvana by their larger corporate competitors, but to smaller inventors who need the resources, they are nothing short of paradise.