Fab Labs

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= fabrication laboratories are small scale workshops with modern computer controlled equipment that aim to develop Personal Fabricators

URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fab_lab

Also the name of a particular set of initiatives.


"In Fab Labs, local users download electronic blueprints or design their own objects to fabricate complex and everyday objects they need in their daily lives." [1]

Official definition of the International Fab Lab Association:

"A Fab Lab, short for Fabrication Laboratory, is a workshop for digital fabrication that:

  • is free and open to the public, although direct expenses like materials used maybe charged;
  • subscribes to the Fab Charter [2] and has its text on display on site and web site;
  • contributes to and/or cooperates with many other Fab Labs and takes part in or leads network initiatives."


Rating system:

"Such a Fab Lab is rated AAAA. If it does not comply with any of these four characteristics, lower ratings (B or C) may apply, the lowest being CCCC. The Association stimulates these Fab Labs to develop in the direction of AAAA.

Please, note that apart from these basic and more or less common characteristics each Fab Lab has its own identity. They attract their own categories of users and offer their own range of services. They may work for youth, for social and community development, as part the curriculum in schools, focused on architecture, intertwined with the local creative industry, etcetera." (http://www.fablabinternational.org/fab-lab/what-is-it-in-essence)



"What if you could design and produce your own products, in your own home, with a machine that can be used to make almost anything? Imagine if you didn't have to wait for a company to sell the product you wanted but could use your own personal fabricator to create it instead.

Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, believes that personal fabricators will allow us to do just that and revolutionize our world.

His most recent book, FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, explores the ability to design and produce your own products, in your own home, with a machine that combines consumer electronics with industrial tools. Such machines, Personal fabricators, offer the promise of making almost anything-including new personal fabricators and as a result revolutionize the world just as personal computers did a generation ago." (http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail460.html)


Neil Gershenfeld:

"In making today’s most advanced airplanes or integrated circuits, the intelligence is in the tools rather than the materials, which are cut, carved, mixed, and melted as they have been for millennia. But prototype processes in the laboratory can construct with codes, turning information into objects and vice versa, just as the proteins in your body can execute programs and correct errors.

This research will eventually lead to “personal fabricators” that will be able to make almost anything (including themselves). But it’s already possible to approximate their capabilities in field “fab labs” that are similar in cost and complexity to the minicomputers that were so important in the history of computing. Fab labs contain tens of thousands of dollars of computer-controlled tools that, although they don’t yet use fundamentally digital fabrication processes, can be used together to convert an electronic description into a functional object. Projects underway in fab labs include producing low-cost, low-power computers, wireless data networks, instruments for agriculture and the environment, and on-demand housing.

The Fab Academy is a network rather than a place, with teachers and students in fab labs around the world linked by broadband video, shared online information, and common technical capabilities. Its purpose is to keep up with the remarkable kids who are getting hands-on technical training in fab labs that is outstripping what they can learn in their (frequently dysfunctional) local school systems. Through this network I see colleagues above the Arctic Circle more often than ones who are in the same building at MIT, because on campus we’re all so busy juggling all of the activities that are happening in that single location."

Pulled by a universal desire to measure and modify the world as well as get information about it on a computer screen, fab labs have spread around the globe, from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to northern Norway. The number of them has been doubling every 1.5 years or so; there are now about 30 (the most recent one opened in Afghanistan), with that many more currently being planned.

The only problem with providing ordinary people with modern means for invention is that this doesn’t fit within the conventional categories of education, industry, or aid. To fill this void, the fab lab network is now inventing new organizations: a non-profit Fab Foundation to support invention as aid, a for-profit Fab Fund to provide global capital for local inventors and global markets for local inventions, and an educational Fab Academy for distributed advanced technical education." (http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/is_mit_obsolete/)


Massimo Menichelli:

"Lead by Neil Gershenfeld, the Fab Lab program is part of the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) and it broadly explores how the content of information relates to its physical representation and can be embodied in or abstracted from: the intersection between information theory and industrial design. A Fab Lab (digital fabrication (fabbing laboratory) is a small-scale workshop with an array of computer controlled tools that cover several different length scales and various materials, democratizing manufacturing technologies previously available only for expensive mass production.

So far Fab Labs have been opened in rural India, northern Norway, various European countries, Afghanistan, Ghana, Boston and Costa Rica. Fab Lab outreach projects are being explored with a growing group of institutional partners and countries including Panama, Trinidad, South Africa, the National Academies, the Indian Department of Science and Technology, and the Africa-America Institute. " (http://www.openp2pdesign.org/2011/fabbing/business-models-for-fab-labs/)


Aurelie Ghalim, in Fabbing Practices, citing Peter Troxler:

‘Troxler makes the distinction between labs providing facilities and labs providing innovation support .

In researching business models of selected Fab Labs located in urban neighbourhoods in industrialized countries, he defines two types of labs based on their value proposition:

- For the Fab Lab as a facility, the value proposition is providing the best value in terms of the digital production processes;

- for the innovation Fab Lab the value proposition is providing the best outcome for its users and their innovation journey using the right mix of ingredients determined by the facilities and (networked) competencies available."


