FabLab Starter

A blog about building fablabs

FabLabs: Lessons Learned

I didn’t post much during the last month, but I think I learned a few things about FabLabs and am eager to share these findings with you.

But first, a short recap. I started this blog talking about sustainability and how it could be achieved, I also spoke about techniques to discover and learn what is the bare minimum service one could foresee for a FabLab. Finally I discussed about the role makers and FabLabs should play in the society in the near future.

I spent the last weeks trying to get my lab en route, talking a lot with people in the maker movement, following all FabLabs I could find on twitter, looking at what other people in the world are doing.

So let’s get back to what I learned.

FabLabs need founders

I think one of the most immediate finding, yet probably one of the most underestimated, is about people. I learned most successful FabLabs have been built around the will and energy and resources of few strongly motivated individuals.

It’s not just a matter of leadership, with time, as the organization grows, more people start sharing work and duties. Truth is it takes lot of energy and free time to make up something worth, possibly even more if it’s done with scarce resources and in a non profit fashion.

For someone who is just at the beginning of this journey I must recognize it takes really lots of effort. Based on my experience in the startup world, I might say the two ventures require a similar amount of work.

So the lesson learned here it’s the following: if you plan to start a FabLab make sure you have it very high on your personal priority list, be prepared to devote all your spare time to it, and not just for the few months before opening, but in an ongoing fashion, at least for few years.

FabLabs need space

Some tutorials, including the popular FabLab instructable might tell you can start a FabLab in your own garage. While that’s possible, I wonder how many of you have all the safety gear, insurance, visibility, and physical space needed in your garage!

About space, machines needed for building stuff are not that small, a laser cutter might take the space of a small van, and that’s just one of the thing you need to hack some complete project.

If you want to host 3d printers you need proper ventilation, as fumes produced by melting plastics are proven to be hazardous for health.

If you want to sustain you venture with workshops and training, you also need to have access to a proper classroom or conference room.

Finally, if you want to have your lab grow out of your friends circle, you need some place which can be reached easily by young people, either by foot, bike or public transport.

As a side-note You should also ask yourself what could happen if something goes wrong with a machine, and someone gets hurt. Who will be responsible for that? Easy question: the founders!

Lesson learned: you should have both first-aid kits, fire extinguishers and a proper insurance in place before even thinking to let someone enter your lab.

FabLab manifesto asks for safety to be a main concern. Guess what, it all started in a university funded lab where everything I’m mentioning here was already in place before even getting started!

FabLabs need money

Yes it doesn’t sound cool, but the hard truth is that. You don’t need lots of money, you can save a lot from voluntary work, building your machines, donated hardware, recycling stuff. Put off at least 10k euros as a bare minimum.

But you also need to find a space and pay the bills. If you are lucky enough you can find a company or institution paying for that, you can even think to occupy some space! Any of these options will affect what you will be able to do in your FabLab. But you will have lots of money to pay if you don’t, that’s for sure (about 2k euros / month on my estimates).

If you find the money for space, initial setup and bills for the first few months of operation, your not even halfway there. You’ll need a continuos stream of income just to keep the lab open.

Lesson learned: most of the money used by the FabLab will be spent during its lifetime, not when you open it.

FabLabs need a business model

In order to achieve a continuos stream of income and afford to keep the lab open for a long time, a business model must be found for the FabLab.

The FabWiki provides a short, but complete list of things you will be able to do to get money and pay bills, but only after you open to the public. Each comes with pros and cons:

Company sponsor

Many important FabLabs have gone this route. A company finds interesting funding the FabLab or a Company is founded by the FabLab people.

This allows for instance the sharing of machines and spaces, especially when there is a crossing between the activity of the two entities. Another immediate benefit for the company is to easily recruit talents coming from the FabLab, and getting potential customers who are attracted by the FabLab publicity. On the other side, the risk of not having a clear defined distinction between the company and the FabLab activities, often carried by the same people, could both distract from the non-profit nature of FabLab objectives and create tensions among voluntary people and payed company workers.

Even if there’s a clear distinction, it might also happen that the sponsoring companies tries to push the FabLab activities towards more commercially viable stuff.

University / School / Library / Museums

This kind of sponsorship is very useful, and probably the most common one, as well the form where the initial MIT Bits and Atoms Lab was funded. These kind of institutions might give away some space and resources without asking much in return. Furthermore they might make much easier to attract people interesting in training workshops and in using the FabLab’s resources for example to complete their term projects and find help in learning new stuff.

There are some downsides, too. University or other similar institutions might grant access only to students, and require the activities carried on in the lab to be in line with the academic standards.

Furthermore funding provided depends on “politics”, budgets and grants, often determined on a yearly basis, so additional money might be necessary from time to time.

But it’s obvious that the availability of a free space, electricity, water and other basic stuff makes it much easier to cover the rest of the costs.

3D printing and Laser-cutting service

Given that most smaller companies don’t have access to the fabrication tools available in FabLabs, many could find interesting to engage in a service business to fund the lab’s costs. This is especially true when the location allows to reach a wide audience of small companies which work in the design, fashion, furniture or manufacturing business.

But even this solution has some downsides. Both people and machines shouldn’t only be dedicated most of the time to the service business, or they won’t be able to be available for the normal FabLab activities. Again, the line between the business and the non-profit stuff should be marked clearly, as it might become quite blurry.

Consulting and Training

In a similar fashion as the point above, many FabLabs have skilled associates who could be consulting and training for companies in order to sustain the lab’s activities. The risk is similar, people resources are even more scarce than machines and the voluntary work should be treated as such.

As mentioned before the skills and will of motivated individuals is the key to the FabLab success, so this option should be really considered with care, as the risks of loosing the initial objectives are quite high.

Conclusions

I believe that the ideal business model for the FabLab should be a combination of all the models illustrated. A cultural institution should provide the space and utilities, considered the social role of the lab. Local companies could offer some sponsorship for specific events, or activities that could favor their business and provide some free publicity, but also be involved as customers for limited production and design services they might need from the lab. But as in startups it is mandatory to go after different income streams at the same time, doing so will guarantee the freedom to carry on the FabLab mission in an independent fashion.

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