FabLab Starter

A blog about building fablabs

The Lean FabLab Part 2 - or Why You Shouldn't Buy a 3d Printer, Yet

In the previous post I promised to give some more details on the techniques proposed by the Lean Startup methodology to validate a business hypothesis.

Let’s talk about one of the first that came to my mind: testing how much people is really interested in using your FabLab tools and which you should buy.

Some might think that in order to test a project, you should really start it, at least up to a given point. So they rush buying equipment, installing it, learning how to use it, only to finally discover it was not such a great idea.

All the effort spent on something, be it building a product, creating an organization, having a project kick-off, could eventually go wasted. This is the common approach, and it feels like a duty to go over this process: everybody does it this way.

But wasting resources is wrong! As already mentioned, any lean start-up should devote most of its initial resources in finding a sustainable business, not building it right away. Your FabLab is no different.

Let me bring you an example. During my career as an IT professional, I joined a meeting with the technical lead of one of the biggest TV broadcasters in Italy. We were discussing of building complex digital fingerprinting technologies for tracking pirated tv shows on the net, and he wasn’t very convinced. So he told his story.

Few years before he and his team were facing the issue of close captioning live tv shows. They surveyed the market finding few companies with such offerings. But none of them was providing the ability to recognize many different voices and have effective speech recognition of the spoken parts for each actor or performer.

After much study, they came up with an elegant solution, using the most complex software even written… the human brain! So they basically put a fast touch-typist in front of a keyboard and let him write the subtitles in real time.

Imagine how much cost-effective this solution shown to be compared to an intricate mix of hardware and software…

Let’s get back to the 3d printer now. There’s some kind of magic association between FabLabs and 3d printers. Any respected FabLab should have one, this is what the news says every day.

Using one, you can make things on your own and so on. So you and the other founders, like the FabLab instructable says, get some substantial money (even one thousand Euros is money for a startup!) and spend it on your shiny new machine.

Maybe you saved some extra bucks just by getting a Kit, to be assembled and soldered by yourselves. But wait. Let’s remember what we need to know to test our hypothesis.

Who is going to use it? And most importantly, what will they use it for?

Yes, owning a Makerbot or (insert here your favorite open hardware machine), could attract few people. They will be eager to make it work, just to discover it’s not so easy, after all.

People will grab things from thingverse and try to print them. Just to discover they don’t look like the picture, and if lucky, it took few dozen tentative to get it printed. Lots of wasted filament, power, and time. A quite frustrating experience!

Sure, you’ll learn how to use the few CAD/CAM open source programs. And if you assembled it you might also have learnt the basics of soldering.

But again, where is the value?

Truth is you and your team could have acquired those skills without buying any 3d printer! Cheap DIY electronics kits are much better ways to learn how to solder, and Blender any easy path to start modeling things. All this learning will be very useful when technology matures.

If you really want to test the interest in 3d printing from people and not owning one just for the sake of it, the Lean Startup would suggest you to act like you have one.

Yes, fake it. Put a big sign on your website or lab telling you’re making 3d prints for free for those in the local community who send you STL files.

Now sit and watch and learn.

This is not tricking people: you have many printers everywhere; you can rent them from services or borrow them from other FabLabs.

You might even offer help to build and fix the STL files. At some point you can also arrange a workshop on modeling and printing with a borrowed printer, and return it by the same day.

Even by handling every single file by yourself to an external service, and paying for it, will cost you much less then getting a cheap printer, and you’ll get much better results, plus some free consulting in fixing your models.

On the other side, if you get dozens of people every day asking for a free print, you might consider spend that extra buck and lease a professional printer. This experience, in my opinion, could really be eye opening.

In the end, the lesson here is not to rush things. You can test what works by faking it, then build on what people are really asking for.

A FabLab is not just a 3d printer, it’s a group of creative people making smart things, no matter how.

In the next post I’ll investigate another Lean tool, “getting out of the building” to help determine what successful FabLabs are doing and how.