So what are these fab labs of which people have been speaking about so much lately? As Wikipedia puts it, “The fab lab program was started in the Lab at MIT, a collaboration between the Grassroots Invention Group and the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, broadly exploring how the content of information relates to its physical representation, and how a community can be powered by technology at the grassroots level”.
The program grew out of a popular class at MIT called “How to make (almost) anything” thanks to Professor Neil Gershenfeld, who realized that academic education was heavily centered on theory and his students could barely screw in the proverbial light bulb. In one of his speeches he said that at the time he thought “Will the MIT allow me to teach these things? Won’t they be too useful?”.
Anyway, a fab lab is a fabrication laboratory, i.e. a lab equipped with digital technologies in which people can meet and build, almost anything. The term fab lab can also be interpreted as “fabulous laboratory”, for the almost magical way in which you can design a digital model on a computer and automagically transform it into a real and almost living object. Actually, the vast majority of projects startsout on the back of a napkin before they evolve into more and more precise models, which will then be the basis of the first prototype. This is good, because it means that anybody can start a brilliant project, all they need is a little nudge and someone as passionate who can help them.
Frankenstein Garage is a fab lab, if a very small one yet: also known as FabLab Milano, Frankenstein Garage was born in May 2011 in front of a coffee machine – one of the most dangerous places in the world because it can host conversations that can lead you to the most strange and unimaginable places and situations. Which is exactly what happened to us.
“Us” basically means Paolo and me, even though one of the mantras about starting a new grassroots fab lab sounds more or less like “the more, the better”. Paolo is a very creative and passionate electrical engineer, while I… well, I write posts for Josette G. We lived in front of each other before realizing that we shared a lot of passions and interests, and so it was only natural that we started collaborating. Before we started the famous conversation at the coffee machine we tried other different projects, which failed but taught us a lot. And now here we are.
The official list of the tools for a fab lab leads to an initial investment of about $180.000. The crisis which is storming over Italy and Europe at large makes it very difficult for everybody to start out with such an investment, and this is even truer for us as we started out of nothing. So, how can you launch a startup during such a difficult time? We are following the theories by Steve Blank, Alex Osterwalder, Eric Ries, Josh Kaufman and many others.
Theories that always hold up, even in happier times because they focus on finding an actual working and healthy business model before putting on a money-eating monster. This is why we started even without a venue, just collaborating with different projects of the international fab lab network.After that, as knowledge sharing is a very important part of the philosophy of fab labs, our MEVO (minimum economically viable offer) was education, with the “sciura Maria” courses in which we teach the foundations of electronics, microcontrollers programming, processing, and 3D printing.
Also, we have had the great pleasure of speaking at conferences like WhyMCA, Italian Agile Day and Codemotion. Meanwhile, leaning on other established labs, we have helped people to realize their projects in a perfect fab lab style. Now it seems we have a venue, even if Italian bureaucracy and the costs of insurance do not help those who wants to start a business of their own, so we hope to have the fire extinguishers of the proper color as soon as possible.
Anyway, if you are interested in starting a grassroots fab lab of your own, you can attend FABFUSE 2012 which will be held in Amersfoort (NL) from 8th to 11th August – sorry you have to wait until next year. Also, do not miss the Makers Italy fair which will be held near Milan from 9th to 11th of November. Bring your ideas with you, we’ll be longing to hear them. So… what is your idea? And what are you waiting for?
Andrea Maietta (@andreamaietta) Passionate supporter of agile methods despite his three digits weight, he passed from the role of scrum half to that of Scrum master, even if his true love remains the back row. He’s cofounder of Frankenstein Garage, the first (would be) fab lab in Milan, where he tries to build a lightsaber while he’s busy keeping the geeks of the lab down to earth. Every now and then he rants on [http://andreamoz.blogspot.com].
Paolo Aliverti (@zeppelinmaker) He shares his many interests, which comprise business, management and technology, on his blog. LEGO, electronics and IT have been his biggest passion since he was in the cradle (but don’t tell his wife). He’s cofounder of Frankenstein Garage, where he puts his experience on physical computing to good use leading courses on electronics and microcontrollers.