Fabbing Practices

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search




"This thesis, based on an ethnographic approach, investigates personal fabrication. Fab Labs or FABrication LABoratories, introduced as facilities where you can make (almost) anything, are small-scale workshops for digital fabrication and rapid-prototyping. Fab Lab that are inscribed in the maker subculture and based upon open design principles and commons-based peer production, first emerged in MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms in 2001. Since then, many labs have scaled geographically and the present study explores Fab Lab Amsterdam."


"Fabbing practices are described in depth in three chapters:

1. Fabbing: Personalization and Networking

  • 1.1 Atoms Are the New Bits32
  • 1.2 Machine Tools that Make (almost) Anything
  • 1.3 Fabrication Laboratories: a growing trend

2. Materiality of the Maker Revolution

  • 2.1 Digital Fabrication: a new trend in DIY culture
  • 2.2 The Maker Subculture
  • 2.3 Making a Community
  • 2.4 Making Architecture, Art and Fashion
  • 2.5 From Do it Yourself (DIY) to Do it Together (DIT)

3. Openness

  • 3.1 Open Design
  • 3.2 Limits of Openness
  • 3.3 Distributed Education


  • Discussion: Towards New Developments in Fab Labs?
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Appendix



The history of the Maker Subculture

By Aurelie Ghalim, in the study, Fabbing Practices:

“In this chapter, we investigate the maker subculture and its manifestation in fabbing ecosystem. In other words, how the love of making things, hacking, tinkering, circuit bending and doing/making everything so-called DIY is a significant peculiarity of Fab Labs. We first look at the meaning and the emergence of the maker subculture and the development of hackerspaces and shared machines shops. Secondly, we explore how the maker community is shaped and organized. In a third point, this chapter details a Fab approach of architecture, art and fashion. Finally, we see how hobbyists moved from do-it-yourself (DIY) to do-it-together (DIT) activities with examples of making music instruments and biotech.

The maker subculture is a contemporary subculture, representing a technology-based extension of DIY culture. Typical interests enjoyed by the maker subculture include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts. – Wikipedia

In 1968, the first issue of the American magazine The Whole Earth Catalogue was released. Subtitled “Access to Tools”, this catalogue listed a vast range of products for sale with references to the vendors and their prices. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, The Whole Earth Catalogue was the bible for the DIY movement in providing amateurs information on equipment and supplies, allowing them to make their own things. This directory was available for “everyone frustrated with industrialized mass production” . According to Pfeiffer, The Whole Earth Catalogue offered something very precious to the non-professional practitioners: the access to tools and information . In the second half of the 20th century, there was a boom in DIY activities with many magazines, television and radio shows dedicated to this topic. From a necessity to a leisure practice, DIY activity has radically changed to become more and more sophisticated overtime. Nonetheless, it became also easier with self-assembly processes and kits. Since the 1960s, manufacturers have developed and promoted easy methods that led to the simplification and commodification of DIY practices .

Since the fifties, there was a constant trend in the DIY movement to evolve with the new technologies . The introduction of computation science and later the Internet technologies has enabled users to become designers with the help of easy-use and predesigned templates. On the one hand, DIY and amateurism practices may be an aesthetic choice - unpolished look and design – promoting a romantic style and being also a political act against the machines. On the other hand, everyone can reach the perfection now with user-friendly technologies that give an almost-professional result. “Today’s DIY emphasizes customization over craft” . The cult of the amateur - the shift from being consumers to being producers - that first hit the online world is slowly moving to the offline or, in better words, the physical world. A new kind of amateurs - the makers - seeks to specialize in engineering-oriented technologies and mastering industrial machines such as CNC tools and 3D printing. The rise of this making subculture is rooted in the phenomenon of hackerspaces emerging themselves from the counterculture movement.

Hackerspaces, also called makerspaces, hacklabs, creative spaces are facilities where like-minded individuals (hackers) can learn and share technologies outside the traditional education centres.

Hackerspaces members define these locations as “community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects” . They are open labs based on peer learning where people can learn around computers, technology and electronics with an emphasis on non-market (or anti-market) orientation. Collaboration between such places is called “hackatons”. Along with hackerspaces, 100kGarages and TechShops are another type of shared-technologies places. Such as Fab Labs, 100kGarages “is a community of workshops with digital fabrication tools for precisely cutting, machining, drilling, or sculpting the parts for your project or product, in all kinds of materials, in a shop or garage near you” . ShopBot Tools Inc launched these Garages in 2008 in collaboration with Ponoko. These distributed manufacturers produce user’s design for a fee and no shop access. TechShop is a chain of workshops that started in the California Bay Area in 2006. There are currently five TechShops in the USA. Strictly commercial, this shared machine shop is based on a membership system that gives users the right to use the tools and equipment to build their own things. In the vein of Fab Labs, 100KGarages and TechShop have the same inexpensive machines (laser cutter, 3D mills) using open source software.

The concept of shared machine shops was defined in Karl Hess’ Community Technology published in 1979:

- The machine shop should have enough basic tools, both hand and power, to make the building of demonstrations models or test facilities a practical and everyday activity…For inner-city residents the shared machine shop might be a sensible and practical doorway to the neglected world of productivity as well as being a base for community experimentation and demonstration.

Peter Troxler puts on a graph the fabbing ecosystem. 100kGarages and TechShops are solely infrastructure while Fab Labs and Hackerspaces are much more places to undertake projects with a strong commitment to commons-based principles. Unlike 100kGarages, Fab Labs, TechShop and Hackerspaces let individuals to access their machines (generative). ProtoSpace is a Fab Lab based in Utrecht, founded in collaboration with the Dutch Inventors association Novu, and sponsored by many non-profit or governmental organizations. Diane Pfeiffer salutes its innovation model: “From an American perspective, it is interesting to see that this facility is sponsored through a joint initiative of eleven organisations, many of them non-profit or governmental, but favor access for new commercial entities and unaffiliated individuals” and contrasts this with the US scenario: “While there are approximately twelve Fab Labs in the US, most are not this well funded. Instead, in the US numerous small, local maker clubs are emerging alongside occasional for-profit (and not Fab Lab) enterprises such as TechShop in Palo Alto, CA and Portland, OR” .

A community of makers has been evolving around open source hardware projects and companies namely Arduino, MakerBot Industries, ReRap Project, Fab@Home and many others. These artisans 2.0 attend Maker Faires; subscribe to Make (the 21st issue covers desktop manufacturing ) and Craft magazines and share their design online. The annual Bay Area Maker Faire is a celebration of do-it-yourself culture where Pro-Ams gather in big number to see all kind of DIY stuff from robot pets, homebrewed 3D models, crafts, biotech, electronic gizmos. They are hackers, crafters, artisans and tinkerers.

Leadbeater and Miller put forward the love of making things as the first condition to be considered as a Pro-Am:

- A Pro-Am pursues an activity as an amateur, mainly for the love of it, but sets a professional standard. Pro-Ams are unlikely to earn more than a small portion of their income from their pastime but they pursue it with the dedication and commitment associated with a professional. For Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory; it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career, which has involved sacrifices and frustrations .

In 2008, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) published the study The Future of Making: the Way Things are Made Is Being Made on the emerging DIY culture of makers (Pro-Ams). IFTF identified six drivers of change that foster this movement (social networking, eco-motivation, the rise of the professional amateurs, access to tools, open-source everything and quest of authenticity) and six trends that will change how we design and produce things (desktop manufacturing, lightweight manufacturing, citizen R&D, networked artisans, grassroots economics and open innovation) ."

From Do It Yourself (DIY) to Do It Together (DIT)

By Aurelie Ghalim, in the study, Fabbing Practices:

"In the last part of this chapter, we look at two significant examples of do-it-together projects made in Fab Lab Amsterdam: Shark Bass and Open PCR. We choose to introduce these examples in order to describe DIT practices as an important feature of the maker subculture.