"Fab Labs share core capabilities, so that people and projects can be shared across them. This currently includes:

- A computer-controlled lasercutter, for press-fit assembly of 3D structures from 2D parts

- A larger (4'x8') numerically-controlled milling machine, for making furniture- (and house-) sized parts

- A signcutter, to produce printing masks, flexible circuits, and antennas

- A precision (micron resolution) milling machine to make three-dimensional molds and surfacemount circuit boards

- Programming tools for low-cost high-speed embedded processors" (http://web.mae.cornell.edu/lipson/FactoryAtHome.pdf)

Massimo Menichinelli on the 10 Characteristics of FabLabs

Massimo Menichinelli:

01. A space about bits and atoms

Though it may be also a space for developing prototypes or building final working products, the main goal for a FabLab is to be a space for experimenting at the intersection of bits and atoms, information and matter. It is not by accident that the concept has been developed at MIT at the Center for Bits and Atoms, not at the High-Low Tech research group.

That’s why there is a huge adoption of tools and components for working with electronics, for example. Basically, a FabLab gives you a space, tools, processes and knowledge for developing physical representations of digital data, and exporting digital data from physical contexts. It is therefore a space that’s perfect for experimenting how digital technologies can influence the development of physical objects, the use of open and big data, the development of solutions for Smart Cities, and so on. This means, ultimately, that prototypes and final products are developed usually within a FabLab, but with a focus on the digital processes (and their effects) rather than just focusing on manufacturing the object with only traditional processes (some of them can be used, but are not the major part). More than a space where you can do almost anything, at the moment I’d say is a place where you learn digital technologies at the interface with the physical reality.

02. Part of a network

Being a FabLab means being part of a global network of local nodes, and this aspect is very important, much more developed than in hackerspaces, makerspaces and TechShops. There is a videoconference system (at http://mcu.cba.mit.edu / that links all the nodes, where question can be asked and projects and collaborations started.

This is also why nodes should share the same set of tools and processes (though local experimentations are welcome): in order to enable any project to be replicated in any node of the network.

03. A community

Every FabLab is part of two communities: the local community, and the global community of all the FabLab in the global network. On one side, a FabLab builds a local community of people interested in it with many different goals and purposes, fostering the collaboration among them and between them and the people working in the FabLab. On the other side, there is always an exchange of information and collaboration among all the FabLabs: it is always important to visit other FabLabs, meet other people in the yearly global meeting (that’s usually happening at the end of August: in 2013 it will be close to Tokyo, in 2014 it will be in Barcelona) and the emerging local meetings (like the conference at Artilect, Toulouse in France, or the many Fab* events). It is always very important to share knowledge in the community and propose new solutions at the meetings.

04. A set of tools

We may start from a space or from a community, but ultimately without a specific set of digital fabrication tools we don’t have a FabLab. Otherwise, it would be like a museum without anything exhibited or a restaurant without a kitchen: if you are developing a FabLab but are still in the first steps, without a space or machines, please always tell that you are in the planning phase: people expect to have access to tools and machines in a FabLab!

As stated before, FabLabs should share the same tools, in order to enable collaboration among the nodes. Generally speaking, when starting a FabLab you should follow the inventory mantained by the Center for Bits and Atoms: it is where all the tools, components and machines are listed. You can also test new machines, adopt machines that aren’t on the list, but don’t change things too much, and especially share your experience with the other FabLabs, maybe you can propose something new that nobody has discovered before! If you are not convinced with the inventory, do a trip to an established lab to see what you can learn from their experience with tools and machines!

05. A set of knowledge

Beside tools and machines, people expect also to have access to specific knowledge, experience and abilities in the FabLab, so who’s working in a FabLab should always check what people in other FabLab knows and should always study and research in order to maintain the lab up to date.

By the way, it is almost impossible that only one person could have all the knowledge needed in a FabLab: you should know how to operate the machines, the space and have knowledge of design (product, graphic, webdesign, …), mechanical design and engineering, electronics and electrical engineering, computer science and programming, business development and intellectual property strategies, and finally project management. That’s why also why there is always (and there should be) more than one person working in the lab, splitting if it’s possible the managing of the space and machines (lab technician) from the managing of the projects, development and business (lab project manager).

06. A set of processes

Beside sharing the same tools, machines, and expertise and knowledge, all the FabLabs should share most of their processes as well, in order to really enable people to work and collaborate in all the nodes of the network.

For example, when manufacturing a pcb, you should use an FR-1 pcb instead of the more common FR-4, and you should use a CNC milling machine instead of an etching process (otherwise, it would not be digital fabrication!). FR-1 pcb are preferred because they have a thin layer of copper over a paper epoxy, non-conductive layer which makes the dust non-toxic and the epoxy is soft enough that the bits last much longer.

