The Failings of FabLabs

At the end of the European FabLab Conference in Aachen, professor Jan Borchers (together with René Bohne our kind hosts at the Media Computing Group of RWTH) at the final discussion round brought up an unexpected question:

Are FabLabs dead?

With the rapid proliferation of all kinds of maker spaces in all kinds of forms, are FabLabs still needed? With the ongoing rapid decline in the costs of machines (a full set of smaller / table-top sized fabbing machines, including a consumer ready 3d printer, for me came in at around 3500 Euro, and prices are still falling, bringing it within household reach in well developed economies), is there still a need for public access to these machines? This is what Jan Borchers asked.

Peter Troxler then rightly pointed out that the origins of FabLab are quite technocratic, which explains the starting focus of FabLab on the machines (“All you need to make, almost, anything”). Knowledge sharing, preferably in a global network, was always part of the concept, but it came without emphasis on community and network building to support that. Indeed, most of the early FabLab network was not a network at all, but a wheel with spokes and MIT at the center, and it still usually is that way for any country with one FabLab. The European FabLab conference where this discussion took place, as are they yearly Fab conferences, was an accurate example of that same technocratic focus.

To me there are two underserved key parts in the FabLab concept.

  • FabLabs need to be very strongly rooted locally, and actively work to be locally relevant to diverse stakeholder groups.
  • FabLabs need to be networked globally, to cater to the mandated easy knowledge exchanges and for other labs to rapidly build upon experiments and designs from elsewhere and create local impact.

And the majority of the FabLabs I’ve encountered are crap at both those two things. Even though for me they are the discerning traits compared to other maker spaces.

We’re bad at finding ways of being locally relevant. Bad at attracting a diverse range of stakeholders for whom the FabLab is a hub and exchange. The financial dependence on public funding, or financial difficulty in the absence of that, of most BeNeLux labs are a case in point. The regularity with which I see commercial questions to those same FabLabs being met with a ‘no’ because they are simply not prepared for such questions are another, one I find particularly shocking as it proves there is demand. A lot are in the habit as well of cannibalizing the free access in an attempt to generate revenue, which by destroying the prime directive of the FabLab concept actually increases the threshold for new makers to come play and experiment and thus serves to reduce the revenue potential, instead of increasing it. Almost none take lateral approaches to generate revenue and be a stable and energy giving node in the local ecosystem.

We’re also bad at globally connecting. Most FabLabs I know are so busy with themselves that they hardly take time to work with other FabLabs, even if they’re neighbours. The yearly, highly tech focused global meet-ups, do not a global network make. The low point I experienced was when a FabLab was in trouble, and when I approached them about it, told me they ‘would be participating in the community again when they had solved their problems’. If there were indeed a community wouldn’t they have known to ask for support instead of withdrawing? There is little to none routine interaction between a wide range of labs, resulting in shared efforts etc. And here I am just talking about FabLab staff not interacting, and not even looking at what actually would be needed: various FabLab visitors using the FabLab network to connect and work with others.

Meanwhile the FabLabs are successful in proliferating across the globe, so much so that the number of FabLabs roughly doubles every 18 months. They are also changing shape from a few big costly ‘flagship stores’ to include a larger number of grassroots smaller labs (reinforced by the downwards price pressure on machines). In that exponential growth lies FabLabs’ biggest challenge: there are now more FabLabs joining the network than currently are in the network. And in the next 18 months that will happen again, more new labs will join than already exist.

Even though that exponential growth will taper off at some point, for now it is the biggest challenge: how do you welcome and engage a majority of newcomers into an existing network and community that is very poorly equipped and developed precisely on the point of network and community building?

Discussion invited in the comments…

(this posting was previously published in the personal weblog of Ton Zijlstra)

18 Responses to “The Failings of FabLabs”

  1. Anurag Chugh says:

    In india , where Frugal Innovation (or Jugaad) reigns supreme, its not the machine that maketh a lab, its the attitude. Bringing people with this “Jugaagu” attitude together is what is most important. Tools (some of which are themselves home made) are secondary. As more and more people join the FabLab network – many from the developing countries – the existing FabLab members must take it upon themselves to cultivate the newcomers to communicate regularly and effectively with other around the world. Instead of teaching them how to use the machine, the newcomers must be taught the use of various online collaboration tools. Once this atmosphere of sharing information and getting help from people all around the world is established, the lab can flourish easily.

    We need a central place on the internet for people to come and collaborate, something like a facebook of fablabbers! Right now to collaborate, we use various online tools that dont integrate with each other. Fablabbers need a place to log onto where they can easily checkout what others are upto – a facebook wall like updates of what projects are ongoing at various fablabs. But this database must be easily searchable – if people post links to blogs, then the text of those blogs must be searchable. I guess the polycom system was proposed to help with such kind of collaboration – like a window between the labs, but now we need a more sophisticated solution for collaboration.

    And about the machines, well like you said, they have become inexpensive and many people will possess a different model (and knockoffs) of them. Some would prefer to use their own hands. When this happens, its the collaboration that would matter, not the machine.

  2. Jelle Boomstra says:

    So, how do you suggest we should go forward with this? I do recognize a lot of the things you say, as at least PS is an island on its own, with little interaction with other fablabs. I see some cooperation with one other lab, but that is limited to a specific project. Cooperation is good, but you do need something to cooperate upon. If other labs are somewhat like PS, everyone will have a laundry list of potential projects that they lack the time for, so unless there is a big (financial) incentive, cooperation will not happen: everyone has work enough to do. (I guess that is human nature in action btw)
    As for helping other fablabs: I have trouble seeing how I could help to alleviate the woes of another lab in (financial) trouble, so how could they help us?

  3. As a young grassroots fablab facing many of the previously discussed issues (lack of time, laundry list of “to-do’s”, bills at end of month etc.) we find it very difficult to connect with a ‘network of fablabs’.

    Sure, we reach out, and on occassion talk with some of the labmanagers elsewhere, but driving cross-country to meet & greet once a month at various locations does not seem like an efficient way of doing things. From day one it has always amazed us that there are no low-threshold , quick and proven ways of communication & cooperation. What is so bad about having a forum, or a newsgroup , or a dedicated website focused on sharing (start-up)problems and solutions, machine issues, day-to-day lab talk etc. ? Why isn’t there one (or why can we not find it ?) ; fabtables, polycoms and whatnot sound great but are hardly low threshold ….

    A lot of time is also spent in the evenings behind a computer. We would love to be able to browse or participate in an online communication channel that works 24/7 and not just ot some predestined out-of-reach place & time.
    If a site like fablab.nl can be set up and be maintained, a forum (or equivalent) can not be too much trouble to add. We’ll gladly volunteer serverspace and maintenance time if needed, but do not think a single lab should run something like this.

    We understand an online meetingplace is not a cureall but it could serve as a first step to

    • Jeff Bach says:

      Hi Pete
      What is wrong with using any one of the several existing groups on LinkedIn? The group feature of LI is quite open and flexible, at least imo. As I think about this idea in response to your post, I’m really not seeing any reason why a LinkedIn group is not a relevant answer if not possibly the best answer.

      Keep it simple. It Global. It’s free. It is interactive.
      my .02
      Jeff

  4. if people see a need for a fablab forum they can go here :

    http://fablabfora.com/

    We’ll keep this site up and will cater to it when needed. It should be community driven and governed so if you want to become an admin or moderator let us know on the forum. We’ll happily step aside for better initiatives.

  5. For online realtime communication I prefer irc. I just created channel #fablab on freenode netwerk, feel free to drop by.

    Regards, Dave

  6. Peter Troxler says:

    Well phrased, Ton. Today, there are three big players in the fabbing/making world: The Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), Makemedia, and TechShop. Their names are telling – technocratic (bits, atoms, tech) or consumption oriented (media, shop).
    None of the names conveys the social aspect, projects a global network or even hints at another possible future of fabrication which is the “lateral”, “deep play” (in Rifkin’s words), the commons-based peer-production (Benkler).
    As FabLabs we would have all the ingredients to explore the social realm. I am not sure if Jan’s provocation really included the social; but that is the real challenge. Since if we don’t take that challenge serious enough – to develop new ways of working – we are prematurely killing FabLabs.
    Already the “structures” we set up (foundations, associations, industry partnerships, meetings, conferences, newsletters, fora, platforms, …) are all so fundamentally rooted in old-style working that they are (or are bound to become) a hindrance rather than a support on the development of the social of Fab.
    So what? There are a number of ideas floating around: from within comes the idea to revitalize “fabfolk” (which we can get terribly wrong, if we’re not careful). From outside Fab there are a few more conceptual contributions that could guide us (tribal organizations, actor-network theory, the institutional analysis and development framework).
    Whatever we do, we need to take that social experiment serious – particularly here in the Netherlands where we six years ago started to deviate from the centralized outreach paradigm by mercy of MIT. We brought the DIY FabLab to the program, the idea that there can exist a fringe community. I think we need to revitalize this “fringe” idea and develop it – including all the technology that is at our command – at the service of the community.

  7. We had a great discussion at FabFuse 2013 in Amersfoort last summer tackling exactly your point Ton.

    Apparently in France, Labs are joining in on feasting together in fun events. I look forward hearing more from that.

    Meanwhile find here 45 minutes evaluating 7 years of FabLab in The Netherlands: http://vimeo.com/75757149

  8. You make a good point.
    I think there are two ways in which this can be improved:
    – create events for fablabs to collaborate with each other on real projects – not just conferences or expensive courses (Fab Academy). For example, I ran FabJam a few months ago. A one-day event for fabspaces around the world to work on the same topic.
    – create better tools for documenting / exchanging on the projects that matter. But there’s still a long way to go…

  9. Chris says:

    Hi guys,
    first, thank you Ton, for the link to this discussion. I am very unhappy, that we (the Nuremberg Fablab guys) couldn’t make it to Aken, I appreciate knowing our fellow Fablab-colleagues personally.

    “Are Fablabs dead?” – Well I hope not – here in Germany we were a little bit late founding Fablabs and every week, it seems, there’s a new space emerging somewhere. The phenomenon of open Workspaces is still new to our cities. And even the drop of prices of fabbing machines can’t really endanger the relevance of Fablabs – why? – Why do you go to a commercial gym even if you can do all the exercises at home? – It’s more fun, you socialise, you feeling positive pressure. My experience during our OpenLabs is that the visitors with the best equipped workshops at home like to come the most often. But the best argument: What about the people who can’t afford those machines?

    Concerning the international exchange – I think you are absolutely right. The regular exchange between International – let alone European Labs – is not the liveliest one. So do we need to exchange more often? I can say from our experience, that it is just not possible – too much work. But it is always good to know, that labs are out there, worth a visit, when we stop by. People with the same problems, same attitude but different solutions. Labs, that might be a project partner some day. Labs you know well or you just heard a good story from.

    So what are our challenges for next year here in Bavaria? As there is so much work to do, I don’t think we are close to death:

    – Make the Lab more relevant in our region: Take part in common events, partner up with local players, get closer to universities an encourage maker classes, take responsibility in our neighborhood, get to be known by local enterprises.

    – private funding – finding enterprises that support us as we support them in return for relevant social responsibility and education projects

    – public funding – educate ourselves the how’s and when’s of public funding, be it local, regional, countrywide or EU-related

    – building up an education program – schools and other educational institutions crave for being at fablabs – how can we install a proper educational program – with affordable prices, clear processes and major workshop content.

    So – those are the goals. But as a community, we have to show our relevance in society and find strong answers to our basic questions. Why do you have to have a place to awaken your ideas? Why does there have to be a place of practical learning? Why should machines and production be offered in a democratic way?

