FabLabs.io : The Fab Lab platform connecting a network of makers

27th January 2017

Toby Baker, from Nesta's Policy and Research team, spoke with Massimo Menichelli, FabLabs.io Project Lead. 

Since the first Fab Lab was built in 2001, the network has grown to include 1,000 makerspaces affiliated with the movement across the world. FabLabs.io, a platform for users of Fab Labs to share and connect with others around the world, has been developed since 2014 by the Fab City Research Lab (aka Fab Lab Barcelona) team at IAAC in collaboration with the Fab Foundation. We spoke to Massimo Menichinelli, FabLabs.io Project Lead, about how the platform connects with the Fab Lab movement and his vision for the future of the platform.

Looking at the FabLabs.io register of Fab Labs, I can see there are now Fab Labs all over the world. How big is the network and where did it all start?

The first Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) was built in 2001 at MIT, Boston, after the US National Science Foundation provided funds for the Centre for Bits and Atoms to build a giant laboratory dedicated to digital fabrication. It’s equipped with machinery and technology - CNC machines, 3D printers, laser micro machinery, etc. - that enables makers to create almost anything.

There was no great plan for a global network of Fab Labs. The idea to expand came later, after people saw the types of people who were attracted to the first Fab Lab. Everyone expected physicists and engineers to use the space, but it was surprising when a really wide range of people wanted to start making things, from artists to architects. We began to see the benefit for everyday citizens if Fab Labs could be distributed across the world. Now there are now over 1,000 Labs with more than 10,000 users.

That’s impressive growth. What makes a Fab Lab, can anyone set one up?

Fab Labs come in all shapes and sizes. In a global project that started in Peru, people are building a floating Fab Lab which will travel from country to country along the Amazon! Fab Labs can be stand alone workshops, or they can be integrated within museums. Some are ‘Green’ Fab Labs which specialise in building sustainable system for creating energy and food. Although all Fab Labs are different, there’s a list of criteria that Labs must fulfil to join the Fab Lab community.

Green Fab Lab.png

Barcelona's Green Fab Lab. Picture Credit: Marcel Tkocz

Firstly, it must be open to the public. That’s doesn’t mean free, or open 24/7, but it can’t be someone’s private garage. Secondly, it must provide access to the same types of tools and processes being used across the network. Thirdly, the Fab Lab must be open and collaborate with the rest of the Fab Lab network. For example, I worked with a student in Italy who created an open hardware circuit board, then suddenly someone in Taiwan started using the same design. That’s the sort of natural collaboration and sharing that we want. Fab Labs exist to support citizen learning from our peers.

What’s the role of the FabLabs.io platform?

FabLabs.io is a response to the bottom-up growth of the Fab Lab network. As people set up new Fab Labs, we need a way to connect the individual Fab Labs and facilitate the collaboration that drives the global network. The first version of FabLabs.io was launched at the beginning of 2014 to provide a full platform for managing a list of Fab Labs in a structured way. However, since our new team started managing the FabLabs.io platform in October 2016, we’ve redesigned the site and added a lot more functionality. In order the join the platform, new Labs must be approved to ensure they meet our requirements. The approval of Labs is distributed among the Labs with more experience, but we are now working on expanding this by getting the global community more and more involved in FabLab.io. Each time a Lab applies to join, it must be approved by members of the core network of approved Labs.

On the site itself there are profile pages for Labs and pages where people can share their projects (from bike lights to sensor kits that enable you to track air quality in your area). We also have forums where makers can discuss all their experiences and explorations, like for example their experiences with various machinery. At its heart, FabLabs.io is a tool for peer learning.  The platform is entirely open source and developed on GitHub, where it can be downloaded and used by any kind of networks of labs, organisations and places.

The platform is also an interesting resource for the MAKE-IT project, EU-funded research into the role of platforms in the growth and governance of the maker community more widely. FabLabs.io gives us data that enables us to analyse the interaction of people and projects within the community and understand what are the best tools to help it grow. We’ve identified that we need to increase the visibility of what’s going on in Fab Labs, and add features that improve participation in labs and projects. FabLabs.io is part of that.

In the future the platform will connect with the Fab City Dashboard, a visualisation of how local actions are affecting the sustainability of their cities. This means that as well as sharing ideas, people will be able to reflect on their social, economic and environmental impact on cities directly through the platform.

Where in the world are you seeing the most amount of activity, and why do you think that is?

The US and Europe have the highest concentration of Fab Labs (here’s a useful map). There are some obvious reasons for this; if you’re in South America you need to get on a plane to go to a different city, whereas in Amsterdam you can get on a bicycle and spread ideas easily.

Secondly, there are circumstantial factors. Barcelona, for example, has become a focal point for Fab Labs. That’s because it was home to the first Fab Lab in the European Union and now we coordinate projects from here. Similarly, although Fab Labs didn’t take off in Italy until 2011, the Fab Lab Torino was launched by Arduino, the open hardware manufacturer, inside Officine Arduino, a Makerspace, Fablab and an Arduino “office” dedicated to furthering the development of open source hardware. This helped to boost the profile of Fab Labs in Italy; now there are 131.

On another level it’s a question of resources: time, money and expertise. The Fab Lab Foundation states that setting up a Fab Lab costs around $25-$65k for equipment and about $15-40k for consumables. Northern Italy, for example, has many more Fab Labs than Southern Italy. That’s because there has always been much more industry and resources there.

How do you see Fab Labs and the FabLabs.io platform having the biggest social impact?

The first priority has always been education. We don’t only provide skills that enable people to get a job, but we enable ordinary people to understand the possibilities of new technology. There is so much research of a very high standard going on, in everything from nanotechnology to molecular biology. Fab Labs manage to shine a light on this research by bringing it to a public and tangible level.

Take the JuicyPrint 3D printing project in London’s Bio Hackspace as an example. The project uses a genetically modified bacteria to solidify liquids in order to make them 3D printable. Makers are using the by-product from beer brewing and orange juice to create food. This research also has important social implications in the health sector; it could be used to develop new skin grafting techniques and medical dressings. Importantly, the makerspace is being used as a way to distribute advanced research more evenly among the public. The FabLabs.io platform enables this exchange to happen more freely across greater distances.

We also see lots of projects supporting those with disabilities being built in Fab Labs. The technology available in Fab Labs enable us to build highly specialised products, rather than settle for mass production. This is the perfect setting to develop devices suited to the specific needs of disabled people, everything from sports wheelchairs to prosthetics.

Too Wheels.jpg

The 'TooWheels' opensource wheelchair which has been built in Fab Labs in Italy and Ecuador. Picture credit: PietroPaolini Terraproject

In  2016 we spoke with Tomas Diez about how the Fab Lab movement connects with the Fab City project and greater ambitions to create sustainable cities by 2054. What’s the end vision for the FabLabs.io platform?

The original goal of a Fab Lab was to create a Star Trek Replicator (a sci-fi machine capable of creating and recycling objects instantly)! But now we’ve realised it’s not just about creating tools, and the Replicator alone is not enough. Alongside the tools, the FabLabs.io platform will become the supporting network that connects people, labs and projects, and helps people to engage with the tools.

If you want to connect with your local Fab Lab, or start your own, head to the FabLabs.io platform to find more information and meet other makers from around the world.




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