SF Makeathon: Techshop – A Creative Space

This is reposted from the SF Makeathon website. This is part of a series of posts cataloguing San Francisco’s Makeathon event, a 48 competition to design and prototype a product that improves cycling in San Francisco. Original post URL: http://sfmakeathon.com/news/20-july-2013/techshop-creative-space.


Walking into the TechShop Annex, my eyes were immediately drawn to a complex system of cymbals and bells, a contortion of metal that dominated the right hand wall. Its twin, on the opposite side of the building, was attached to a box with various colored buttons and electrical wire running in all directions. I pressed a button. Both walls immediately sprung into action—pedals striking gongs, bells tinkling—and amidst calamity, a melody emerged.

The control box, programmed to activate different pedals on specific time intervals, sounded a chiming chorus and filled the annex with distinct, decidedly Oriental symphony.

“What is it?” I asked Mel Olivares, TechShop guru and a chief organizer of the SF Makeathon.
“We call it ‘the Gamelatron’,” Mel said. “The name comes from the Indonesian word gamelan, which is a musical ensemble. The ‘tron’ just sort of evokes a mechanical persona” (at this point Mel did robot arms). “You know… GAM-uh-luh-TRON!”

Strangely enough, I understood. His quirky, exuberant personality characterizes TechShop, which serves as a playground for what Mel calls “makers” – machinists, engineers, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and tinkerers. They feel at home with what TechShop has to offer: namely, a vast array of extremely expensive equipment, as well as the training and community support to use it safely and effectively.

Mel gave a few of us from the Mayor’s Office a tour.

“The headquarters of Type A Machines, a 3D printing company, are actually located on the third floor of the TechShop… this table saw will automatically retract to avoid slicing human fingers… if you put acrylic lettering on this glass cup then sandblast it, the rest of the glass will frost and you’ll have personalized drinking souvenirs… this Flowjet water jet cutter pressurizes water through a diamond at 60,000 psi in a stream 0.03 inches in diameter; that’s strong enough to make precise cuts through six inches of steel…”

As we walked around the shop, it became clear that Mel had a deep emotional attachment to the equipment around him. But he was even more invested in the community. Constantly shaking hands, patting backs, looking over shoulders, offering compliments, Mel was at home amongst the members. We asked him about the learning curve.

“That’s the great thing about TechShop,” he said, “most people never get their hands on these machines unless their dad was a machinist or they had formal training in school. At TechShop, we can get you up and running on these machines in a matter of hours, with experts to help you brainstorm, design, and build whatever you want. Screen printed shirts, rock-climbing handholds, wooden lamps, metal sculptures… we’re here to show you how to do it all.”

The sense of community is infectious. Many of the users are friends, and they frequently offer advice and help to each other. Youthful skateboarders bond with forty-year-old engineers over free coffee and popcorn. A young man operating an industrial quilting machine asks for a tip from an older woman sewing a custom dress. Several members sit at the computer banks, engrossed by design software that is cost-prohibitive for individual use. TechShop is open, collaborative and virtually hums with creative energy. In short, the perfect place to hold the San Francisco Makeathon.

–Sam (Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation)