Jon and I have arrived in Germany. We visited Fab Lab München during their weekly member meeting, and found the Lab engaged in hearty activity. I was eager to search for differences in the German approach to fabbing versus the Italian approach, but in truth I found more similarities. When we walked in, members were huddled around the laser cutter, but their attention was directed at a machine slightly to its left. One member muttered something about love and hugged it.
Lab manager Andreas Kahler met us at the door and quickly explained the bustle: Fab Lab München had just acquired a brand new filtration system for their laser cutter, thereby substantially diminishing the noise and smell, making laser cutting an even more pleasant activity. Members watched spellbound as the laser worked and issued no burnt odor.
Andreas launched into the interview, which was slightly confused by the two dozen enthusiastic makers running around. He started with the Lab’s history, which reminded us of our first interview at Fab Lab Olbia. Fab Lab München began just as modestly in 2010. As Andreas expressed it, they “started as nothing,” just a tinkering club in a basement. The three founding members met on the internet. At the time, Andreas owned one of the only 3D printers in München. After a few weeks, their membership had swollen to fifteen. When their laser cutter was donated by a foundation, that proved the “real kickstarter” that attracted members. Now Fab Lab München boasts 200 members, aged four to eighty-four. Though “there was no initial response from Neil” Gershenfeld, Fab Foundation co-founder, Fab Lab München became the second Fab Lab in Germany.
Fab Lab München operates as a non-profit, with most of its funding coming from private foundations. It costs 28€ a month to be a member, with a reduced rate available for students and families. They were able to purchase a second laser cutter entirely out of personal Lab funds, which they take to schools for demonstrations. Fab Lab members visit four or five schools on a weekly basis, offering workshops that Andreas said are a “big part of the agenda.” The Fab Lab members that teach these workshops are paid, since it’s basically a part-time job, and the Lab receives more requests for visits than they can fill. Part of their goal is to convince schools to purchase their own equipment, but classes do occasionally visit the Fab Lab to use the machines that can’t be transported. Andreas said that the kids are often more interested than their teachers, which isn’t surprising. Fab Lab München offered one school workshop for teachers in particular and regularly hosts workshops for adults in the Lab.
This is the Education pillar of STEW, our documentary focal points. The Lab members who introduce these new technologies to students do their best to integrate subjects. This isn’t just information and regurgitation, this is application. For example, students studying history had an assignment to pick and learn about one of München’s many bridges. Then they were able to 3D print the bridge, introducing an element of creativity into the history lesson.
On this particular “Monday collective community night,” members were busy installing the new filtration system for the laser cutter and getting the CNC mill back to work in the “area for dirty tools.” Though the Lab does pay people to maintain and repair the machines (another part-time job), on Monday night everyone contributes and has fun with it. Several members were also involved with cleaning out a laser cutter grate. A healthy sense of community permeated the space.
Andreas, who comes from a background in computer science, thinks of the Fab Lab itself as his greatest project. He proudly showed us the new electronic lock system, which had just been installed a few days earlier. Because of their location in the Gewerbehof building, owned by a company which is owned by the city, they occasionally run into regulatory problems. (Everyone knows the Germans are famous for their devotion to following the rules; seriously, jaywalking will earn you the blackest glares from little old ladies.) The Fab Lab is an after-hours operation, with members arriving after work to tinker and socialize until well into the night. The outer door locks at 7PM. “We worked it out,” Andreas said with a wink and a laugh. Once inside, members can call a number from their cell phones and input a pin to enter the Lab. They didn’t want to hand out keys to every member, so this homemade system streamlines the entry process.
I asked Andreas about Fab Lab München’s approach to personal projects. Most of the Fab Labs Jon and I visited in Italy could not guarantee intellectual property on a project developed in their Fab Lab, and some actively discouraged personal projects, stating that everything should be a collaborative effort. Andreas shrugged in response to the question and said that “both individual and collaborative projects exist. There are many personal projects and people don’t have to share but I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t share. There are no conflicts because of this. The community is so much more important than entrepreneurial goals.” That echoed the same sentiment I’d heard in almost every Italian Fab Lab–the importance of community. Indeed, while speaking to Fab Lab München member Florian Hänel about his wifi-connected clock/temperature gauge project, Florian said, “I like the laser cutter, but I’m mostly here to socialize.”
In a further effort to compare Fab Lab München to the Italian Labs I’d been to, I asked Andreas about Germany’s artisanal culture. In Italy, I had often heard German efficiency praised with an almost reverent tone, but Andreas didn’t seem to think the artisanal tradition was quite as prevalent. In fact, he said, people often come into the Lab and “start with digital fabrication and then transition to the physical work, which is very satisfying.”
Andreas led us into the seminar room, which featured a self-made loft for additional storage, an arcade game, and a vending machine that they are going to attempt to hack so it accepts Bitcoin. Members were eating döner kebab dinners and laughing at jokes across the seminar table. The mood was jocular and animated as they constantly moved around the room to point things out on each other’s computers. I spoke with Felix Tymcik, who sat at his computer but repeated Andreas’s sentiment about the satisfaction of building with one’s hands. Felix collects antique bedside tables and piles them together in artistic construction to create large space-saving chests. His inventions are both beautiful and practical.
Andreas introduced us to André Wobst and his business partner Chico about their project, which came into existence when André decided to design a toy for his five-year old daughter “to tell her what programming is.” And how does one explain programming to a five-year old? The answer: with a robot. André’s robot reads cards with different codes printed on them and follows the directions. It can start simple–turn left, move 20cm forward–and increase in complexity. The robot is capable of holding a pen, and can interpret numbers one through 26 as letters. Andre’s daughter was able to write her name. After the initial prototype, André realized he wouldn’t be able to make the device all by himself, so he started searching online for a community that might be interested, which is how he discovered Fab Lab München and met Chico. Together they are collaborating on “building a prototype for presentation.” Tagged as “So much more than a toy,” Kiddybot will go live on Kickstarter very soon, a tool around which parents and children can simultaneously learn.
I also met Riccardo Giordani, one of the founding members of Fab Lab München. An Italian by birth, Riccardo has lived in Germany for many years. He started asking me questions about my research: “What’s different between Italy and Germany?” He didn’t express the most positive outlook for Italy or Italian youth, but recognized how the Fab Lab movement was inspiring direction and passion. I said that the people I had met in the course of my research were all incredibly motivated, and in a follow-up email, Riccardo wrote, “Passion and energy is what make the Italians special because they make the impossible possible (with pro and cons).” During our interview, Riccardo went on to ask, “What makes a Fab Lab different?” Before I had time to say, “Different from what?” he answered his own question: “It’s the impact on the environment around you. It’s a social experience.” We watched the makers in the room for a moment, young and old, laughing and helping each other. “It’s the emphasis on co-creation,” Riccardo said.
Jon and I may have crossed a couple borders to travel from Italy to Germany. We may have moved from a land where mopeds drive on sidewalks to a land where jaywalking will make you a social pariah. But that which lies at the heart of the Fab Lab movement hasn’t changed. It’s all about community, the particular internal Fab Lab community, and the external community that benefits from having a Fab Lab exist. I hope that’s something that doesn’t change no matter how many borders I cross.