07. A service

This may sound new or counterintuitive, but FabLabs are also services, and therefore also as services should be designed, using service design tools, methodologies and processes. A FabLab can have a community around it, but it is still managed by few people that offer some services to the community. Offering access to machines is a service, education is a service, consultancy is a service, fixing old objects is a service, and so on. This understanding is important in order to fully understand the next two points.

08. Not a franchising

FabLabs are not a franchising: there are no fees to be paid to MIT, the logo is not registered and can be used freely, and so on. The inventory is freely and publicly accessible, but there is no brand book or guidelines book to follow in order to set a FabLab franchise. This also means, as a consequence, that each FabLab is a bit different from all the other ones, specifically because it reflects the local conditions (and this is one of the strongest points for being a FabLab). It also means that there are many different formats and business models: being a FabLab does not mean adopting a strict organization and business model.

If you are looking for a franchising, probably TechShops are closer to that. You can also check and join this discussion about the (few) differences between FabLabs, Makerspaces/Hackerspaces and TechShops.

09. A business

Whether a FabLab starts from an existing institution (be it public or private) that funds it functioning, or it starts independently, it is always a business, in the sense that there are rents, expenses, wages to pay, fees to be collected, external suppliers and partners to be paid, partnership to be developed, and everything has to be developed at least to reach the break-even. Whether it takes money directly or indirectly through the institution, the FabLab must be financially sustainable in order to last. In the end, starting from an institution just means having somebody who invests the money for starting the business; it shouldn’t be thought as a requirement or a constriction.

There is still a lot of experimentation and work to do on developing proper business models for FabLabs (especially when started within an institution, there is the tendency to care less about the business model and the revenue), but this is a perspective that has to be adopted in order to develop a good FabLab.

10. A concept currently under development

FabLabs started to emerge 10 years ago, but the whole network emerged by serendipity rather than by design. When the first FabLab was started by MIT, there wasn’t a goal of establishing a global network, but the idea was just to democratize the access and the education of the digital fabrication technologies under development at the Center for Bits and Atoms (instead of waiting for the end of the research with the final and advanced technologies for digital fabrication, the idea was to start preparing people for what would come in the future).

Therefore, things have been evolving (rather than being designed) through the years, meaning that many details are still under development, stable business models have to be developed, improved processes and tools tested, and so on. Therefore, don’t expect FabLabs to be already a perfect model without flaws, but rather participate in the network for improving the weak details! This is also why there is no single book about starting a FabLab: there are many different local formats and differences, and many details are still under development." (http://www.openp2pdesign.org/2013/spaces/what-is-a-fablab/)


Conditions For FabLab Label

NMÍ Kvikan:

"On request of the (starting) French FabLab community we have tentatively formulated the conditions for being able to use the label "Fab Lab" -- this is a Draft / RFC based on Communication from Sherry Lassiter, 15 April 2011.

These key characteristics create an enabling environment that we call a fab lab. Provided that a lab effort is aligned with the below, they can and should use the logo for fund raising, promoting and advertising the fab lab and its activities.

  • First and foremost, public access to the fab lab is essential. A fab lab is about democratizing access to the tools for personal expression and invention. So a fab lab must be open to the public for free or in-kind service/barter at least part of the time each week.

  • Fab Labs must share a common set of tools and processes. The critical machines and materials are in this list: http://fab.cba.mit.edu/about/fab/inv.html and there's a list of open source software and freeware that we use online as well (embedded in fab academy modules here: http://academy.cba.mit.edu/classes/ ) The idea is that all the labs can share knowledge, designs, and collaborate across international borders.

  • You have to participate in the larger, global fab lab network, that is, you can't isolate yourself. This is about being part of a global, knowlege-sharing community through the videoconference, attending the annual fab lab meeting, and otherwise collaborating and partnering with other labs in the network on workshops, challenges or projects. Participating in Fab Academy is yet another way to connect with the global network community."




  • "Only the Fab Lab network by January 2017 already comprised 1100 Labs around the world: 597 Fab Labs in Europe, 151 in the US, and 375 in the rest of the world." [3]

Before 2017

"Today Fab Labs are not about technology, they are about the big impact they are creating in people, communities, and now in cities like Barcelona.

[SC] Is the Fablab culture, from a worldwide point of view, as a movement, changed and grown up as well in the last few years? What are the major improvements that you’ve seen?