Do-it-Together (DIT) or Do-it-with-others (DIWO) initiatives are based upon open source and Internet technologies that enable users to easily collaborate in networked society. In this sense, “The Materiality of the Maker Revolution” chapter tends to demonstrate how usually defined as online practices and behaviours are also happening offline –materiality. What is interesting here is that everything on the Internet is also coming outside of the screen and expanding into the physical realm. Therefore, we observe peer-to-peer production practices occurring in Fab Labs and other physical locations.

On the first day of the ethnography, I was immediately introduced with the project Shark Bass (fig. 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47) that has already started a year ago (around April 2011). The idea emerged with the question “Can you produce a high quality electric bass guitar using the Fablab methodology?”. When I arrived in the lab, the bass had already taken shape and the final step was about to begin – polishing, inserting strings and electric components and finally plug it in. This project brings together Fab Lab manager Alex Schaub, product designer based in Amsterdam Alice Mela, product designer based in Rotterdam Carsten Lemme and industrial designer based in Eindhoven Thomas Van De Werf. Not only Alex is a Fab Lab expert who worked before in designing production machines but he also studied art and music and received a degree as Master of Music in 2001 at the Koninklijk Conservatorium in The Hague. His knowledge in music and instruments led him with the help of other specialists to design his very first bass guitar, which is based on the Fender Jazz Bass.

Alex was not the first one to think of making personal music instruments with digital manufacturing tools. Journalist and blogger Clive Thompson recounts his attempt to design his own guitar in “The Dream Factory” article published in Wired in September 2005. Thomspon designed an electric guitar in remixing various classic guitar designs by drawing the outlines on eMachineShop’s software (eMachineShop 3D CAD software). eMachineShop is an application that produces physical 3D copy that were previously designed online (online machining). The idea is to provide low-cost fabrication of custom parts via the web for both engineers and non-engineers. Once Thompson had finished to design his bass, he had to choose materials on the same application. There was no wood thick enough and he had to opt for a block of clear acrylic with unbuffed raw aluminium for the faceplate. Finally, he could send his creation to the company that would print his guitar with a 3D milling machine. After a week, he got his personal fabbed bass but Thompson was not fully happy about it and noticed several design errors that he tried to fix manually. “As the final pieces come together, I find I’m getting excited again. For all its imperfections, my creation looks surprisingly close to my original vision – less a straight-head guitar than a piece of mildly psychedelic Soviet machinery”.

The whole process took only a week for Thompson to get his object ready. The Shark Bass project was much longer (approximately one year) and in collaboration with others. Even though eMachineShop offers to individuals the possibility of personal fabrication in designing their own things, it does not offer the possibility to engage with hands-on manufacturing and fabrication:

The eMachineShop software (…) included artificial intelligence that operates like a ‘virtual machinist’. In the background – invisible to the users – it runs a precise emulation of the real-world machines that fabricate parts to determine whether the job is possible and how much it’ll cost

On the other hand, Alex’s guitar was not really made in a rapid prototyping manner but was the outcome of a greater level of personal involvement with the end product from participants. The creation of structured knowledge - peer production - and hands-on approach has given a more sophisticated result in conformity to users’ desire. Thompson, who received a guitar not entirely similar to his first idea, writes in Wired “the dangers of designing solely on computers”. The process of making Shark Bass has been documented on Fab Lab Amsterdam website, respecting, therefore, open design principles.

DIY biotechnologies are also practices that are many times undertook with others usually in small labs (garages). Emerging from open source hardware development and from Pro-Am movement trying to build low-cost open source tools and infrastructures for experimenting and sharing scientific knowledge, biohacking represents a new contestational form of scientific practices.

Lucas Evers who leads Waag Society’s Wetlab organized, with Life Science technologist and founder of the Dutch DIY Bio community Pieter van Boheemen, the event DIY Bio to which I participated during my research. The goal was to assemble the Open PCR and gain practical DIY Bio experience (fig. 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75). Open PCR kit is the first open-source PCR (for sequencing DNA) available for $512 and including the first Arduino USB storage device.

