FabLab Starter

A blog about building fablabs

The Lean FabLab

Reading the “Lean Startup” book from Eric Reis, I started thinking how his teachings could be applied to building and running a FabLab.

For those who think this stuff is just for software startups, it’s important to notice that such methodology has been developed on many of the values and concepts adopted since the 80s in the Toyota car company, famous for example for the invention of the now widely popular Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing. For this reason many suggest this book might teach some valuable lessons on strategy, and be applied to startups of any kind.

But beware: like most methodologies, this is no silver bullet. Every advice must be considered within the actual context and taken with common sense.

A FabLab as a startup

The central theme of the Lean Startup gravitates around the definition of a startup itself: an organization devoted to identifying a sustainable business.

While this might not be the main focus of a FabLab, it is obvious that sustainability is key for developing innovation. How else one might find the resources and why not, the personal rewards, if no value is produced? how do bills for components and utilities would get payed?

Furthermore, other common traits with “normal” startups might be the little number of people involved at the beginning, the need to find a space, recruit talents and create an audience, or a customer base in startup terms.

The build-test-learn process

The main approach suggested to reach the startup goals is that of continuos learning. Every activity should be focused on learning something about what works and what doesn’t and progress should be determined on this value only. A Lean Startup doesn’t jump straight away into something, committing all resources to it, but continuosly ajdusts its target by learning, betting on early failure to mitigate risks, till the point where it needs to pivot, finding new hypothesis to be tested in order to remain competitive.

But what could all of this ever mean for a FabLab?

Imagine you’re sitting in front of a bank clerk or a sponsor asking for a small loan, let’s say around 20k Euros (I’ll try to run a more in-depth cost analysis in further posts), just enough to open and equip your FabLab.

Testing hypothesis

The first thing you’d be asked is what your mission is. This is an easy one: “Create a place where common people could experiment and build prototypes of amateur projects using some of the lab resources for free, while companies would be paying to use the same plus some expert advice for building actual product prototypes whose mass production will be outsourced at a later time”.

Now imagine the bank clerk is a fan of the Lean Startup; he will first underline which are the hypothesis well hidden in your mission statement:

  • you will be able to find an affordable space (given your little budget) where tinkerers would love to spend significant time
  • a community of such people already exists but they don’t have such a place to go
  • you will have enough human / technical / logistic resources to operate 3d printers, laser and vinyl cutters, computers, a network etc.
  • you will be able to let people use those tools safely and productively
  • you will find enough companies willing to use the lab, and adequately pay for it, at least enough to cover all the cost plus some little profit, to be invested in keeping the lab running, and let you make a decent living
  • prototypes made in the lab will be easily “ported” to industrial services for mass production

Now, you’re probably thinking these are really a lot of questions to ask. But take a moment, how many business ideas based on just the intuition, soon become plain failures? The Lean Startup concept bases decisions on facts, the reality, not intuitions, the dreams.

Luckily it also gives few practical tools to check the reality:

  • getting out of the building
  • the MVP
  • split A/B testing
  • actionable metrics
  • pivoting

The next post will talk about these tools, and how they might help in our process building and running the FabLab.