Clean and Colorful

When Jon and I walked into Happylab Salzburg, our first impression was, “Gosh, this place is so clean.” A sharp contrast to most Fab Labs, Happylab Salzburg has significant space and clearly identified workstations. Tools rest in ordered array, everything labelled and color coordinated.

The neatest workbench we've ever seen.

The neatest Fab Lab workbench we’ve ever seen.

Happylab Salzburg is different in other ways too. It’s the first Fab Lab we’ve visited that’s established as something of a business. This doesn’t mean they’re out to make a profit, just that their structure is organized differently from other Labs. Happylab Wien (Vienna), founded by Karim Jafarmadar and Roland Stelzer, opened in 2010, and the location in Salzburg followed in 2014. Happylab Salzburg has been operational for six months and has around 150 members. Lab manager Christian Riedlsperger gave us the details: 5€ a month to join, plus materials, which are available on the premises in the Fab Store. Within two years, Happylab Salzburg aims to be financially self-sufficient, which means they’ll need around 400 members. Christian also mentioned that the Fab Lab receives some state funding, which Austria is pretty good about. Their laser cutter, for example, was procured due to state support, and the mayor of Salzburg pressed the power button for the first time–an inaugural ribbon cutting ceremony.

Salzburg is a small city so close to the Alps it feels like you could lick the snow off them. It’s known for being the home of Mozart, the site of The Sound of Music, and manufacturing milk and Salz (salt). Though our research will not bring us as far east as the capital city of Austria, it’s not difficult to imagine how the two cities’ Fab Labs differ. According to Christian, Wien is a booming sprawling metropolis and their Happylab boasts around 1,400 members. Salzburg lies right across from the German border; it’s a tourist destination. He laughed when I asked how they intended to find more members to eventually meet the goal of 400. “The problem is the target group is everybody,” he said. “Everyone can be a maker. That’s the beauty of the Fab Lab. Still, I guess it’s 90% male between twenty and thirty years. But we have all kinds of members. Our youngest is twelve and the oldest is more than eighty.”

Intergenerational laser cutting.

Intergenerational laser cutting.

In conjunction with the Happylab agenda, Happylab Salzburg offers Fab Lab Bootcamp, a week-long intensive course in making. Costing 350€, the course covers all the major machines, 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC milling, and vinyl cutting, and the use of the software required to design files for the machines. The course is all about “empowering people.” Christian says it’s really gratifying as the manager to see people come into the Lab who “start with small projects,” and after some time, start to test the limits of the machines and technology. People’s ideas literally grow in front of him.

Successful Happylab projects on display.

Happylab projects on display.

Another convention Happylab Salzburg follows is the Fab Box, touted as “Happylab on Tour” on their website. It’s a sort of mobile Fab Lab with transportable equipment that can be brought to schools. Christian told us that students are encouraged to design the house of their dreams, which they then 3D print. Students are particularly attracted to the vinyl cutter, which enables them to make novelty stickers and t-shirts, “fostering creativity.”

Jon and I also talked at length to Christopher Watson, an Australian who grew up in Austria and has traveled and lived extensively in Asia. A music software engineer, Christopher said Fab Labs help “take away the fear of using exotic machinery.” When he moved back to Austria after his travels he decided he wanted to design his own soundboard, but there was no outlet for him to do so. “When Fab Lab came to Salzburg, it was like, ‘oh yeah, I’m saved,'” Chris said.

This way to salvation!

This way to salvation!

I asked him about his international experience with the maker movement. He said there’s a maker culture in Japan, but in China “people don’t have hobbies, they have no time. Home Depot closed in China because manual labor is so cheap.” His comments reminded me of Fiore Basile of Fab Lab Cascina, who told us, “Making takes time.” I later learned Fiore had actually snagged this statement from Sabina Barcucci of MUSE Fab Lab, when they interacted at last year’s Maker Faire Rome. Chris continued, “If you want to do something, you make the time.” His friends in China thought he was crazy for wanting to re-caulk his own tiled kitchen floor.

Though there are four times as many Fab Labs in Europe as in the United States, I have often heard that the overall maker movement is bigger in the States. Chris agreed, citing that “there’s more info out there in English than any other language.” Indeed, English is the language of the open source movement. “The internet is one big city,” Chris said in praise. You can always find a community to connect to. He thought Salzburg was limited in this way. “There’s no manpower,” he said. Though he’s very grateful to have a Fab Lab in his community, he thinks Happylab will face challenges in the small city of Salzburg. He wasn’t sure what direction the new Lab was heading in, which is an impression I shared. Though very clean and organized, Happylab Salzburg felt almost sterile, too clean and organized. Making is messy, that’s part of the joy, and perhaps they’re limited by having to follow a prescribed business model. What works for a Fab Lab in a city as large as Wien won’t necessarily work in a smaller community like Salzburg.

Well, if making takes time, then so do makerspaces. Fab Labs can spring up overnight, Fab Labs can take years to develop. They’re all different and they’re informed by their surroundings. Lab manager Christian imagines Happylab Salzburg as a “place where people come to hang out.” On that Wednesday, Jon and I saw about twenty people come and go. I spoke to fifteen-year old maker Valentine, who was one of the earliest members. He hung out for the duration of our visit, did some basic engraving on his iPhone case with the laser cutter, and told me he envisions using the Fab Lab to make a longboard one day. As Christian told us, “A Fab Lab is the coolest place on earth for geeks. And not only geeks, creative people of all types.”

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