The idea of the kit recalls the first computer kits that were sold in magazines during the 1970s. Hobbyists would buy computer parts and assemble them. Such practices led to the emergence of a hobbyist subculture, developed around personal computing. Now the same is happening to bio-knowledge and we could get a glimpse of it that evening in Fab Lab Amsterdam.

A couple of enthusiasts and experts (not so many people) gathered together in the Zuidlab to assemble not only the Open PCR (developed by Jankowski and Perfetto) but also the Amplino (a new generation of PCR) developed by Pieter van Boheemen, cell biology master student Wouter Bruins and mechanical engineering/bioinformatics student Jelmer Cnossen. Amplino is a low cost quantitative PCR to use for malaria diagnostics. All of them participated to the event and Jelmer even used the laser cutter that evening to build the Amplino. People were busy with their hands but also had time to raise discussions on DIY Bio.

In a do-it-together style, participants experienced with biotech knowledge and kits. However, the majority of the audience was actually expert and, to my understanding, there were very few novices (myself included) participating to the event. Nonetheless, these specialists were interested in hobbyist practices. According to Eugene Thacker, biotech hobbyist projects employ a kind of “tactical media” that supports amateur practice and argues that “amateurism and hobbyism are important here because imply an interest in learning and interest in reappropriating, repurposing”. On the same line, Eric Kluitenberg argues that amateur practice is not only about access to the means of production but also access “to the very systems that define what counts as knowledge, and how and where value is created”.

The goal of biotech hobbyists is to bring non-specialists to hands-on experiences and shared knowledge. This is not about developing “biotech for the people” or solving social problems. DIY and DIT biotech approach is much more in line of what the art collective and tactical media practitioners, Critical Art Ensemble, was doing back to the early 2000s: making biology hackable and appropriating scientific knowledge and practices that had been monopolised by scientists and corporations. These tactics that aim for a contestational biology are bringing biology to public examination. “A non-specialist (hobbyist) engagement with biotech can count as legitimate knowledge in the contestation over the meanings of biotechnology in our society”. Critical Art Ensemble engages with amateur practice and argues that such practice is capable: To see through dominant paradigms, are more freer to recombine elements of paradigms thought long dead, and can apply everyday life experience to their deliberations. Most important, however, amateur are not invested in institutionalised systems of knowledge production and policy construction

We have seen in this chapter that not only manufacturing knowledge and production but also biotech practices have been appropriated by the masses (or the most skilled non-specialists – Pro-Ams). In doing so, a set of common practices and ideals are shared by these makers. Transparency in making process and shared knowledge is based upon open source and P2P principles. In the last chapter – “Openness”- we look closer at this philosophy of transparency that drives Fab methods or what is also called Open Design."

Limits of Openness

By Aurelie Ghalim, in the study, Fabbing Practices:

"The idea to implement open-source principles into design aims idyllically at bringing down global capitalism. However, Aymeric Mansoux sees open source 3D printing scene repeating the same mistakes of the free-software movement in which paid and unpaid users and developers are part of this labour force developing open source product controlled by few commercial companies “There is a misunderstanding in seeing free software as some objects or purity, detached from the harsh reality of the free market” Media theorists Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter in “Dawn of the Organized Networks” also point this misconception of seeking the Holy Grail of openness. Advocates of openness should realize that open systems of communication such as the Creative Commons licences and the libertarian open source movement are actually embedded in the traditional mechanisms of making money:

If there is a decision to be made, and an enemy to be singled out, it’s the techno-libertarian religion of the “free”. It’s high time to openly attack the cynical logic of do-good venture capitalists that preach giving away content for no money while making millions of dollars in the back room with software, hardware and telco-infrastructures, which the masses of amateur idiots need in order to give and take for free

Media theorists, Tiziana Terranova defines this tendency as free labor in the production of free and open source software, which is something structural to the late capitalist cultural economy. Contrary to Richard Barbrook, Terranova argues that there is no a remergence of communism through the gift economy (giving away content for no money): “gift is itself an important force within the reproduction of the labor force in capitalism. The provision of free labor is a fundamental moment is the creation in the digital economies”. The idea of open-everything and commons-based peer production might seem to be in line with leftist’s ideals at bringing down global capitalism. However, the high-tech gift economy can be rapidly appropriated and used as sizeable labor force."