    Chris

  10. Hi all,

    first, nice to see these kinds of discussions happening. This is happening everywhere (also here in France) and it’s really valuable.

    As Dirk noted, here in France (I’m running the Fablab in Grenoble, in a science center) we get together a lot for all sorts of festivals and ‘make happenings’. This strengthens the idea of sharing and having local nodes that are holistically bonded to the network.

    On the subject of getting your lab to be locally relevant, this is one of the things we started out doing early… we simply asked schools, teachers, and people who work in diverse organisations (mostly for kids) how we could help them and create partnerships. We are lucky to be in a science center, seeing that gave us an extensive network even before we opened the lab. Schools and teachers love what we do, and they are more and more part of it.. we don’t impose things, we just ask them what they need to do their jobs better, and then we help them find the best solutions.. we work together with many schools and institutions, and they just keep coming back :)

    We are also home to a hacker space, that takes over our lab every thursday evening, from 19.00 till oft after midnight.. cool projects and nice people, but although there are ‘open to anyone to join’ they actually seem very closed to the outsider. If you do not speak their ‘geeky’ language, and you are really a beginner, although welcome, you are soon lost in translation.

    So we try to not become like that in our lab, and stay open in every sense to true beginners. Yes those people can buy some of the machine we have for in their home, and I believe in the future they will, but they also need a reason to. The need a more profound understanding of what this tech is, what it means and what it can do for them. And we show them every day, smiling and patient, until their eyes widen and they say, “wait, so I can make almost anything?!”

    It makes our days fun and happy, being and working together, creating a true local community.

    And for joining the global network, I know it can be daunting. Hard to find the right info and contacts.. so many fora and sites and mails and what not.. but the global network IS really there, and we are part of it. This can start small. I’ll give one example: you have a question about one of the machines? Send me an email. I’m in France, I don’t know where you are, and I don’t care. But i’m sure that together we’ll find a solution.

    JMM.

  11. Marc Olivier says:

    It’s nice not to feel alone.

    I think it’s time to get a real network. A way to share our problems, find solutions and work together.
    More and more technocratic/consumption driven interest are rooting themselves. Organizing regional FabFuse events and global FabJams, operating a multi-language forum (Thanks fabfora for the initiative).

    More and more I can see Fab labs not respecting the fundamentals of the charter. It’s a trendy word these days. In some countries there is massive financial incentive to open a lab. How do we ensure that these are really open to the community?

    This conversation must go on. I feel a real interest for it in the movement.

  12. Peter Troxler says:

    I’ve just been to a loosely related conference in Athens, at which Felix Stalder presented the thesis that “The “Internet Revolution” actually consists of two revolutions. First was the communication revolution, which stressed horizontality, cooperation and decentralization. In its outlook, it was vaguely anarchistic. The second phase, which we are currently living through, is the data revolution, which stresses a new consumerism, the central control over big data and generates new forms of power based the ability forecast and shape environments. Politically speaking, this is a counter revolution.” (http://embrostheater.blogspot.gr/2013/09/konrad-becker-felix-stalder-statistics.html)

    We could argue that the commodification of making (in analogy to the commodification of horizontal cooperation by G and f) is an attempt of the old industrial and media structures to reverse (or prevent) the impact of a horizontal making revolution. And not all Fab Labs are not guilty of taking part in this reactionary approach. The (sometimes massive and sometimes too little) money – and the focus on monetary issues – is part of that disease matter.

  13. “It’s a trendy word these days. In some countries there is massive financial incentive to open a lab. How do we ensure that these are really open to the community?”

    Yep, same is happening here in France. And why not? I always try to interest labs who started like that to connect to the community, to add more machines and processes to their space.. and to share and be open. In a way it’s better to have labs that are partially connected then no labs at all..

    But, this is of course partially true.

