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May 27th, 2009 Ryan Fleming | Featured Stories
 

Mad Scientists, Unite!

The city’s inventors and hobbyists find a new headquarters in Beaverton.

     
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MACHINE KING: TechShop Portland president Denny Cole shows off a heavy-duty sander that can sand whole doors in one pass.
IMAGE: Andrew Williams

I found myself wondering if I could fit a cannon in the back of my car without anyone noticing.

After all, it was a nine-chamber T-shirt-shooting robot designed to launch stuff at sporting events crowds while traveling at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. With a few flips of the controls, the cannons were set. With an impressive “whoosh, ” I watched a T-shirt missile fly 50 feet through the air, narrowly missing the luckiest bird ever to fly through Beaverton. My new toy wasn’t designed by a big company, and you won’t find it on eBay. The guy standing next to me, TechShop Portland president and founder Denny Cole, invented the one-of-a-kind shooter last year.

Housed in a 33,000-square-foot warehouse in Beaverton, TechShop is a Willy Wonka-like headquarters for inventors and hobbyists that gives its members access to spendy tools most garages don’t have, from $15,000 laser cutters and smelting equipment to an $8,000 tungsten inert gas welder used to weld stainless steel. It also offers space for storage and offices for companies working on test projects, as well as member- and employee-taught public classes on everything from robotics to welding.

TechShop only opened last month, but the day I visited the warehouse was already buzzing with the sounds of industry. It’s only the third shop of its kind in the United States—joining the original TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif., and a recent addition in Durham, N.C.—but the Portland branch is growing fast, with 110 members so far.

“What is amazing to me is the concentration of really talented people with all kinds of expertise here in Portland,” says TechShop’s Cole said as he gave me the grand tour. “PSU downtown [and] the other schools, along with the...high-tech companies, all have people that are interested in doing things at TechShop either as members or volunteers.”

It’s hard not to fall sway to the enthusiasm Cole—who looks more like a high-school science teacher than a mad scientist—projects about the shop. He actually was a high-school science teacher, and later worked in the high-tech industry. His hobby—robotic battles—led him to meet Jim Newton, president of the first TechShop in Menlo Park. With Newton’s help, Cole launched the PDX TechShop outpost.

The warehouse itself is massive, containing dozens of workstations. There’s even a small robot-battle arena by the door, next to a row of tables salvaged from a defunct fast food restaurant. There’s a computer-controlled sewing machine and a $46,000 CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router one could use to cut out a whole kayak. I have no clue what most of these things do, but I want to play with them all. More traditional tools like drills and saws litter the floor. The colors in the shop all seem muted, dulled by the constant expulsion of dust pushed into the air from various wood-carving and cutting machines.

“[TechShop] encourages the [D.I.Y] attitude you need in order to even think about starting a new business.” Says Wm (pronounced “whim”) Leler, a volunteer for Beaverton’s Open Technology Business Center. “It creates a community [you can] can hang out with other like-minded people.”

On the day I visited, those people included Kathy Andrews, whose sewing business, What Sew Ever, operates entirely out of the TechShop and online, covering everything from embroidery to fabric repair. In the area next to Andrews was Aimee Eng, a hobbyist in the process of designing a 74-inch wooden model boat...with fully operational cannons for mock battles. No, really. Close by, an artist worked on her metal and wood sculptures, and a Portland Community College woodshop teacher was busy building a mold for wheels for the Oregon Zoo’s train.

Many of the TechShop members are experts in their field and willing to help other budding mad-scientist types with their projects—that community is one of the selling points for the shop. Judging by the early success the company has seen with memberships—which run $125 per month—Cole expects to see TechShop turn a profit by the end of the year, and hopes to expand into East Portland.

The last stop on the tour was the back lot. With a smile, Cole talked up TechShop’s newest idea—a Tonka Toy wet dream called “Dig It” that would let people take control of a giant construction machine and go nuts in the open field.

After a quick tutorial I found myself at the controls of a 9,500-pound mini-excavator. Pushing the accelerator farther than someone with no qualifications should, I steered into a field and proceeded to dig, yes, a really big hole. After I stopped laughing over the simple joy of it, I climbed out and reluctantly made my way to the exit. I left TechShop hoping these geniuses continue to use their powers for the force of good (and fun) as their ranks grow. If so, Portland could soon be a much more interesting place.


GO: TechShop Portland, 10100 SW Allen Blvd., Beaverton, 643-7467. Visit portlandtechshop.com for more info.
 
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