[Tomas Diez, Fab Lab Barcelona] As I mentioned before, moving from a group of tech savvy people with very individual challenges, to be a global brain of knowledge and resources to produce social change. For me one of the most important values of the network is being able to keep that essence in every corner of the world, you cannot tell what is it, its like a spice, and I think Sherry Lassiter has a lot to do with it. In practical terms, what we have done with the Fab Academy is maybe the thing I am really proud off. Creating a global university (or multiversity) has become a reality with the consolidation of the Fab Academy as the educational program by excellence in the network. More than 140 students connected in more than 20 sites, having classmates in Nairobi, Lima and Tokyo at the same time, it is just awesome! I think it can grow more, now is the perfect place for new labs to train their people, and to connect to the network, but we want to take it further, probably into advance research and knowledge creation." (http://www.open-electronics.org/global-transitions-fab-labs-and-fab-cities-interview-with-tomas-diez/)


Zack Preble:

"To understand how Fab Labs came about, it is worthwhile to examine the evangelizing spiel Gershenfeld himself preaches on a frequent basis. A quick search on the Internet for Neil Gershenfeld will return many video records of Neil delivering his vision, ipsis verbis, to many different groups in many different settings, often repeating the same witty drolleries with surprising enthusiasm. The idea for a laboratory where anyone could walk in only with an idea and walk out with a functional solution in their hands has its roots, in this case, in Neil’s early frustration of being too smart for ‘shop class’. Working with your hands has been traditionally relegated to the blue collar. This separation undoubtedly stifles invention and creativity. Neil eventually righted this wrong when he became a professor at MIT with sufficient respect and authority to create a class appropriately called “How To Make (almost) Anything”. The purpose of the class was to introduce students to machines that make things, i.e. laser and plasma cutters, milling machines, and injection molders. The results of the first semester were products intended to meet the wants of their creators, exclusively. This experience lead to thought that ordinary people who did not have access to the multi-million dollar machine shops at MIT, might produce some truly revolutionary creations if they too had access to these machines. And so Fab Lab was born, a small scale workshop with tools usually associated with mass production available to ordinary people for fabrication of proto-personal devices. This description is more of a deduction than an official definition of the project. At a question and answer session with Neil a student asked what type of guidance and instruction are fab lab ‘users’ receive. Neil’s response was an immediate ‘the users themselves’, frustrating anyone trying to get a clear picture of the day-to-day operation of a fab lab. This answer exemplifies the fanatical zeal Gershenfeld has for the success of Fab Lab as a tool for ‘personal discovery’ and his efforts to distance his project from the notion of a machine shop. It is obvious someone is providing guidance. It would be illegal to allow children, for example, to operate dangerous machinery without any kind of instruction. Neil was correct in that Fab Lab is a valuable channel for personal realization. The results of Fab Labs as a creative instrument are indeed remarkable and emblematic of it’s efforts to enable ordinary people to turn their ideas into tangible things." (http://zackpreble.com/fab-lab-a-fabricated-revolution/)

2. By Aurelie Ghalim in the study, Fabbing Practices:

"Gershenfeld pioneered a special laboratory that he named Fab Lab (FABrication LABoratory), based on the analogy between mainframes and PCs: minicomputers were the intermediate step and so will be a Fab Lab on the road to personal fabricators . At the very beginning of the class “How to Make (Almost) Anything”, this MIT professor was astonished with the vivid interest of many students across the campus to attend this course. Hundreds of students (engineers, artists and architect) and many with little technical skills showed up to make their own things. The scientist realized how engineering combined with arts and crafts could attract so many people that want to make things just for the fun. The result was quite unique and unexpected: a biologist built an alarm clock that is a real challenge to turn off, a student made a computer interface for parrots, an artist created a portable personal space for screaming (the Screambody), a professor in architecture designed a Defensive Dress, a student “printed” a bike with the use of the waterjet and even children designed their own toys . These creations were possible to realize with the help of diverse and state-of-the-art machine tools located in the fab class at MIT. The trouble was that, albeit this revolution was meant to be personal, not anyone could has the chance to go to MIT. Therefore, the next step was to provide mass access to these technologies.

In 2002, the first Fab Labs were set up in rural India, Costa Rica, northern Norway, inner-city Boston and Ghana. They are part of the project of an international network of small-scale labs, launched by the CBA to explore the implications and applications of personal fabrication.

Instead of waiting for the personal fabricator, the idea was to investigate personal fabrication with the establishment of many Fab Labs around the world. These labs were settled to remote or local areas because one of the main goals of this program was to give local and small communities access to tools that would enable them to define and tackle their own problems: “instead of giving solutions, create environment so that people can find out their own solutions” .

The first Fab Lab outside MIT campus was set up in Boston in the South End Technology Center at Tent City (SETC), which was initially a community center engaged in democratizing new technologies and providing free or low-cost computer training. Their core idea is to “help residents move from being consumers of information to producers and creators of knowledge” . Commons-based peer production is put forward as the key in desktop manufacturing innovation. Therefore, SETC was an ideal location to set up a Fab Lab: their commitment to improve community needs with the help of computer-based technologies was in line with Gershenfeld and his team’s view.

Commons-based peer production is a term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks to describe a new model of socio-economic production made possible in networks environments:

- A new modality of organic production: radically decentralized, collaborative, and non-proprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands

The first Fab Lab outside the United States was established during the summer 2002 in Cartago within the site of The Costa Rica Institute of Technology. It was part of the project Learning Independence Networks (LIN), developed earlier by Grassroots Invention Group , to help developing nations to build their own technologies instead of importing them. Building a laboratory was the next step to work on projects in rural Costa Rica such as wireless environmental sensing modules or making models used for education and even developing a museum exhibit for the Children’s museum . This collaboration between local actors and MIT Medial Lab participants led to the first experiment of implementing a Fab Lab.

