The same fraternal atmosphere that exists in your favorite bar permeates a Fab Lab. During our two-day visit to Fab Lab Cascina, in the swooping Tuscan countryside west of Pisa, Lab manager Fiore Basile welcomed me and Jon with a big grin, and the other members present rushed forward to shake our hands. The interview had begun before I even had a chance to remove my coat, they were so enthusiastic to show us around their space. The European Fab Labs I’ve been to are distinctly devoted to cultivating a space where locals (and foreigners) can feel comfortable experimenting and inventing.
Fab Labs attract the gauntlet of humanity; no two Labs are identical, and no two members have identical interests. But every single one is designed as a community space for people to simultaneously learn and socialize. Fiore imagines the future of Fab Labs in Tuscany as a network of community gathering spaces, one in every tiny village. From Pisa to Florence are dozens of tiny towns; Fab Lab Cascina is actually in Navacchio, and Cascina lies a bit farther down the train tracks. Jon and I Couchsurfed with a young woman named Chiara in nearby Vicopisano. Fab Labs fulfill two major community purposes: as a place of fabrication and as a place of socializing. Imagine if instead of spending money at the bar on a Wednesday night, you hit up your local Lab. Believe it or not, a person is capable of simultaneously imbibing and learning, so if it’s fraternity and fun you’re after, the Fab Lab is clearly the better option. Of course, getting wasted and then operating a laser cutter is not recommended. But Fiore imagines a Tuscany populated by as many Fab Labs as villages, Labs serving as alternative destinations to hang out.
It’s not an impossible aim to construct a Lab in every town in Tuscany. Italy’s cultural background with DIY making dates back to times of yore. Artisans used to make everything from shoes to guns to plates and the cupboards holding them. In the United States, our collective experience with artisanal design has less history. As a nation, we didn’t have a Middle Ages, a Renaissance. Industrialism occupies a larger percentage of our historical clock than it does Europe’s. This artisanal tradition has survived in Europe, and the form it’s taking in the early twenty-first century is the aggressive adoption of the Fab Lab movement–even though it’s about 35% more expensive to open a Fab Lab in Europe than in the United States. There are roughly fifty Fab Labs in Italy alone, most of them having popped up “like mushrooms,” as Jon expresses it, in the last two years.
Fab Lab Cascina has free public access, which is amazing. They have a laser cutter, several 3D printers, and mills for various purposes. Additionally, the Lab works within the Fab Academy, a program based off MIT professor and Fab Foundation co-founder Neil Gershenfeld’s course “How to Make (Almost) Anything.” This course provides digital fabrication instruction over a six month period, January to June. During this time, students receive four-hour long weekly lessons via video conference from Gershenfeld himself, including 18 assignments and an exam at the end of the course. 25 of the 250 currently enrolled students are from Italy, and four Italian Labs participate in the program.
Present at Fab Lab Cascina when Jon and I visited was Giocomo Falaschi, who designed and built the first Falla, an open-source 3D printer, which Antonio Burrai of Fab Lab Olbia had told us about. It was quite a neat experience hearing about this inventor and then meeting him in the flesh a couple days later. He pointed to his Falla in the corner of the Lab, and the other members joked on him because he’s constantly taking it apart and reassembling it. Giocomo says he’s “never printing, always designing.” No two Fallas are identical, and the model changes drastically every couple days, or even hours. Fiore dubbed it the “bruiser printer,” and David Montenegro called the incremental design process a “zen exercise.” Indeed, when Jon and I returned from lunch with Fiore and David, the Falla was in pieces, a lump of wires and 3D printed parts. David is from Sicily, and he’s more attracted to Fab Lab Cascina’s “business model” (in that it’s not actually a business) than that of makerspaces near his home.
We asked the group about the role formal educators can play when it comes to teaching about technology. Fiore produced a 3D printed bust, explaining that this was a 35 year old teacher in the community who was “eager to learn because she’s eager to teach.” They’d scanned and printed her. Fiore believes in educating educators, which presumably helps diffuse information faster, thereby reaching more people. David views this as akin to educating puppets, that without in-depth training, the teachers won’t fully understand the content they’re relaying, and may even spread false information. There are two levels of understanding a machine, he explained. Firstly, you have to be able to use it without harming it. Secondly, you learn what it can and cannot be used for: its true properties and limitations. The second level of understanding takes time, time he doesn’t imagine most teachers have the leisure to devote. Fiore and David agreed that Fab Labs are a way to encourage family togetherness. If a child learns about 3D printing in school, there’s an opportunity for the family to visit a Lab and discover together. How many times have you seen a family at a restaurant out for dinner, presumably to spend time with each other, and all faces are pointed down, absorbed by their phones? Fab Labs foster a healthy relationship with technology. Jon and I enjoyed their discussion, which demonstrated how even amongst a smallish community such as Fab Lab Cascina, the members can enjoy differing opinions and still collaborate.
