How to start a Fab Lab: some tips and tricks

By on March 7, 2014

fab lab

Building a Fab Lab can be funny, and can be frustrating too, depending on how much you know about building a community, a place to work well (to partly live, to be honest), and building a team of people that are not only prepared about open hardware, but really want to help you with the huge number of tasks required by this activity. But, first of all, what is a Fab Lab?

Let’s see: I would simply say “ehr, huh, a place where you can build things” (this because I’ve always been involved in this kind of ecosystem, and I’ve never been worried about definitions), while Wikipedia has a more accurate explanation for that.

A Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) is a small-scale workshop offering (personal) digital fabrication. A Fab Lab is generally equipped with an array of flexible computer controlled tools that cover several different length scales and various materials, with the aim to make “almost anything”. This includes technology-enabled products generally perceived as limited to mass production.

Clearly, a place like that enables you to do a lot of things, while doing them in a “traditional” environment would require a complex (and corporate-like) infrastructure, with machines from the enterprise ecosystem. Fab Labs democratize building systems, allowing you to rapidly prototype the things you can invent, and lowering the final cost of a productions process. This is important, because if a corporate can save money through a 3D printing process but it has money to spend in the beginning, a local artisan does not have such an amount of dollars/euros/pounds, so having a Fab Lab in his city becomes fundamental for him to survive to a production process that would require much time, much effort, and much money.

That said, you can see yourself that having a Fab Lab in your city is a great opportunity to grow up your skills, your competence, and maybe to being able to quickly find a great new job (as for me was working in a startup accelerator, I have to say it). In every moment you can decide to run your own Fab Lab, because there’s no trademark, no license agreement to sign that stops you from doing that.

When you decide to open a Fab Lab, you need indeed a lot of things, like (as I was writing before) motivated people that really want to help you getting things done (and not just jabbering around the area with “with should” and “we must”), or so much money to buy all of the stuff you’ll need to kickstart the operations.

Sponsored or grass-rooted?

If you decide that starting a Fab Lab in your city with your local community can be a good idea, you need to move to the second step: you and your group have to decide how the Fab Lab will be put together, and how it will be sustained. Substantially, when a team decides “ok, let’s do it”, it has to go through an important choice: is the Fab Lab going to be self-sustained, and from a grass-root extraction, or will it be sponsored by some vendors so they can achieve their marketing results through a way that can be “gentle” for the ecosystem? Everyone of these alternatives has strong argomentations, and its drawbacks, so there is not a magic case study to tell us how things should be done. In every case, you need to focus on your challenge and on what could be in any of these ways.

That said, if you choose to go grass-rooted you will face some problems: you will need to find more volunteers for your team because starting up the Fab Lab will require so much work and, clearly, volunteers can only devote their spare time to their jobs in the lab. You will have more financial issues than the alternative, and certainly members will be required to put some money into the project. Who starts a grass-rooted Fab Lab needs to be careful about that, because some members of the team may not be able to afford a charge like that: despite this, if the Fab Lab can start its activity with such little financial security, even if the project will remain in a status of permanent beta testing, against these drawbacks you will receive some assets: you will be free from constraints that come from stakeholders like investors and sponsors. Clearly, without having to rely on stakeholder-based decisions, your implementation workflow (deciding about a new tool, put a scheduled event) will be much, much speedy.

Instead of worrying about all of this stuff, you can go sponsored. Building a sponsored Fab Lab can be a challenging issue too, because no matter how many funds you receive, your mission is maintaining the project as neutral as possible. This because you can have more than one sponsor, or a main sponsor (that clearly will use the Fab Lab for a marketing purpose) and some little corporate-oriented pledgers who will surely want to place their logo on the initiative. Dealing with these stakeholders can be tricky, because you have to make your sponsors happy even if sometimes you must say no to some proposals, because they conflict with fabber’s ideals. A good account manager can do all of this, but it’s a complicated job to do, especially if who is asking to put a giant company logo on the roof and on every single machine is your main sponsor. Growing a sponsored Fab Lab has, nevertheless, its siliver linings: even if you are meeting external targets and you have such deadlines and external requirements to meet (or to mitigate, it depends on how much brain your sponsor has in his head), you will be plenty of money, because if a small group of people like those who run a grass-rooted Fab Lab maybe will not be able to afford such an amount of money, for a large company this will be a walkover. And this is also the reason because of the fact that to start a sponsored Fab Lab you won’t need more than five or six persons.

people at a fab lab

The stuff you need

Once you decided about what kind of Fab Lab you want to build from the ground up, you need to have an idea of what is inside a Fab Lab. The concept of the Fab Lab grew out of a popular class at MIT: “How To Make (Almost) Anything”. This means that there are no rules about what a Fab Lab can contain and what it cannot; you can be plenty of stuff to hack and machines from the beginning, or decide to slow down this process and add the most required components along the way, lookin’ at the feedbacks left by your fabbers.

There are, however, some categories of machines that one can place in his Fab Lab to make it as general purpose as possible: you will need, first of all, a 3D printer. Can you imagine a world without prototyping, without 3D printers? Neither do I, you are right. Obviously, a 3D printer (or every other rapid prototyping tool) is not the entire equipment of a Fab Lab, au contraire: to expand your Fab Lab’s possibilities, you must have at least one CNC machine and a laser cutter to let craftsmen play with materials and their flexibility. For digital fabrication, it’s great to have high-precision milling machines to print circuited boards, so people can make their own hardware, combined with digital electronics test stations to design, assembly and test the products.

Are you going to be a grass-rooted very-low-budget Fab Lab? Well, that is not a problem – it could be if you plan to become the largest Fab Lab of your country – because with less than 1500 dollars you can set up a minimal equipment for a very small amount of people.

We have to make money. Any business model available?

Once the Fab Lab has been started up, you may want to find a business model. Massimo Menichinelli reports some tips for sustainable models in the fabber’s environment, taken from fablab.is:

  1. The Enabler business model: launch new Labs or provide maintenance, supply chain or similar services for existing Labs.
  2. The Education business model: a global distributed model of education through Fab Labs (with the Fab Academy) where global experts in particular topics can deliver training from local Fab Labs or even from universities/businesses via the Fab Lab video conferencing network. P2P learning among users is also a part of this business model.
  3. The Incubator business model: provide infrastructure for entrepreneurs to turn their Fab Lab creations into sustainable businesses. The incubator provides back-office infrastructure, promotion & marketing, seed capital, the leverage of the Fab Lab network and other venture infrastructure to enable the entrepreneur to focus on her areas of expertise.
  4. The Replicated / Network business model: provide a product, service or curriculum that operates by utilizing the infrastructure, staff and expertise of a local Fab Lab. Such opportunities can be replicated, sold by and executed at many (or all) local Labs, with sustainable revenue at each location. The leverage of all Labs in the network simultaneously promoting and delivering the business creates strength and reach for the brand.

So, what are you waiting for? Become a member of this wonderful movement. You will find other valuable people to work with, and it will be an amazing experience.

Images courtesy of Waag Society, ProtoSpace

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About Alessio Biancalana

A nerd that likes very much to tinker and solve problems.