TechShop: Warm welcome to weird and wonderful world of welding
In our ongoing series on TechShop, where you can access industrial tools, we get down and dirty with welders
A different weld: TechShop offers classes in different disciplines, so novices can learn the skills needed to build a prototype and bring it to life
While TechShop may get more attention for its 3D printers, laser cutters and high- end technology, most of the facilities also provide high-quality training and equipment in more traditional technologies such as welding, woodwork and sewing.
In many cases, it is these facilities that truly capture the spirit of the maker movement by allowing individuals to become more self-sufficient or to assist in the development of a small business.
The equipment TechShop provides to people is normally only found in large-scale industries for which they are most needed. They are often so specialised that owning one is not an option.
Take something like a waterjet cutter, one of the most powerful tools at TechShop Austin. With one of these bad boys you can cut, with perfect precision, almost any flat material. This is done with a super-thin, high-pressure stream of water and abrasive garnet.
Anything from thin-sheet metal to 8in-thick granite, wood, tile, marble or glass can be cut, and the great thing is that because it’s water, there is no risk of heat damage. A new CNC water-cutter could cost up to $100,000.
Its cost and specialised nature mean basic training for using the water-cutter takes four hours and, at almost $200 (€181), it is one of the most expensive classes on offer at TechShop Austin.
I decided to try some welding not out of any particular interest or because I had plans to build a barn, but because I had never had any need in my sheltered existence to weld.
It’s one thing learning about more contemporary technological processes, such as 3D printing or electronic engineering. The history of joining metals goes back thousands of years. So it felt compelling to learn about a skill that has its origins in the Bronze Age and Iron Age.
The methods have, of course, changed dramatically since then. Now welders use a variety of energy sources including a gas flame, electric arc, friction, laser and ultrasound. Welding can also be performed in open air, underwater or even in space.
Metal inert gas (MIG) welding is a semi-automatic arc process where a consumable and continuous wire (both a filler and the electrode) are led through a welding gun.
The base metal and filler wire melt together in the weld pool, while being covered in a shielding gas, used to protect the weld from surrounding air which can cause cracking, porosity and other potential problems.
It’s dangerous business if you don’t know what you’re at. You’re dealing with incredibly high temperatures. A propane/ air flame, for example, could burn at about 2,000 degrees, while a propane/oxygen flame could heat up to about 2,500 degrees. Just 2,500 degrees? Child’s play. The type of welding arc method we’re using today can reach temperatures of up to 20,000 degrees.
So it’s not just about avoiding physical contact with the flame. You can’t even look at it directly. Exposure to the highly concentrated ultraviolet and infrared rays emitted by a welding arc can lead to cornea inflammation, retina burns and blindness. In short, you need to wear a welding helmet.
Still like a child told not to stare directly at the sun, I feel a great urge to take my protective eyewear off to have a look (the first indication that I’ll probably never make a career in welding).
A combination of steadiness, consistent movement and the right amount of space between welding torch and metals are the necessary ingredients to getting it right. This took a while to master.
Well, in all honesty, in the two-hour class, I never truly mastered it. Completion of the class did, however, give me a basic understanding of the skill, not to mention future access to all welding facilities on-site. No supervision required.
You’re never truly alone at TechShop. When in need of assistance, you can always call upon one of the “dream consultants”. Yes, that’s right, the dream consultants are fully trained staff available to help poor sods like me weld ashtrays for their grannies. I imagine the Irish branch of TechShop, if and when it opens, may reconsider the dream consultant moniker to better suit a more cynical Irish audience.
While I may never weld again, TechShop is the starting place for others with bigger ideas. Maker communities grow from here. The atmosphere is very relaxed and both staff and members help each other out and share tools and expertise if and when it’s needed.
On the noticeboard you’ll find people trying to do all sorts of projects: offering their own newly developed skills for hire or trying to get other enthusiasts together for some project or other. My personal favourite was entitled: “Interested in Building a Small Forge?”