Almost at the same period, a second Fab Lab was settled in Pabal, a western Indian village, which houses the science school Vigyan Ashram. Dr. Kalbag who studied science and specialized in food technology in Bombay and then in the United States during the 1950s founded this place in 1983. Like Gershenfeld, he always thought that education should also be based on hands-on learning and decided to build this school for kids who had no education. They would learn science and technology based on the method “Learning While Doing” . It was already a Fab Lab before the concept was invented (only with no hi-tech tools). In 2001, Gershenfeld visited the village and got interested with the multiple rural technologies Dr. Kalbag and his students had developed and built themselves (low cost housing, earth resistivity meter for ground water prospecting, tractors, food storage, etc) . Vigyan Ashram needed a Fab Lab to work on different projects to improve the life of the community such as developing a milk sensor to test good milk and spoiled milk, a wireless fence to protect the farm, a water table alarm for wells that would indicate a rising level of water and finally bio fuels. The MIT sent for a total of $ 25000 a laser cutter, a small milling machine, a vinyl cutter, a scroll saw but also computers, a projector, a digital camera, an electronic table and drawing tools and drivers with open source software .

In 2003, another lab went above the Arctic Circle in Haakon’s farm to continue Haakon Karlsen’s work in collaboration with the company Telenor on the production of radio collars and antennas to aid nomadic herding in northern Norway.

The sixth laboratory was set up in the campus of the Takoradi Technical Institute in Ghana during the summer 2004. Once the machines, provided by MIT, were installed in the new Fab Lab, the very priority was to collect the huge amount of solar energy available in the country: Our goal is to identify community problems and find solutions to them; e.g. to convert the abundant renewable energy such as solar and wind to power machines and mechanize our agriculture and local art and craft industry

Making solar collectors can be used for cooking, cutting or refrigerating instead of relying on scarce electricity. Solar-powered machinery is also something the industrial designer, Markus Kuyser, has been experimenting with in building a solar-powered 3D Printer and a sun-powered cutter . The Sun Cutter is a low-tech analogue light cutter that cuts 2D parts like a laser. These cutting-edge technologies using natural energy question current industrial manufacturing and address the issue of sustainability, a topic largely discussed among the makers and open design enthusiasts.

The students in Takoradi successfully developed a solar rechargeable lighting System, local television antenna, wireless Internet networks and a “Fufu Pounding Machine” that serves to prepare the most popular national dish .

Since the establishment of the first Fab Labs, many others have popped up and the phenomenon is growing rapidly and independently from MIT. Even though there is no formal procedure, MIT monitors the process and lists all official Fab Labs worldwide . In South Africa, the concept of fabbing became a national agenda. In 2005, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) under the auspices of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy Implementation Unit (AMTS-IU) launched many labs across the country. Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom founded a Fab Lab at the Innovation Hub in Pretoria: the first AMTS Fab Lab. The Innovation Hub’s Fab Lab focuses on research that can be transferred to the other Fab Labs in the country and each one has a specific focus (e.g. community-based projects such as Fab Lab Soshanguave or arts and crafts (Fab Lab Cape Town)) . The AMTS has entered in partnership with MIT to collaborate on different research projects. So far, there are six Fab Labs and one Mobile Fab Lab located in South Africa.

While this thesis is being written, the Fab Lab community is expanding rapidly.”


Geographic Dispersion

By Aurelie Ghalim, in the study, Fabbing Practices:

"Ninety Fab Labs are already operating in the world and another thirty-one are due to open soon. Among the ninety existing Fab Labs, a total of thirty-three are located in the US (seven more upcoming). In the rest of the world, there are thirty-nine existing Fab Labs in Europe (and seventeen upcoming). The Benelux has the largest density of fabbing initiative with already nine Fab Labs established in the Netherlands (in Amersfoort, Amsterdam, Arnhem, Enschede, Groningen, The Hague, Maastricht, Utrecht, Weesp) and two in Belgium. Countries like Austria, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom harbour one or more Fab Labs within their territory. Other Fab Labs will be opened soon in Finland, France, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia and Spain. In Asia, there is one Fab Lab in Afghanistan, five in India and one in Indonesia. Africa also beneficiates of a decent number of Fab Labs in the continent, with six ones located in South Africa, one in Ghana and two in Kenya. One in Egypt and another one in Namibia will be opened to the public. One Fab Lab was set up in Costa Rica in 2002, other settled in Colombia and in Peru, and the next one will be opened in Suriname. Two Fab Labs will also be rolled out in Vancouver, Canada and finally one in New Zealand. The official and detailed list of all Fab Labs worldwide is displayed on the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms website."


