The TechShop chain is a paradise for people who like to make things. The average facility runs about 17,000 square feet and has all manner of apparatus, from Industrial Age staples such as sewing machines, metal lathes, and mills to $200,000 computer-controlled contraptions that can cut precise patterns out of slabs of metal. For about $100 a month, you can become a TechShop member and use all this equipment. For a few bucks more, you can attend classes that vary from Welding 101 to drawing 3D models on a computer.
In Washington, a very big partner has stepped up. In an interview, the Defense Department revealed it will spend $3.5 million to fund two TechShops near Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. Regular members will work in the facility by day, and then employees of Darpa, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will arrive at midnight to conduct after-hours work. Their mission: to design factories that can be reconfigured on the fly. The project is called iFab. For a month, a given factory might use dozens of machines to make parts for helicopters. Then you reboot the software controlling the machines, and out come the parts for the drive train system in a tank. The Darpa workers at TechShop will try to figure out which tools and methods can be used to rewire factories in this fashion. “They are not there to interact with the general public or look at the ideas people have,” says Nathan Wiedenman, the program manager of Darpa’s tactical technology office. “They are there to work on iFab.”