    The danger I see is that there are massive investments in tools, machines and spaces, and in 4 or 5 years these monetary wells dry up, and since there is no clear business model that has been implemented throughout the labs, most of them (well, I hope this won’t happen) might have to close.

    But again, perhaps we should not focus on this maladie matter, but more on how to help get those labs not ‘respecting’ the charter to see why it’s a good idea to do so, and to work together.

  14. Chris says:

    Hi again,

    like I mentioned before, I see the most important task in making our labs locally relevant – for this makes Fablabs relevant everywhere. Showing the impact on local structures gives other emerging Fablabs good use cases for showing how important it is to have a lab in your home turf.

    I like the idea of decentral events like the FabJam (of which I didn’t know till this discussion) for they show impact locally AND supra-regional. And as we are planning events anyway we won’t have extra work to do by participating in a common event.

    For those kind of things the least thing we should have is a common email-distributor. Or something different, if it works in a simple way.

    Chris

  15. Jerry Isdale says:

    Aloha

    it is quite interesting to me to see this sentiment coming from inside the FabLabs. I have been following the work for a decade or so, working towards having a fab lab locally. I have noted in the past the lack of communication out of the fab lab networks. It seems to me that most of these have some connection back to MIT (for curriculum, etc) but rarely much publicly. I attended the US FabLab Network symposium in April 2012. I noted the lack of communication issue in my blog post , while also noting that this also happens in maker spaces (like my own). Forums, blogs and other ‘social media’ take a LOT of time. It takes a special person to keep pounding out the posts and interacting with the global community – as well as their own local folks. There is also an insular culture in academia, where most labs have historically been hosted, that leaves the community outreach to the university PR staff. The regular staff (and supporting people in the school) are generally too busy just getting things done to blog or track forums regularly.

    • Jeff Bach says:

      Jerry your comment makes me realize how a FabLab is unlike a normal business. One need only look at a staple of normal business of virtually any size -Marketing/Communication and then ask how many FabLabs, Makers, etc. have anyone on staff (if there is even a staff) that is explicitly charged with MarCom.

      I’ll bet few, if any, FabLabs have this explicit business function built into their structure.
      For example, the high school-based FabLab here in Stoughton, WI., had nothing to publicize their new FabLab. I donated a video to support this cause. Hopefully that helps a little. But the point is that in thinking about it, I was shocked that something that was years in the planning and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, apparently never once considered starting a blog or making a video or starting a Twitter account merely so that there was something persistent that could be searched for, discovered, bookmarked, forwarded, linked to and simply mentioned via word of mouth.

      Quite easy to speculate on the competency of the public school officials that are charged with managing this resource. In their defense, they do have plenty of other issues to focus on. Also in their defense, this FabLab is quite busy now simply with the high school students that are taking classes and using the machines.

  16. Ton Zijlstra says:

    I agree with Chris, that making your FabLab locally relevant up to the point of being indispensable is the most important task.

    The global networking opportunity is one way of being locally relevant. But not if you perceive it as something you give to other without your own benefit, as Jelle seems to do, or focus on the techno aspects of it or see sharing as broadcasting as Jerry describes.

    You need to start asking yourself what you can ask from the global network that helps your FabLab visitors? And for yourself as staff, what questions do you need answers to, and are there those in the global network that can help you find that answer?
    The global network starts with you asking a specific question. Other human beings will generally respond to direct questions. A general expectation to share usually doesn’t work, as I do not know whom I’m sharing for or in which context it will be re-used. No matter how many sharing platforms your create, it’s not about the technology affordances, it is about that basic human trait.

    So to turn this discussion around to practice.
    Why don’t you all make a commitment right here and now: a commitment to ask 1 specific question of someone at another FabLab. 1 specific question, the answer to which you know will help one of your visitors, or perhaps help yourself (but rather help your visitor). And then aim to ask 1 question per week.

    Start building the global network in a way that is valuable to you: ask 1 question this week.
    Repeat that next week, and the week after ….