Peter Troxler:

"With the advent of digital fabrication technology, what used to be called ‘shared machine shops’ and hackerspaces are becoming the incubators of the digital age: Fab Lab, short for fabrication laboratory.

Based on a concept developed by Neil Gershenfeld at the MIT, these initiatives are typically centred around workshops equipped with relatively inexpensive, digitally controlled fabrication machines such as laser cutters, CNC routers and 3D printers. Users produce two- and three-dimensional things that once could only be made using equipment that cost hundreds of thousands of Euros. They use digital drawings and open-source software to control the machines; and they build electronic circuits and digital gadgets.

From a handful of Fab Labs in 2004 the network has grown to over fifty active labs with as many in preparation. Some of the labs are part of an educational institution, be it a high school or university, some act as business incubators for inventors and tinkerers, and others have found their place as catalysers for artists, designers and other creative minds.

What makes Fab Labs different from just any shared machine shop is that they explicitly subscribe to a common charter that firmly institutes Fab Labs as a global network of local labs, stipulates open access, and establishes peer learning as a core feature.

The charter makes Fab Labs the ideal places to practice open design, as it requires that ‘designs and processes developed in fab labs must remain available for individual use’. Beyond that it allows intellectual property protection ‘however you choose’. Even more, the charter explicitly continues that ‘commercial activities can be incubated in fab labs’. Yet it cautions against potential conflict with open access, and encourages business activity to both grow beyond the lab. Successful businesses should give back to the inventors, labs, and networks that contributed to their success.

Fab Labs incorporate an interesting mix of characteristics that might seem contradictory at first, but might well be considered the best practical approximation of what Yochai Benkler describes as commons- based peer production that gives more people more control over their productivity in a self-directed and community-oriented way, essentially the basis of open design." (http://issuu.com/openp2pdesign/docs/cis.doc_open-design)

(Troxler adds [4]:

"The Alpine region has been relatively slow in taking up the concept of Fab Labs. The Ars Electronica Center, Linz, operates a Fab Lab, equipped with a small selection of digital production tools and geared more towards playful learning than open design. The Vienna Happylab – founded in 2006 as an innovation incubator, later hackerspace – has recently been rebranded as a FabLab. The first Fab Lab in Switzerland has just opened in Lucerne, and a few more labs are planned at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and in Munich.")

Challenges to their development

Zack Preble:

"The materials that are used by Fab Labs and Fabbers are as diverse as the machines themselves. In order to popularize PFs, new elements will need to be created, materials that are easier to manipulate and distribute. Materials may be considered the software of PFs and the emergence of new materials will dictate the direction PFs will take. The discovery of these materials will also define the time it will take to progress from what Fab Labs look like today to what PFs will look like whenever they come to fruition. Comparatively, PCs evolved very quickly. After all, the steps between thinking and doing are quicker and fewer when it comes to programming than it would ever be with personal fabrication. Methodologies and conventions helped PCs, software, and consequently killer apps take shape in an organized and modular way. Object oriented programming for example made it very easy applications to take a distributed development. It is difficult to imagine what the PF equivalent would be since materials and concepts can be so diverse.

Besides materials and other limitations, PFs will face challenges PCs never had. One of these challenges is more of a regulatory nature. In his book FAB, Gershenfeld describes a personal transportation project created by an MIT student. Using laser cutters and polycarbonate plastic, Saul Griffith created a bicycle that assembles with the addition of a few off the shelf parts, like wheels and tires. Conceivably, a PF will be able to fabricate the entire bicycle. Saul can email his bicycle to any friend and they can make a bicycle too. The potential problems with this and any similar project on a larger scale are that of quality and safety. The equivalent problem with the PC counter part is that of application bugs. They are common and many times get fixed but they are not life threatening. A miscalculated bolt can send a user veering off at high speeds on a poorly designed or constructed personal transportation device that came out of an out of tune PF. Fab Labs are however, and important predecessor to PFs but perhaps more importantly, they currently serve as an equalizing element in the distribution of knowledge. The knowledge is not only concerned with the technologies available at the facilitaties. Learning how to operate machinery is the least of the tasks Fab Labs around the world accomplish. Fab Labs inspire new ideas and solutions. Most areas where Fab Labs were established were in dire need of resources of an intellectual nature, that is, the ability to create solutions and develop more opportunities. Because these labs for the most part rely on state funding or significant private investments, they are usually partnered into larger facilities that provide further community services. In many cases, the real objective is to help people help themselves from an early age. So many of the stories described in the book Fab and in articles that circulate on the Internet are about pre-teens who have tackled and mastered problems that would present a serious challenge to even a highly educated professional or academic. In most cases, it seems these children have understood just enough about each of the necessary element that will make a machine work. But Fab Labs is not about children; it is about making things, things that people (individuals) want. It is also about laying the tracks for the development of the technologies that will make PFs a reality." (http://zackpreble.com/fab-lab-a-fabricated-revolution/)

Business Models

Funding a Fab Lab: how much does it cost?

