TechShop Pittsburgh – Tour

Recently I had the opportunity to take a tour of TechShop’s most recent franchise right here in Pittsburgh. The tour was part of an event that was meant to spark a larger discussion about the role of digital fabrication in architecture. I hadn’t heard of TechShop before, so I went in with no expectations and left very pleasantly surprised. For those who don’t know, TechShop is kind of like a gym for people who want to make stuff. You pay a monthly fee and you get access to all of their equipment. There are classes that are required at a one-time additional cost for instruction in the various tools. You can see my tour synopsis below, but I highly recommend dropping by and taking a look for yourself. You get to wear one of these sweet “I’m a G” badges:

TS_Im a G

Dr. Dre knows what’s up:

TS_Dr Dre is a G

*Dr. Dre is not affiliated with TechShop. Alright, let’s have a look around. First stop is the laser cutters. There are millions of things you could use a laser cutter for, but only a few of them are going to be cooler than making a trebuchet.

TS_Laser Trebuchets

Here’s a shot of a 3d printer in action. You may remember I brought these things up a few weeks ago.

TS_3d Printer

It might be hard to tell, but over towards the left the print head is moving around, laying down layers of orange plastic. You can see over on the right the layers being built up into whatever the final product will be. And here’s some of the stuff that can come out of these things. As you can see, they can be as simple or complex as you need them to be.

TS_3d Product

TS_3d Structures

The metal shop was the next stop, and as you can see, it is full of capable equipment. They even have a shop vac!

TS_Metal Lathes

And a couple of lathes, too. I’m always somewhat dumbfounded by the tolerances required in working with metal. I think I counted four decimal places on this press:

TS_Metal Drill Press

… which is crazy to me, since as an architect most drawings I do get dimensioned to the nearest eighth. I guess when things need to get threaded and can’t be smashed into place with a hammer you need 10,000ths of an inch. There’s also a metal CNC mill, shown here having just murdered a lesser robot:

TS_Metal CNC Router

Just kidding, that’s just lubricant. Robots need that in case the moving bits get too hot.

As an aside, the TechShop has a bunch of rooms that I can’t wait to have in my mansion when I’m a wealthy British playboy. “Come, chap, you simply must have a gander at the Laser Studio.”

TS_Laser Studio

“Or perhaps you’d fancy a turn at the Grinding Room?”

TS_Grinding Room

“You’ll have to stay on again next summer when we’ve finished the Twerking Parlor.” Enough dreaming. I gather welding is a popular class, and why not. The equipment required to weld is expensive, so why not pay a couple hundred bucks, bring your motorcycle in and work on it in the TechShop. Bonus: you don’t have to clean all those bags of fertilizer and tangled extension cords out of your garage.

TS_Welding Studio


Not pictured: an enormous oven for powder coating metal. If plastics are more your thing, they’ve got you covered with the laser cutters and this injection molder. Injection mold?

TS_Injection Molder

This is a good example of synergy between technologies. I couldn’t get a picture of the mold, but it’s milled out of metal. So you would design the mold for the plastic, mill it out of metal, and then bring it over to the injection moldatron machine and start cranking out whatever plastic parts you need. Or, maybe you’d rather use a CNC mill to carve out a crazy shape and then vacuum form a sheet of plastic so that you end up with a lightweight translucent panel:

TS_Vacuum Waves

The next few shots are of a water jet machine and some of the shapes you can cut out with it:

TS_Water Jet Machine

TS_Water Jet Product

TS_Water Jet Pattern

A water jet cutter shoots water mixed with a denser cutting medium out of a jet at high speed. This particular machine can cut aluminum up to (and possibly thicker than) 4″ thick with minimal tapering. In the industry that’s known as really damn thick. This is the only machine that costs money to use, $2 or $3 per minute.

Not pictured: Wood shop. You know what a wood shop looks like. This one has a CNC mill though, so that might be new to you. Here’s something neat you could make with a CNC mill if you had one:

TS_CNC Product

For whatever reason I was really excited about there being an area for fabrics:

TS_Sewing Studio

There’s the typical sewing machines, but there are also cool things like CNC embroidery:

TS_Sewing CNC Embroidery

… and evidence of silk screening as well:

TS_Sewing Silkscreen

So that’s the grand tour. One of the intangible benefits that I couldn’t photograph was the idea of collaboration and sharing of ideas. You might come in to TechShop to mill something out of wood, but then bump into someone who’s doing something awesome (like customizing their motorcycle) and you might inspire each other to do something neither of you would have thought of on your own. Or, more simply, you can go to TechShop and be surrounded by people who might have more expertise than you and you can learn from. I really liked all of the optimism at TechShop. All of the staff was really bright and enthusiastic about the technology and opportunities. After the tours, all of us architects got together and talked about the future of the profession, which can sometimes be a dire affair. This time, people seemed to be upbeat and positive, thinking of ways that these manufacturing and prototyping methods could be incorporated into the practice. It was a great experience, and if you’re at all interested you should check it out. It’s probably cost-prohibitive to sustain a membership as an individual. I see maybe signing up for a month or two once I have a bunch of stuff I need a woodshop for or something. But maybe you have an idea you could make money with, or you can talk your boss into sending you down to TechShop and seeing what you can come up with. TechShop has no claim on anything that comes out of their locations, which means you can create to your heart’s and wallet’s content and never have to worry about them hitting you up for a cut of any revenue. TechShop Pittsburgh is located in Bakery Square, check it out.

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