This is the story of two Fab Labs in the Frankenland region of northern Bayern.
The weather is more or less miserable this time of year, gray and drizzly. It’s often raining so thinly you’re not even sure if it’s coming down at all, but somehow your face is wet and cold. It reminds me of my childhood in Berlin, this endless string of overcast days. When the sun finally pokes out, everyone rushes outside, grabs their bike, goes spazieren with their immaculately-behaved dog. But usually the sky stays wrapped in a foreboding blanket of cloud. Though it’s grim, I like it. It seems to breed competence.
On one such gloomy afternoon I left our Couchsurfing host Johannes’s apartment in Nürnberg to catch the number 30 bus north to the outlying town of Erlangen. I was already running late for my appointment at FAU Fab Lab, and then I got lost, walked in the wrong direction, made a small circle, ended up right where the bus had dropped me off. So then I walked in another wrong direction, made an even bigger circle, and once again found myself right back where I had started. For crying out loud, I grumbled at myself, this Dorf is not that large, I shouldn’t be struggling so hard to find Friedrich-Alexander University. (I’m just that bad at directions.) It started drizzling. I asked for directions, and finally walked in the right direction.
The students who greeted me when I walked into the FAU Fab Lab immediately joked about my tardiness. “We thought something might have eaten you,” Rene Zahn said. (I conducted most of this interview in German, but will translate for you, dear English internet.) I immediately learned that FAU Fab Lab is open to the public, not just students, though it’s students from the technical subjects that get the most use out of the Fab Lab. “We’re open to everyone, last week we even had a bird fly in here,” Rene said. “We’d love to have more artists use the Lab,” Valentin Olpp said, “even though they always break the laser cutter.” (This was a good-humored group.)
FAU Fab Lab is entirely student-managed and has existed in this fashion for three and a half years. They’re largely supported by university tuition funds; users only pay for materials and time spent on the machines. In sharp contrast to the last Fab Lab I visited, Happylab Salzburg, FAU Fab Lab lacks extensive space, but they’ve wedged more than you’d ever think possible into the two and a half rooms available. In the main room, there’s the laser cutter, half a dozen computers, a workbench with tools, a CNC mill, display case featuring 3D printed gadgets, and chem lab. The room next door has been divided by ceiling-high shelves, all packed to overflowing with extra wires, circuitboards, and spare parts. On the left shelf, two 3D printers huddle next to a vinyl cutter. More computers on the other side of the shelves, plus a soldering station. Their half room serves as a workspace with actual table surface, but it’s shared with other university organizations, so they can’t store supplies in it. Space may be FAU Fab Lab’s biggest challenge, but with enthusiastic maker ingenuity they’ve transformed what they do have into a truly operational open workshop.
FAU Fab Lab supports a lot of student projects. The student Betreuer (advisors) help newcomers with a safety training and also offer more advanced assistance. Additionally, they’re very active within the Erlangen community and beyond. Along with Rene and Valentin, Michael Ganczarski serves as Betreuer for the entire Fab Lab, helping students with organizational matters–such as setting up appointments for journalists. (That’s me.) He spoke to me about how FAU Fab Lab networks and what community events they’re involved in. FAU Fab Lab connects with maker- and hackerspaces in Bamberg and Mannheim, and collaborates with local Erlangen programs for artistic youth and educating seniors in technology. Additionally, they are active within the Verbund Offener Werkstätten, a country-wide organization of community workshops. Recently they participated in StaBiLab, which took place during Aktionswoche (week of action) in the Erlangen public library. Fab Lab machines were available to the public, along with free instruction, presentations, and workshops. On Saturday the week-long event ended with a party.
FAU Fab Lab was founded around the same time as Fab Lab Nürnberg, which Jon and I visited the very next day for their community event in conjunction with World Arduino Day 2015. Luckily the sun shone all day, and because Jon led the way, I didn’t get lost this time. I’d been tipped off at FAU Fab Lab about what to expect at Fab Lab Nürnberg: a lot more space. (“Oh, and they have a foosball table,” Rene said.) Fab Lab Nürnberg operates out of an office in a large former industrial building. Lab manager Chris Herrmann told us the entire industrial neighborhood was being refurbished.
A Fab Lab member was giving a presentation about Arduino uses when Chris walked us in. In order not to disturb the guests, he brought us to the back of the crowd to give the brief tour. “Everything is a little deranged,” he whispered, indicating the dozens of guests and tables pushed to the walls. Fab Lab Nürnberg has the standard Fab Lab equipment for digital fabrication, 3D printers, laser cutter, mills, an oven for making PCBs, and a scrap exchange, but it also has a sewing station, which I’ve only seen at a couple other Labs, and a sand blaster, which I’ve seen nowhere else. Unable to talk effectively without disrupting the Arduino presentation, we followed Chris into his office.
He delved into the internal politics of Fab Lab Nürnberg. They offer OpenLab twice a week, when the Fab Lab is completely open to the community. Some of the 54 members disagree with this policy, as it limits their time on the machines. Chris said an “us versus them” mentality had developed between the members and the visiting public. In utter German bureaucratic fashion, Fab Lab Nürnberg organized a task force and reached a compromise. Later this year, member dues will increase and OpenLab will only be available once a week.
