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What do we do exactly in a FabLab?

Ok. “Making”, 3rd Industrial Revolution, self-production: all these things are good. Neil Gershenfeld’s visions are awesome, the enthusiasm for 3d printing is infectious and the possibilities open by Arduino are exciting. But we did not understand one thing: what do a FabLab do exactly?
The danger is to feel like when you talk about a topic on which all participants in the discussion know they agree. Suddenly someone comes in and asks a really simple question, but this question influences the very foundations of the discussion:

“What do we do exactly in a FabLab?”

This is the question that some heads are beginning to ask themselves, as soon as the topic starts to become mainstream; for instance, De Biase’s head, some days ago, on “Il Sole 24 ore” (an italian newspaper dealing with economy, n.d.t.), after having talked about the experience of Francesco Bombardi with the Fablab of Reggio Emilia, identifies the fundamental challenge that awaits the FabLab in the connection and integration of its activities with industrial and craft production.
It’s something WE have to ask ourselves, if we don’t want adapt passively to the ‘stuffy narrative that has developed in social and economic contexts very far from our own, and that we risk import just as they are, although the way in which they can operate in an American FabLab is surely not the same way they should work here.
Moreover, the Fab Charter is sufficiently wide to allow to create a real FabLab without copying it from the existing ones. In fact, just thinking about Italy, there are a lot of FabLab: they may suppbeorted by single or associated businnesses, inserted in public projects, indipendent or linked with other institutions (like small research/training groups). Some of them are companies, others are projects started by individuals or small groups, associations (more or less structured, more or less numerous). Some of them are located in big cities, others in small towns; some has large spaces, other more narrow … well, there are a lot of examples.

 

So, let’s address those nodes that we must know and dissolve, before anyone can compose his/her own answer.

TREND
First of all, we believe that all the attention focusing on FabLab is certainly a great opportunity, but we also think that some risks must be avoided. If the story becomes a trend, it can impoverish the message; sometimes it seems that FabLab are described as places where only extra-cool things are made, with futuristic and innovative machines. 3D printers, lasercutter and welders are described as innovations and showed as exotic animals, but actually these technologies have been existing for many years. The real news should be that now they are much cheaper, or that they have been brought out from the factories and are now potentially available for everyone.
So, the point is not technology itself, but the fact that now this technology can be used by everybody.

1st NOTE: using technology is more important than technology itself.

PERFORMANCE
The machines you can find in a FabLab are of course less powerful than their “older sisters” in warehouses. Lasercut often cut low-depth and “easy-material” pieces, FDM 3D printers are slow and their resolution is not excellent, mills often do not have more than 3 axles and so on. That means that objects created in a FabLab will be affected by these limits. It means that certain processes are not possible, that there are limitats on the materials, and that miniaturization is unthinkable. Ultimately, it means that the products are, and will remain, limited.

2nd NOTE: Beign able to use technology is more important than what we do with it.

RESEARCH
Intelligent projects and surprising products are coming out from FabLabs. But what we are talking about is not properly “Research and Development” in the traditional sense, but the almost natural development of ideas that we think comes from the mixture of knowledge & passion that can be found in all the most active FabLabs. If anyone wants to bridle this condition giving to the FabLab research assignments on a specific product or implementation technology, he would meet a large mass of problems: quality, provability, strength and range of skills. Centers of research and development already exist, they have important loans granted in exchange for guarantees that a FabLab can not give, being a system inherently dynamic and at least partially spontaneous. So why a company should outsource to a FabLab its own research and prototyping of a product? Moreover, FabLabs should be training places, rather than applications of knowledges.

3rd NOTE: We aim to “intelligent colonization” of new territories, rather than exploration.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
For a FabLab, the word “Open-” is basic. Everything we do and create in a FabLab must be kept affordable and available, everyone should be able to contribute and to use each project as an opportunity for growth and exercise. Reconciling this with the businnes sense of a product is not easy, and above all, it should require a mature system, able to accept and respect the Open- approach. This aspect becomes absolutely important when someone thinks about supporting a FabLab, even through the transfer of his/her ideas and projects.

4th NOTE: we think about projects and design rather than about products.

“SO WHAT?”

That’s what the former annoying speaker should ask now. So, the really valuable things we create in a FabLab are not the products, but the producers. The guys who are developing, and those who will develop projects in FabLabs are learning to work toghether, and to know at least the rudiments of skills that they did not have before; they are regaining control of processes and design as a complex action that includes inseparably both creativity and technique; they are learning to no longer see a substantial difference between hardware and software, and even the bits are becoming a new type of material to be molded and treat. This is the disruptive potential of a FabLab: the spontaneous formation of hybrid figures. No longer designer or planner, but a team led by the interest and a passion rather than by utility. The makers!
After all, our country has had the Makers for many centuries; we used to call them crafts, and not so much time has passed since we have forgotten about them. They were the ones who worked the leather, glass, metal, cloth inside the many shops of our historic towns. These shops today hold their transformed descendants; the same shops where today we can see products that used to be known, appreciated and valued just because of their quality, the inventiveness that only those who know and can use materials may have. As time goes on, the true value of know-how is turning more and more into marketing, rather than the reality of things. The quality has been transformed into luxury, craftsmanship in design. We risk to forget how to innovate and create, and perhaps it is no coincidence.

And then we try to think about an Italian FabLab as a craft workshop, where people can regain the sense of touch and know-how that we have lost in one generation. Hands on wood, iron, cloth. But also on plastic, on smart textiles, on electronic components. Hands on the levers of a drill, on the buttons of lasercutter, hand inside the scissors and around welders, but also on the keypads and mouse to program the paths of machines controlled by computer and to draw 3D models, to be printed and put on the shelf next to those wax or clay.

We think about a FabLab where you begin again to innovate, but where the input comes from curiosity, intuition, strength, from the energy of the group and the variety of skills and attitudes. It does not matter whether we are talking about a chair or a demotic plant, what matters is a safe approach and active compared to the things and materials, even if we speak of code written to your computer.

We think about a FabLab as a fantastic gym for hands and brain, as a large teaching laboratory, as a creative space or a 2.0 craft workshop; we think about the image we like most, but we know that is not a revolution what we are talking about and what we want to achieve with the Florence FabLab. It is rather to resume an interrupted speech. And, possibly, to have fun.

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