Massimo Menichelli:

"CNN reported that the Center for Bits and Atoms was funded with $14 million by the National Science Foundation in 2001. Anyway, starting a Fab Lab should be much cheaper: Fab Lab Afghanistan (in its wiki) and allbusiness.com reported that a full Fab Lab currently costs about $50,000-$55,000 in equipment and materials without MIT’s involvement. Other sources like ideasexist.com and aps.org reported that a Fab Lab should costs only about $20,000.

In 2009, the Center for a Stateless Society proposed to organize a Fab Lab using open-source tools such as the Fab@Home 3D printer, with resulting costs between $2,000 and $5,000 total. Bart Bakker of Utrecht, Netherlands built one for under € 3000. Another initiative called Replab.org proposed the construction of an open source Fab Lab that costs $12,500." (http://www.openp2pdesign.org/2011/fabbing/business-models-for-fab-labs/)

Business Models

Massimo Menichelli:

"Even the official Fab Lab Charter (drafted in 2007) recognize that Fab Labs could adopt a business model for commercial activities and roughly defines some guidelines for such models:

- Business: commercial activities can be incubated in fab labs but they must not conflict with open access, they should grow beyond rather than within the lab, and they are expected to benefit the inventors, labs, and networks that contribute to their success.

Fab Lab Iceland reports 4 business models for Fab Labs:

1. The Enabler business model: launch new Labs or provide maintenance, supply chain or similar services for existing Labs.

2. The Education business model: a global distributed model of education through Fab Labs (with the Fab Academy) where global experts in particular topics can deliver training from local Fab Labs or even from universities/businesses via the Fab Lab video conferencing network. P2P learning among users is also a part of this business model.

3. The Incubator business model: provide infrastructure for entrepreneurs to turn their Fab Lab creations into sustainable businesses. The incubator provides back-office infrastructure, promotion & marketing, seed capital, the leverage of the Fab Lab network and other venture infrastructure to enable the entrepreneur to focus on her areas of expertise.

4. The Replicated / Network business model: provide a product, service or curriculum that operates by utilizing the infrastructure, staff and expertise of a local Fab Lab. Such opportunities can be replicated, sold by and executed at many (or all) local Labs, with sustainable revenue at each location. The leverage of all Labs in the network simultaneously promoting and delivering the business creates strength and reach for the brand.

The most complete research about the business models of Fab Labs so far comes from Peter Troxler, especially in his paper “Commons-based Peer Production of Physical Goods — Is There Room for a Hybrid Innovation Ecology?“ (presented at the 3rd Free Culture Research Conference, October 2010 Berlin). Troxler found that in the current Fab Lab practice there is no single business model and the literature about it is quite poor. Studying 10 Fab Labs (out of 45), Troxler discovered that the labs were primarily offering infrastructures to students, and they were relatively passive in reaching out to other potential users (general public, companies, researchers). Usually Fab Labs are hosted at schools, research or innovation centres or are independent entities: funding comes from outside, from public sources or from their hosting institution while revenue from sponsoring or from users so far remained the exception; however, Fab Labs are requested to become self-sustaining within 2 to 4 years, but none of the labs studied had yet reached this stage. Most of the Fab Labs had their own employees, and a few were run by a faculty of their host university or were supported by volunteers.

Fab Labs usually use their own Internet presence as a marketing strategy; few of them actively engage in PR, and these ones attract also non-students as users. Furthermore, they had so far created a limited innovation ecosystem with few network and industry partners and few, if any sponsors, which got used rather rarely. All labs indicated their main business model was providing access to infrastructure that users would have no access to otherwise, but most of then indicated that giving access to knowledge of the Fab Lab network and giving access to experts were equally part of their value proposition. Troxler pointed out then that there are two main business models (or value propositions) possible, namely Fab Labs providing facilities and Fab Labs providing innovation support.

Troxler further developed the concept of Fab Labs as innovation center within another paper, written together with Patricia Wolf: “Bending The Rules: The Fab Lab Innovation Ecology” presented at the 11th International CINet Conference, September 2010 Zurich. In this paper they identified four possible business models (Table 1.), among the intersections of open and closed intellectual property and Fab Lab as facility or as innovation support. Specifically, they propose the Fab Lab innovation ecology (a network of partners) as the most interesting, a Fab Lab with open intellectual property and aimed at facilitating innovation: more design thinking and stimulating innovation than just providing access and training. The primary clientele of this model are innovators, companies (particularly SMEs) and researchers, while the general public is not really important. Revenue will come from projects, services provided and partners engaging with the lab, rather than per hour or membership fees and possible sales of products or IP. The Fab Lab innovation ecosystem add the linking with a network of knowledge and experience to cheap manufacturing technologies, creating value by capturing experience and feeding it back into the network." (http://www.openp2pdesign.org/2011/fabbing/business-models-for-fab-labs/)

More at Fab Labs - Business Models


There is a list of Fab Labs at http://www.fablabinternational.org/fab-lab/list-of-fab-labs

