What’s going on behind the scenes, beyond the 3D printers, the bright flash of laser cutters, beyond the network of nerds? “Fab Lab is a philosophy,” Andrea Pirazzini told me in Fab Lab Padova. You may be a maker, you may be a fabber, you may enjoy creating things with your hands and hanging out with machines, but the overall implication of what’s happening here is far greater than the individual person, or even individual Labs.
“The ‘new’ industrial revolution has been happening for thirty years,” Andrea said, which is why he thinks of the Fab Lab movement as separate. It’s more of a community revolution, a subtle empowering. As a species, we’ve forgotten that we can create our own objects. Things come from stores, we exchange money for them. Oftentimes, the vendor didn’t even bring the item you’re purchasing into existence. Think about Walmart. Where do those things come from? Who made them? Who’s selling them, because it’s obviously not the employees? Walmart’s tagline is, “Save money, live better,” but such economic transaction is actually detrimental to a community. There’s the hidden message that we’re dependent on Walmart for our stuff, and stuff equals happiness. What they’re accomplishing is the opposite of happiness. There’s no opportunity to grow and learn in a Walmart, no opportunity to interact in a respectful fashion with your fellow community members.
So get thee to thy nearest Fab Lab.
Andrea was careful not to deny reality; in all this talk of philosophy we never lost sight of the tangible. “We have to live with money,” he said, “but money is not the only reward” of creating something in a Fab Lab. There’s overwhelming satisfaction and self worth to be earned in creation. I’m picturing Betty Gorff of Fab Lab Cascina, who 3D scanned and printed her first object during our visit. Her pride appeared disproportionate to the small green manikin she showed us, but in truth I was jealous of her accomplishment, of her self-motivated education, far more substantial than a plastic figurine. In Fab Lab Padova, Andrea brought up a point I’ve heard before, that using a machine is different from understanding a machine. In order for Betty to properly 3D print her manikin, she had to learn how to program, how to convert her idea into code, how to match code to machine. “The workflow differs for each machine. The DIY way,” Andrea said, “is to learn by doing. It’s a way of thinking that’s not too common. It’s the Fab Lab way.”
Fab Lab Padova is about eighteen months old and operates out of Talentlab, a community workshare which is privately funded. Also included in Talentlab are a music lab, a coworking space, a webradio studio in progress, and a kitchen, which offers popular cooking courses. “The Fab Lab is a community,” Andrea said, leading me back to the Fab Lab. “Sharing is preferred.” Andrea pointed out that “Fab Lab does not equal free. Free is not possible. An exchange needs to happen.” Intellectual property cannot be guaranteed on a project that gets made at Fab Lab Padova, which is a claim I’ve heard echoed at other Fab Labs in Italy. In fact, Fab Lab Padova will allow a person to use the machines for free if their project is interesting and valuable to the community. (If your project does not fit these criteria, like 3D printing a new iPhone case, for example, then you’ll be expected to pay for the materials and time on the machine. The costs are minimal.) Other members of the Lab may involve themselves in your project, and you’ll be expected to treat it as open source. At Fab Lab Padova, they “see profit as the last thing,” so if you’re trying to design a proprietary item and get rich, this is not the place for it. Every Fab Lab is different, and Fab Lab Padova’s primary goal is to “stimulate the community,” which means investing in projects that will benefit the many rather than the few. Still, “it’s possible to make money through open source.” Just look at Arduino, the wildly successful open source tech company I visited in Torino that manufactures kits to help teach electronics. Andrea cited Ultimaker, a Dutch 3D printer company that has been open source since its founding day, and compared it to CubeX, featuring completely closed source design and software, which contributed to the company’s collapse.
A Fab Lab should be “built on the needs of the community, a tailor-made experience.” Andrea is proposing to offer a course similar to Fab Academy, tentatively titled “The Way of Making.” He sees it as more of a community education program, rather than a course aimed solely at Fab Lab members. His course will last two and a half months, rather than six, include a final project, and will emphasize the “integration of devices.” It will be much cheaper than Fab Academy, with a further discount for the unemployed. Andrea’s course will be “not for profit,” a means “to create work and bring talent out. Everyone is a maker,” he asserted. His course will help confront what he views as the first obstacle amateurs experience: “I don’t know how.” Italy is in some ways not the most modern of countries, and a common iteration of the Fab Lab members I’ve spoken to is that people are afraid of technology, which can often get in the way of education programs. “You have to be open minded,” Andrea said. He believes in “education for everyone,” that engineers and housewives alike have something to learn.
At Fab Lab Padova I also spoke to Davide Bortolami, an eighteen-year old high school student studying electronics. Andrea, dressed in sweats and a hoodie, joked on Davide for wearing a suit, saying, “A fabber is not well dressed.” (In my ripped pants and baggy shirt, I appreciated this statement.) Davide said he started dressing up because he offers evening classes in CNC milling and laser cutting at the Fab Lab and wants to be taken seriously despite his young age. In Italy it’s especially hard for youth to find employment, so Davide is using Fab Lab Padova to build a pH meter that he intends to show companies when it comes time for him to bid for a job. About the Fab Lab movement, he said simply, “We need it.”
Now 29 years old, Andrea said that “even as a child, [he] wanted to build not buy.” The “Fab Lab way” has to be learned by most, but Andrea always exhibited the “spark,” that special form of creativity that it takes to create functional things. As a 21-year old artisan and poker enthusiast, he decided to hand craft his own poker table, which ultimately led to something of a career, as word of his talent got around. This coincided with the “explosion of Texas hold ’em in Italy,” and he soon had so many orders he had to move his operation to a bigger space. About a year ago he joined the Fab Lab, which he views as “a place to live, and a place to work.” He currently works with 3D printers, which started as a hobby but is now more than a full-time job: “3D printing is a way of life.” He’s certified to sell and repair the machines, and even when he’s not hands-on working with the machines, he’s reading articles and studying. One time he was away at a motorbike race for three days, and when he returned to the world of 3D printing, he felt like he was years behind in a field that changes every hour. His passion for his job and his life were palpable. “I’m never bored at work.”
At Fab Lab Padova, they 3D print exact models of people’s bodies, so surgeons can better prepare for surgeries. This severely reduces the risk. They also work with prosthetics and are in the process of 3D printing a life-size humanoid that can be computer controlled. “It’s like the future,” I commented. “It’s like the present!” Andrea laughed. The possibilities introduced by a Fab Lab benefit the entire community, and the technologies become more affordable every day. “A maker integrates old artisanal traditions with new technology,” Andrea said. “For me, it’s beautiful. Once you enter the Fab Lab philosophy, you stay in the philosophy.”