Friday, October 17, 2008

"School Tools"? "TooLibrary"?

Statement of Problem

I don't have the tools I want. Nobody I know has the tools I want. I don't have the money to buy the tools I want. And even if I did have the money, I don't have space for the tools I want. (The tools I'm thinking of are machine tools, such as a lathe, milling machine, etc. But it could also apply to automotive, woodworking, electronics and other things.)

Proposed Solution

I know I've seen at least a couple of businesses on this concept, but I can only find one now: TechShop. It's like an gym, but for tools. You pay a membership fee and you can go use their space, stuff and expertise. (For a more non-profitish take, there's also the MIT Hobbyshop.)

Of course, one could argue that if you are paying even as low as a mere $20/month (TechShop's actual lowest price is $100/month), you'd eventually be paying more than if you bought the equipment yourself. However, you still gain these advantages:

  • lower startup cost - Instead of having to save up $N to buy the next tool, I immediately have access to all of them after the first membership fee.
  • access to specialty tools - It would probably be pretty rare for me to need 5 axis CNC milling machine. But when that's the only thing that will work, it would be nice to have it.
  • access to experts/help - This is either someone that works at the shop and gives classes or just the other users. Synergy, people.
  • space - Unless I start throwing out family heirlooms, I'm not fitting more than one more power tool in the workshop.
However: Statement of New Problem

Places like TechShop tend to be in locations of high population concentration, particularly of a high-tech nature. The Bay Area. Research Triangle Park. And even at that there still isn't (or going to be) one in Boston. Plus $100/month is pretty expensive. The MIT Hobbyshop is only available to MIT students, faculty and staff. Other restrictions apply, void where prohibited.

Proposed New Solution

Almost every town, no matter how tiny, already has a high school with a shop. Some of them also have area vo-tech type schools. This is space that is already set up to

  1. teach
  2. a large group
  3. of complete n00bs
  4. to get immediate results
That's perfect, right?

Of course, you can't go during the school day. But nights, weekends and summers are plenty. This is especially true if you imagine where you might be storing your half-completed project. If it's something big, you might store it at the shop and then you are locked out when they are closed. But if it's small, you can work on it at home with what you have, then bring it to the shop during open hours. (Other hours possibilities would be just weekends, twice a week, etc.)

Another potential issue is whether insurance restrictions or byzantine school regulations would prohibit this. Apparently not, at least in my state. I thought of this idea when I saw the courses offered at my local high school. No shop classes, but according to the coordinator they have done so in the past. These are 8 one-evening-a-week sessions, generally. So you'd really need to just need to extend the class "indefinitely" and done. (I don't know how the instructors for these classes are chosen and/or paid. Maybe they are volunteers? Maybe they get some portion of the proceeds?)

Then we come to the little matter of the bill. How much would this cost? Here's where I think this plan could really work. The tools, space and (some of) the personnel are already paid for! It's part of the school district funding. The venture doesn't have to pay for the entire cost of everything, only for the marginal cost of expanding the hours. That marginal cost isn't zero, but neither would the membership fee.

Just throwing random numbers around: Shop classrooms are typically set up for about 10 students at a time, so let's call that a max nightly number. Let's also say the place is open twice a week and every member wants to attend on average twice a month. That's 8-9 open nights per month or 80-90 person-nights. So the entire membership could be 40-45. That also seems like a reasonable number of interested people living within a radius of a given high school. If each one is paying $20/month, that's around $10k/yr. Not a huge amount of income for the school, but perhaps enough to pay for itself? Some of the 8 week classes are listed at $100, so maybe $50/month is more reasonable.

Of course, I would be remiss in mentioning only the financial side. For instance, book libraries were not actually started purely as a cost-cutting measure, although they serve that function. They were started as an educational measure. Even if I'm well-educated myself, it makes sense for me (in terms of enlightened self-interest) to pay for the education of others. That's because the society I'm in will be better overall, including near me, if everyone else is smarter. If you consider knowledge a mental tool, then my idea is simply an extension of this.


  1. I've been thinking about this exact thing a lot, too; I have the same problem.

    But your solution -- using local schools' shops -- is brilliant. That had never occurred to me. Now I guess I need to go out and develop a critical mass of other like-minded guys to get this thing rolling in my community....

  2. I'm brilliant!

    But yeah, critical mass. That's where I got stuck too. We probably aren't anywhere near each other.

    How did you find this post, btw?