Fab Lab at MIT, at http://cba.mit.edu/projects/fablab

"In India, school children fabricated timing devices to improve the performance of diesel engines and sensing devices to test for spoiled milk. In Norway, reindeer herders manufactured special tracking devices to attach to reindeer collars that would make them easier to locate after the long winter. Projects being developed and produced in fab labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, thin-client computers and wireless data networks, analytical instrumentation for agriculture and healthcare, custom housing, and rapid-prototyping of rapid-prototyping machines." (http://web.mae.cornell.edu/lipson/FactoryAtHome.pdf)


"Fab Labs have been set up in several locations around the world and have produced amazing inventions. There are currently Fab Labs in Norway, Costa Rica, India, Ghana, South Africa, and Boston. Each of these labs operate using slightly different rules and approaches. To better understand Fab Labs, let us look at some of the results from these different locations.

Lyngen Alps, Norway

An interesting project that came out of this Lab where a herder by the name of Haakon Karlsen developed, with the help of a team, a short-range radio coupled with a GPS receiver that could be used by sheep to track their position. The obvious limitation was precisely the ‘short-range’ that defeated the purpose of distance monitoring of the animals. The solution was a network of repeaters fabricated with inexpensive, off-the-shelf radios to relay the signal. The placement of these transceivers helped negotiate the twists and turns of the Lyngen Alps and organically extended a network that serviced multiple users.

India An important accomplishment was achieved in a Fab Lab in India that reflects the breadth of possibilities Fab Labs offer. A common practice in India among unscrupulous dairy farmers is to dilute milk with water, or worse, bad milk to increase volume. A sensor was developed using a microprocessor that measures a charge rate of milk when a voltage is applied to electrodes placed in a sample of milk. Essentially a device that measures the quality of milk was developed and perfected to help distributors and ultimately consumers.

Boston, USA

The “South End Technology Center” houses the only US based Fab Lab and arguably most clearly exemplifies the social mission that Fab Labs have served. The format at this Fab Lab is that of a class proper where students learn to operate the machines. Students have produced items ranging from a security system that takes a picture of any approaching person to custom game-console controllers. One significant accomplishment has been the transformation of recycled materials into sellable goods that empower inner-city students with an earning potential.


In Ghana, a Fab Lab was able to inexpensively and effectively convert sunlight into usable energy. A contraption was fabricated that creates steam by boiling water using a parabolic reflector. This steam then was used to turn a turbine. One of the things that make this project unique is the turbine. Because the RPM attainable with the steam generated is fairly low, a Tesla turbine was used to maximize efficiency. Tesla turbines are an old design, rarely used today, where closely and precisely spaced discs very economically ‘capture’ the energy generated by the steam.

South Africa

In Soshanguve, South Africa users have assembled batteries from scrap zinc, carbon manganese dioxide and various plastics. In another application a user made a self-directing vacuum cleaner. With heavy governmental funding, the Fab Labs in South Africa have fulfilled an important role in spreading technology to a whole generation by creating centers that put up the Labs." (http://zackpreble.com/fab-lab-a-fabricated-revolution/)

More Information

  1. the Digital Fabrication Primer
  2. Watch the Videos on Personal Fabrication
  3. A fablab video tour at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTW6PmfkABE

  • case study on the transformative strategy of Fablabs:

Smith, A.; Hielscher, S. and Fressoli, M. (2015) Transformative social innovation narrative : Fablabs. TRANSIT: EU SHH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169 [5]

A FabLab is an example of a social innovation because these community-based workshops are spaces where anyone can learn about and use digital fabrication technologies to make almost anything. These workshops might potentially turn consumers into producers, democratising production and consumption.


  1. Mikhak, B., Lyon, C., Gorton, T., Gershenfeld, N., McEnnis, C., Taylor, J.. Fab Lab: An Alternate Model Of Ict For Development. Retrieved December 29, 2006, from, http://cba.mit.edu/projects/fablab/fablab-dyd02.pdf
  2. What is a Fabber? An Introduction to the 21st Century. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.ennex.com/~fabbers/intro.asp
  3. Hanes, S.. (2006, September 27). ‘Fab labs’ deliver high-tech tools. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0927/p16s01-stct.html
  4. Associated Press. (2005, November 6). Imagine, Make It Real in Fab Lab. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,69495,00.html


  • "There are now 40 Fab Labs in almost every continent including Afghanistan, Kenya, Norway, Peru and the United States. Fab Labs typically have some kind of combination of personal fabrication technologies such as laser cutters, 3D printers, circuit makers." [6]

Official list here at http://fab.cba.mit.edu/about/labs/

Additional lists at http://sites.google.com/site/fablablinks/the-network

Map: Fab Labs on Earth [7]

A few of the labs' websites:

Machines Used

  • Laser cutters, plasma cutters and water jet cutters - to cut sheet materials such as plastic and metal
  • Printed circuit board milling machines