Basement Brains

Fab Lab Olbia is one of the newest Fab Labs on the grid. The first Lab in northeastern Sardinia, Fab Lab Olbia opened up about three months ago, boasts ten dedicated members, two 3D printers, and runs entirely out of Silvano Palmas’s basement. Managed by Antonio Burrai, Fab Lab Olbia is a project composed of equal parts love and brains. Love of technology, and brains for, well, just about everything that can be destroyed and then reassembled. Antonio, a structural engineer who balances his time between Rome and Sardinia, had the idea last summer, inspired by the Fab Lab Roma makers. He assembled a team, among them Silvano, an electrotechnical expert and scuba diving instructor, and Francesca Masu, who handles the legal side of the operation and is in the process of securing funding. Shortly thereafter they adopted Raffaele Enna, who Antonio joked came “floating down the river outside” to become their mechanical engineer.

Fab Lab Olbia

MadRim Productions visits Fab Lab Olbia’s brand new basement workshop.

Outside Silvano's building, where the Fab Lab operates in the basement.

Outside Silvano’s building, where the Fab Lab operates for now.

In late 2013, Sardinia suffered major flooding, which left thousands homeless. Olbia was the worst affected, and damaged roads and bridges can still be seen on the city outskirts. The future members of Fab Lab Olbia collected debris and washed away metallic junk, much of which they have repaired and/or repurposed in their basement Lab. Silvano in particular “prefers to destroy,” and his corner workbench of the Lab is home to hunks of metal. He also found a large remote control toy race car, which he reassembled using various other found pieces and 3D printing the missing ones. Antonio proudly pointed out the sleek Zortrax 3D printer, arrived on the very day of our visit. But even more impressive is their original machine, which Antonio’s friend Giacomo Falaschi, from Fab Lab Cascina, designed and Antonio himself built, using magnets to slide the tool head along the X and Y axes, which provides a smoother print job than belts. He 3D printed parts to construct the 3D printer, and used a laser cutter to design the print surface, where he also cut in the machine’s name: Falla, which means Do It in Italian.

Silvano's upcycled remote control car project.

Silvano’s upcycled remote control car project.

The Falla, designed and built by Antonio and his friend.

The Falla is an open-source 3D printer, designed and built by Antonio and Giacomo for Fab Lab Olbia.

A plastic object printed with the Falla, which Antonio joked was Silvano posing for 3D scanning while in the shower.

A plastic object printed with the Falla, which Antonio joked was Silvano posing for 3D scanning while in the shower.

Antonio, Silvano, Francesca, and Raffaele were all present when Jon and I stopped by their homegrown Lab. They told us about some of the other members: Marco Ciampa, chief designer and architect of Maori yachts, Roberto Mecchia, who is one of the few individuals in Sardinia who is legally allowed to fly drones, Valentina Soro, a graphic designer and archeologist, Paolo Marras, an electronic engineer who programmed an original PC game at the age of twelve, and Sara Barroccu, who has five years of experience 3D printing jewelry. The members all come from a range of backgrounds, but they gathered around the common mission of the Fab Foundation: To provide access to the tools, the knowledge, and means to educate, innovate, and invent using technology and digital fabrication to allow anyone to make (almost) anything.

Though Fab Lab Olbia is an extremely new endeavor, they have big goals. In a couple days, they will attend their first major event. Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport will close for one week for the first time in about twenty years and will host a festival from 05-07 March. Fab Lab Olbia will set up a booth at the so-called Fairport event, where they’ll demonstrate 3D printing and scanning to attendees. Their goal is to increase awareness of technology among the population of Olbia (and beyond). They will no doubt have several new and inspired members after the three-day event. Antonio surprised me by refuting outright my statement that Sardinia had not embraced modernization. He clarified my understanding by saying, “There is no diffusion of technology around the island,” due to polarization of funds and infrastructure. “Things are changing slowly,” he says, with more technology growth in the north to match the south. Fab Lab Olbia faces this challenge with a smile and cannot wait for their big debut at Fairport.

While Antonio plans on moving Fab Lab Olbia to a bigger space, I found their operation in Silvano’s basement enjoyable. However, as their membership increases and they take on bigger and bigger projects, they will have to relocate. In Antonio’s ideal vision, Fab Lab Olbia will boast a recycling program, CNC machine for woodworking, a 3D printer capable of printing concrete for civil engineering purposes and ceramic, one of Sardinia’s major natural resources, a kiln for firing such ceramic creations, and even a swimming pool, for experimentation with underwater technologies. Many of the members are scuba divers and many others have extensive boating experience. Olbia is of course a port town, and as such the people share a powerful relationship with the water and wind. This is certainly apparent in the Lab’s ambitions.

This foosball table was reportedly the first object moved into the new Lab. Work hard, play harder.

The foosball table was reportedly the first item moved into the new Lab. Work hard, play harder.

As is the case with many projects in their early days (ahem, MadRim Productions), money can often be a frustration. Though many networks exist for community workshop spaces, such as the Fab Foundation and Make In Italy, none offer financial support–Fab Labs are expected to be financially self-sufficient. As the Lab’s legal advisor, Francesca has helped Fab Lab Olbia connect with local interested politicians. The Lab has a project proposal awaiting approval from the Office of Education in Olbia; if their grant is approved, they will travel to various local high schools offering workshops to students in 3D printing and digital design.

Fab Lab Olbia's library of old computer textbooks, which are still beneficial for teaching basics.

Fab Lab Olbia’s library of old computer textbooks, which are still beneficial for teaching basics.

We had the impression that Fab Lab Olbia was slightly nervous about showing off their humble basement origins, but Jon and I really liked the relaxed, homey ambience. We invited our Couchsurfing host Matteo, a former Greenpeace vigilante with a penchant for hacking, along for the interview. He had  heard of Fab Lab Olbia and expressed an interest in our documentary project, and now the Lab has an eager new brain. Couchsurfing is an excellent opportunity to both experience local culture and promote the movement and our project about it, and I’m thrilled that Matteo was so taken with the Lab he plans on joining.

Fab Lab Olbia is starting literally from (under) the ground up. As Antonio says about beginning a big project, “You must start in a basement,” otherwise you won’t have the full appreciation of your subsequent progress. It was an excellent location to begin our targeted field research of European Fab Labs. Silvano produced a bottle of bubbly at the end of the interview, and we toasted our respective projects as new friends. Salute!