Chris is more interested in the long-term approach to the Fab Lab movement than in internal politics or everyday tinkering. Fab Lab Nürnberg collaborates with many Fab Labs in the area, including FAU Fab Lab, which I visited the day before, and Fab Lab Dresden, which I visited next. In May, Fab Lab Nürnberg will host Lab Lab, “a meta event about how to found Fab Labs.” They’ll invite all German Fab Labs, and Fab Labs in other countries are also more than welcome to attend.
Lab Lab is a sliver of a larger project called Metro Lab, for which Fab Lab Nürnberg has received two and a half years worth of state funding. After helping found Fab Labs in Rottenburg and Beyreuth, Chris recognized there was so much interest in the Fab Lab movement in north Bayern that it was time to systematize the process. Metro Lab is a federal pilot program, and if it continues to succeed, might be expanded to other regional areas of Germany as well. “The development of Fab Labs in Germany is community driven,” Chris told us. Right now there are about twenty-five Fab Labs in Germany, with plans in development for more.
It’s a good thing to have more Fab Labs, right? This is a question I’ve been mulling over for a while–what ramifications could exist when what has until recently been a fairly niche movement goes mainstream? “I think we’re still in a naive phase of Fab Labs, but it’s becoming more commercial,” Chris said. “That’s not a good or bad thing, it just is.” He approves of Fab Labs maintaining their non-profit status, but envisions this could lead to future obstacles, such as continuous funding. A Fab Lab should be self-sufficient, so what happens if there are so many Fab Labs the government becomes unable to support all of them? Right now Fab Lab Nürnberg is 50% state funded. “Making money is just another approach,” he said, “but the main reason for a Fab Lab should be education and socializing.”
It’s no secret that Germany is a much wealthier country than Italy. However, according to Chris, in the realm of Fab Lab culture, “It’s not an advantage to have so much money.” Makers are forced to be more creative when there’s less at their disposal. He likes to “remember our beginning” when Fab Lab Nürnberg had limited resources and members had to “hack the tools” to come up with alternative and creative uses for them. Additionally, with funding comes strings. Fab Lab Nürnberg was recently given 3500€ for Repair Café, where community members can bring everything from computers to bicycles to learn how to repair it themselves. “It’s too much for the Repair Café,” Chris said ruefully, a complaint you don’t hear often about money. He wishes he could repurpose some of the funds in another direction (such as rent), but because it was granted with a specific purpose in mind, his hands are tied.
True, the Fab Lab movement was not established with commercialism in mind, but as their role in the community changes, there are positive results. Fab Labs such as Fab Lab Nürnberg and Fab Lab München are able to employ people. As Lab manager, Chris is one of two Lab employees. The other is his friend Andi, who started as an intern, and now works part-time as a children’s educator. He teaches KidsLab on Fridays, boosting Fab Lab Nürnberg’s community engagement and educational outreach. Chris comes from a background in graphic design–one of the few more artistic Lab managers we’ve interviewed–and sees the Fab Lab as “a paradise to learn more about the technical side of making.”
Chris spoke at length about Fab Lab Nürnberg’s positive role in the community. Like many Fab Labs we’ve visited, Fab Lab Nürnberg operates out of an old refurbished industrial building in part because the rent is cheaper that way. However, Chris also sees the Lab as a method of refurbishing an area of town that has long been neglected. I asked about urbanism, and he pounced on the word. “In a post-industrial area, there’s no real life going on,” he said. He dreams of cities in which “mini town centers” exist in the outer quadrants, a way to encourage people to interact with each other instead of going to work every morning and home to the TV every evening, a suburban routine so boring it’s practically deadly. He talked about the “Transition Town Approach,” which started as a way to make a neighborhood “immune to catastrophe,” and has developed further into an futuristic question of how to make a town sustainable and self-sufficient, while also being enjoyable to live in. Chris laughed when he told us, “The way to do it is to get the kids first, that’s how it happened at the Fab Lab. If the kids are interested, the parents will follow.” He gave us a tip about the Stadtgarten, an urban farming venture blossoming only a few blocks away.
Along with FAU Fab Lab, Fab Lab Nürnberg is also encouraging the spread of the Fab Lab movement. The two Fab Labs have been collaborating since their respective foundings, which happened within a couple months of each other. Though they operate in very different ways–FAU Fab Lab as the bionic arm of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, and Fab Lab Nürnberg as a tool for post-industrial community refurbishment–the two Fab Labs strongly emphasize education. They maintain a tireless eye on the future, both for their individual Fab Labs but also for the role the movement will play in the twenty-first century. Will the movement lose some of its charm as it commercializes? Chris of Fab Lab Nürnberg imagines a future in which every mundane copy shop has a 3D printer and laser cutter, so if you need to use the technology, you can pay 20€ and let someone do the hard work for you. In fact, the prototype of this method of digital fabrication already exists. Riccardo Giordani at Fab Lab München brought up the role of the TechShop, a highly commercialized chain of workshops that emphasizes profit over community. The Fab Lab movement functions in the opposite manner–community trumps profit. If Fab Labs stay true to this beautiful formula, they will maintain their niche status as hubs of innovation and creativity and continue to transform their communities.