Jon and I also spoke to two women at the Lab: Betty Gorf and Francesca Mereu. An architect that got into computer design, Betty now works for Plug & Wear, an e-textiles company that produces wearable textile sensors. She 3D printed her very first object during our stay in Tuscany: a three-inch tall bright green plastic manikin, the model for which had first been 3D scanned. Next, she’ll laser cut sheets of cardboard to stack atop each other to build this manikin, which will model some of her clothes. She waved her hand around the space. “This is not work,” she said, “this is my fun.” Francesca happens to be from Sardinia, and was very happy to learn about our visit to Fab Lab Olbia. She’s also participating in Fab Academy this year. Jon and my first visit happened to coincide with a rare internet outage, so the makers popped in a rousing EAGLE tutorial, a program for designing PCBs, or printed circuit boards. The video would have put me to sleep in minutes if I’d actually actively tried to watch it. It was all in Italian and I doubt I would have understood the purpose of the shifting colorful blobs even if it was in English, but the next day we found Francesca using EAGLE. She seemed frustrated with her project, and Fiore advised patience, repeating a line he says he uses often: “Making takes time.”
Our documentary has four main focal points: Sustainability, Technology, Education, and Women. This boils down to STEW; Fab Labs are a melting pot, baby! While the first three themes are self-explanatory, the fourth requires clarification. As women ourselves, Madison and I are quite interested in how women are integrating into what has traditionally been a very male-dominated realm. I’ve seen absolutely no evidence of discrimination. This is a movement that welcomes anyone with a brain, male, female, young, old, black, white. It’s a beautiful thing, and Jon and I will investigate further during our weeks of research in Italy. In Milano and Lugano, my main contacts have been women, so I’ll pose the query to them: What effect have women had–and what effect could they have–on technology and industry?
The Fab Lab manager is always an interesting character, so I’ve saved Fiore’s story for last. He voiced strong opinions with a smile and never minced words, never took anything back. I walked away knowing exactly how he felt about the differences between the Fab Lab movement and the maker movement, which he told us “is just a buzzword.” I found this a rather radical statement, especially coming from a devoted and enthusiastic maker, but the truth is Fab Labs emphasize curiosity, learning, and self-powered education over business and profit. Fab Labs provides an outlet to encourage lifelong learning, which can’t be quantified.
He views mass production, outsourced to China, as a form of exploitation, which indeed it is. “Imagine if China stopped exporting shoes,” he said. “There would be no more shoes.” I glibly claimed I would make some out of duct tape. Jokes aside, Fiore believes we must restore pride to manufacturing. The maker movement–nay, the Fab Lab movement–is about breaking this ugly economic cycle the globe is immersed in. We’re stuck in a world where other people make our things. Fiore would like to see invention return to China, so they’re not only manufacturing objects, but also creating them. This extends beyond manufacturing shoes. As people have intrinsic value, so should the work they do have value.
Fiore first worked in software, where he experienced financial success but less satisfaction. Then he started selling DIY kits of personal projects he’d worked on, which brought great satisfaction but little financial success. Somewhere in the middle he got fed up with computers and almost became a baker, as he’s always sought to have an impact on his community. Like a loaf of bread, a Fab Lab has a relatively simple combination of ingredients: a charter, a 3D printer, a space. But there’s so much more to it than that; there’s the people, the rosemary and olive oil and pepper. The metaphor is obvious. “This is more than a movement, it’s an experiment,” he stated, then went on to joke that they were all living in the “petri dish of Neil” Gershenfeld. He didn’t seem in the least upset about it.
When asked what his favorite project was that had been developed in the Lab, Fiore responded, “The space itself, and also my students’ projects.” He went on to list a host of stories, kids who had developed sensors to help remind old people to take their pills, a sensor for your clothes drying line that would alert you if it started to rain, and earrings 3D printed, then laser cut, by a six year old. In the future, Fab Lab Cascina will be Fab Lab Toscana, each little surrounding village boasting its own Fab Lab. “We’re trying to live a life that others will live in twenty years,” Fiore told me. Let’s make and bake the future we want to live.