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Are FabLabs for Hardware Entrepreneurs ?

Makers Pro use FabLabs more and more, to prototype their projects, meet partners and get the ball rolling.

I interviewed Camille Bosqué and Ophelia Noor, both French experts of the movement, who just published FabLabs, etc. along with Laurent Ricard, co-founder of the FacLab near Paris. Book is in French, published by Eyrolles Edition, in the lovely Serial Makers collection.

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The book FabLabs, etc. (in French), published by Eyrolles Edition in 2015. Photo: Eric Sulpice

 

Let’s see what they have to say about the fablab movement and the relationship between fablabs and makers pro.

MakingSociety: Hi team FabLabs! Can you tell us how you started getting involved in the world of FabLabs and what you do today, besides the publication of your book ?

Camille Bosqué: This book is the result of almost 3 years spend on the ground. After studying at Boulle Design School and ENS Cachan, I started a PhD on fablabs in October 2012. I instantly knew I had to spend as much time a possible in these spaces to interact directly with the ones that use them. I moved in side by side with these new tinkerers to better understand their practices.

That’s why I traveled so much: San Francisco, Norway, Barcelona, Dakar, Japan, Boston…

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Camille Bosqué, PhD student, at Cité des Sciences in Paris. Picture: Ophélia Noor

Since then, I’m now fully committed to writing my PhD. I talk about how digital fabrication practices have grassroot influences and share elements in common at a specific time in design history.

Ophélia Noor: I entered the world of FabLabs when I was working at digital culture magazine Owni.fr. I was first interested by hackers and very quickly by makers. My first encounter with makers starting FabLabs was at THSF, Toulouse Hackerspace Festival.

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Ophélia Noor at FAB10. Picture: MakingSociety CC NC-SA

 

These two “worlds” are more and more connected, from collaborations to spaces.

Today, I keep following the maker/hacker communities and am looking to work in teams on exciting projects… Call for projects done :-)

MakingSociety: Your numerous visits, meetings and projects with FabLabs give you a great understanding of the topic. What were in your opinion the major phases of the movement in the past years? 

Camille Bosqué: Movement had its own Moore’s Law. FabLabs double each year. This massive and spontaneous adoption resulted in a partial loss of some of the core – essential – values and many new definitions and appropriations.

In the past years, the difficulty has been to keep the network strong and unified.

To do this, FabAcademy is on its way to grow in order to train “gurus” in each countries able to keep strong connections with the network.

France, for example, is the second country with the biggest number of FabLabs just after the United States. But the country is also close on itself and pretty good at redefining the concept of FabLab…

Ophélia Noor: I see them as phases that are still in progress.

French FabLabs for example grew and gathered their communities. They successfully reached public attention, media and created connections with local businesses and public institutions.

There is still a lot of work to do to open some of the spaces. In the big national museums for examples, labs have to follow extremely constraining rules and intellectual propriety issues.

The French FabLab community is very present in national and international events (Fab10 in Barcelona, OHM in Amsterdam) started a few years ago. Fablab Festival in Toulouse – organized by Artilect, Festival D – organized by Ping/Plateforme C in Nantes, and many Open Bidouille Camp and Maker Faire.

These events are great to get the FabLab folks together, but also to gain public attention.

MakingSociety: Would you say that FabLabs are designed for professionals and entrepreneurs? Or mostly educational and social?

Camille Bosqué: They really are all of this together and that’s great.

In France, new spaces focusing on hardware entrepreneurs were perceived at first like a threat by more social oriented spaces. They actually helped grow the movement and gave more options and resources to potential members. Instead of fragmenting audiences, there are more connections and collaborations between spaces.

Ophélia Noor: FabLabs can be all of this at once. A lab can focus on education and fixing products, an other one gives priority to startups. It also depends on the social, cultural and economical environment.

Artilect in Toulouse and Net-Iki in Biarne, a small village in Franche-Comté region are completely different but both have a strong local impact.

A lab called Fabriques du Ponant in Brest opened in 2014 inside Vauban high school. Space is 900 m2! It’s a collective bringing together TyFab (non-profit La Maison du Libre), TéléFab (from Telecom Bretagne engineering school) and Les Petits Débrouillards Bretagne (educational non-profit). Idea is to gather a diverse audience, from high school student to engineers, hackers, teachers and tinkerers. It’s a lab for professionals, enterprises, students and the general audience.

MakingSociety: How do makers pro use FabLabs today? 

Camille Bosqué: FabLabs are spaces that are more flexible and less constraining to start a company. They are essential for makers pro. Entrepreneurs can meet people who are very different and available to talk about their projects and share advice. When makers pro share skills and knowledge, all the people in the space benefit from it and share skills in return.

Ophélia Noor: Besides prototyping, FabLabs are a place of personal and professional development. Makers pro can meet interesting people to develop, test and validate their project with an eclectic audience. Members are willing to listen and are truly passionate on the topics of sharing and innovation. The community and its diversity, here is the key.

MakingSociety: From a country/continent to another, are they major differences of culture or process between labs? 

Camille Bosqué: That’s a huge question! In France, FabLabs are influenced by the idea of public service and non-profit for education. The transition towards more business-oriented spaces is slower than in the United States where confronting economy and social and educational values is not a problem.

When I was in Dakar in September 2013 to help design FabLab Defkoakniep, 3D printing was not a priority for the team because of technical and maintenance issues. To reach a larger audience not familiar with digital fabrication, the team thought of hybrid techniques to combine local craft tradition and modernity.

That’s why we focused on equipping the lab with digital weaving machines as a great entry point for local population.

Ophélia Noor: I will give you an example. I visited FabLabs in Cairo, Egypt and one in construction in Alexandria. These spaces partnered with hackerspaces, startup incubators and one of them had a partnership with STEM schools.

I thought they were much more about entrepreneurship than the ones in France. People needed to find concrete solutions to local issues such as recycling waste in Cairo, where it’s a daily massive problem since streets are covered in trash. Or solutions against power cuts. The FabLab is a response to very concrete needs.

Mitch Altman, who co-founded Noisebridge in San Francisco said something interesting during OHM festival: French FabLabs work on a similar model to US hackerspaces but US FabLabs are more open – and it’s been a while – to partnerships with companies, sponsors and supporting entrepreneurship.

Things are changing though. Not-for-profit model with education for all is still here but FabLabs merge with hackerspaces and labs and some become startup or projects incubators. The coming years will be exciting.

MakingSociety: What is the most successful business model today for a sustainable FabLab ? 

Camille Bosqué: I think mixing business and general audience is a good formula. Without public help, it’s hard to do otherwise…

Ophélia Noor: I don’t think a business model is more functional than an other. Each FabLab finds a solution that fits its project and environment the best. That being said, diversifying revenue sources is the most popular model, combining general audience, business and public institutions.

Thanks!

Community, community, community. That’s how FabLabs are the most beneficial to makers pro. Find a space near you on FabLabs.io on see how it goes. Becoming a member of a FabLab means sharing common values around open source and respect.

Are you part of FabLab? Do you prototype your hardware projects there? Share your experience in the comments below.

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