Every Fab Lab has the standard equipment: 3D printers, laser cutter, hand tools, maybe a mill or three. Yet they’re all different. Fab Lab Dresden has been on quite the journey and they’ve finally stopped moving. They spent the last year bouncing between libraries, art studios, galleries, exhibitions, and private workshops before coming to call a space their home. They operated as a mobile Fab Lab more out of necessity than desire. This is definitely a mentality the Madulthood team can appreciate.
Exhausting as this workflow may have been, Fab Lab Dresden connected with many of the community’s most artistic and creative minds. Their Fab Lab, though not officially open, already has a solid fifty member base, ten of which form the “harte Kern” (hard-core nuclei), as Lab manager Matti Röder phrased it. This is the Fab Life, a mode of living richly and rightly. Some people tinker at Fab Labs, others tinker with the Lab itself and treat it like a living organism. Several members, including “Laserman” Jörg Eichhorn, have been hard at work constructing a massive laser cutter from open source building plans. The Lasersaur is a project two years in the works and could be done in as little as two months. This is highly impressive, especially when you think about the dozen or so times the team had to pack and unpack the delicate project in progress. Matti said, “The constant moving was good for spreading the idea around. It gets people and some money.” They aim to open in early May, but many of the tools are already available to in-the-know members. In fact, the Lab-in-progress has a membership dues scale. For those willing and able to put in eight hours of work developing the Fab Lab–those invested in the Fab Life–it costs 10€ a month to be a member, for those who can work four hours, it’s 20€. To use the space at this stage without improving upon it costs 30€ a month. For their grand opening they intend to launch workshops during the day and an evening concert.
A separate wing of Fab Lab Dresden is occupied by the woodshop, which is managed by Jens Kirschner, a professional carpenter. Like the main body of the Fab Lab, this section is also a work in progress. They’ve occupied this warehouse, which housed a post office about 25 years ago, for about six months. About five people including Jens work regularly on the space to get it ready for public use. They constructed their own loft, which Jens envisions will serve as storage for personal projects. They have an old phone booth, which Jens wants to convert into a mobile library. In another corner stands a project by student Sascha Pietsch, who is experimenting with bending wood. Jens told us all their high-quality, modern woodworking Festool brand tools had been donated, and Matti mentioned that many of the traditional Fab Lab machines were also donated by local companies, which in exchange for their contribution, are allowed free access to the Lab.
Fab Lab Dresden isn’t a new operation; it was founded about five years ago as Werkstatten Löbtau, a neighborhood workshop that collaborated with Verbund Offene Werkstätten. In conjunction with the woodshop, they specialized in siebdrucken (screenprinting) t-shirts at festivals. Around 18 months ago they earned their official Fab Lab status and started bouncing from place to place until finally settling down in their current location. In this area of Germany, “people are interested in doing handiwork,” Jens said.
As a Fab Lab in progress, there was more to envision for the future than to point out in the present. Matti and Jens offered us coffee and cake and sat us down in their seminar room. Both come from a more artistic background than most fabbers we’ve met so far, which is in keeping with their particular emphasis on woodworking. Matti’s academic study was even in cultural theory (“I don’t fit in,” he said with a grin.)
Anyone can be invested in the Fab Life. Self-Made is the story of creative communities, how the Fab Lab movement is galvanizing individuals, neighborhoods, and entire societies. It transcends borders and backgrounds. Open source is encouraging a new mentality toward ownership, empowering people to do it yourself. Fab Labs are inspiring people to learn and master new, twenty-first century skills. “A Fab Lab is made by a collective,” Matti said, “and because of that there are different possibilities.” “This is a new kind of economy,” Jens said.
As fun as it is to discuss vaunted ideals–the noble purity of open source, the beautiful inclusiveness of the maker movement, and the positivity of ordinary people pursuing extraordinary projects–the reality of money often gets in the way. True, Fab Labs are not for-profit ventures, but “a part must be for making money,” Matti said, meaning that the Fab Lab must be financially self-sufficient. The equipment isn’t cheap, for one thing. Training people to use it properly can be tedious and time-consuming. Most Fab Labs are responsible for paying their own rent. “There is a problem with separation between community and companies,” Matti said. Often, a Fab Lab can receive financial assistance from a private company, but then the Fab Lab is beholden in some way to that company. Their visions are by default vastly different, with the company bent on making a profit and the Fab Lab intended as a community outlet for education and empowerment. How to integrate making a profit into the creative community is a tricky issue that will play a vital role in our quest to learn about how the European Fab Lab movement is energizing both local and global communities.
A possible solution provided by Matti includes “more open-minded consumers who are open to alternative products.” Such products could be manufactured at your friendly neighborhood Fab Lab! “It will change society to have more local products available,” Jens chimed in. “Think about an IKEA,” he continued. “Where does the wood come from?” IKEA already asks you to build your own furniture, and Jens believes this satisfaction of doing it yourself is part of the reason the company is so popular. But why not nip over to Fab Lab Dresden’s woodshop instead and design a novelty item yourself out of locally sourced materials?
Industrialism was an evolution for the human species, a mass method to make our lives easier. It introduced the notion of the assembly line and factories employed vast quantities of people. For some time, this seemed like a positive development. But the increase in production brought environmental detriment, and eventually companies realized they could employ people in developing countries to do the same work for a fraction of the cost. The coal age blended into the soot age.
A similar turn is happening in our evolution today. We’re replacing humans with machines in an effort to make our lives easier. I brought up automation as a double-edged sword: more efficient manufacturing, but millions will lose their jobs. “Who gets to profit from automation?” Matti asked. He mentioned die Verteilungsgerechtigkeit, a tragically lengthy German word that means the wealth gap. With automation, the rich will continue to get richer and the poor poorer. That’s what happened during the first major industrial revolution, too. But, Jens pointed out, “The assembly line was not positive anyway.” Introduce a vibrant hub of creativity and creation into a community–like a Fab Lab–and suddenly people have a place to go to learn new and socially valuable twenty-first century skills. “Fab Labs must cultivate the community,” Matti said. However, “People must feel ownership, a connection to the public space.” A Fab Lab can only be successful if the community feels like it belongs to them. The “corporatized Fab Lab,” Tech Shop does not fulfill this role in the community, for example. It’s another business on the block. Its purpose is to make money off the community. A Fab Lab involves the community in its very creation and its purpose is to create value for (not off) the community.
As the passion project its founding members, Fab Lab Dresden will have great influence on the community from its new permanent location. So many people have contributed to their survival that there can be no doubt of the community investment in making the Fab Lab work. Fab Lab Dresden exists because of the community and in return serves the community. Keep an eye out for when your own city gets a Fab Lab. Those are the guys you want to be friends with, that is the place you want to spend your time. The Fab Life is a vibrant life, an intelligent life, a powerful life.