Discussion: Towards News Developments in Fab Labs? and Conclusion

By Aurelie Ghalim, in the study, Fabbing Practices:

"An ethnographic analysis helped to understand that hands-on experiments in shaping things are what really drive participants, regular users, interns and Fab Lab Amsterdam team. This close relation between the subject and the object is at the core of fabbing practices.

In this Master thesis, I attempted to portray fabbing practices based on two weeks of participant observation in Fab Lab Amsterdam. I first described personal fabrication and the emergence of Fab Labs network. In a second chapter, I explored practices of making and shaping things. Basically, answering to the question - What can you do in a Fab Lab? - through the description of a variety of DIY and DIT projects. Finally, I tried to present the philosophy of openness and transparency that are behind fabbing practices and see the limits of such do-good philosophy. The last subchapter was dedicated to distributed education and to the Fab Academy.

In researching fab practices and how Fab Lab Amsterdam offers the possibility to prototype ideas, I could observe an emerging model for bottom-innovation. Troxler who makes a difference between Fab Labs as solely facilities and Fab Labs that pursue innovative approach, has already described this trend. In my view, Fab Lab Amsterdam represents a highly innovative lab showing the possibility of private-collective (hybrid) innovation, as defined by Troxler. This is mostly due to the institute for art, science and technology - Waag Society – that initiated Fab Lab Amsterdam. We have seen that in many cases, Waag employees participate to the laboratory life and even two of them were Fab Academy students this year. Not to mention, the role of Alex who always shows much zeal in creative projects. With a background in metal work and music, Alex developed interesting projects such as “50 -$-leg”, “Fab Foos” and lately, “Shark Bass”. I also notice that regular users and interns are responsible with their creation for giving a specific identity to the lab. For instance, Vincent’s Alzheimer open source radio is a kind of unique example. � I would like to conclude this discussion on Victor’s passion for graphics and how his work can lead to new innovative developments in fabbing ecology.

In a recent post, “Design & DIY – 5 years of Innovation Fab Lab Amsterdam”, Victor presents the final of his booklet project (that I mentioned at the beginning of this thesis). This intern begins with the simple question: “Why there is no print facilities in the Fablab?”. When he started his internship, Victor was impressed with all the machine tools available in the lab but he was also missing printers and printing devices.

If I can print, then I can publish; if I publish, I have to make an object. Will this object be a book? A series of booklets? Posters? Flyers? As I am doing it by myself, then I should have more space for my own formats, techniques, speech, etc…It raises more questions about autonomy. A Fablab can become a publisher, as it is already a possible factory, an atelier, a learning school, an academy In order to make a small book on past Fab projects, Victor asked Alex to bring a stencil printer (Riso) so he could make it in this kind of vintage-style that he likes. This is an old printer and everything is mechanical, which offers a series of advantages (see Victor’s description in his blog post). Here, Victor explains the idea behind this booklet:

I wanted to make a publication that highlights the outcome of the Fablab. There are already enough reports about what is a Fablab, what you can find in a Fablab, what is a Fablab for etc., but only few about what has actually been made. Thanks to Alex’s determination and other fablabbers, the documentation is amazing. Many projects are documented, and people enjoy doing it, it is part of the sharing process. Nonetheless to my point of view the documentation is almost always process reports, how-to guides and step-by-step explanations. Few place is given to the final result

As Victor cleverly notices, if Fab Lab is really the place where you can make (almost) anything, then any project could be realized. A common set of manufacturing machine tools must be found but there is no impediment to provide other tools and carry out projects beyond design as long as it is in conformity with DIY, free access and shared knowledge principles.


"Since the very first lab in MIT, Fab Labs have scaled geographically, from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the North of Norway. Today, ninety Fab Labs are operating in the world and thirty-one are due to open soon. The idea is to democratize personal fabrication and to promote bottom-up innovation. Based on the model of open source and commons-based peer production, Fab Labs form part of the recent and ongoing movement of Open Design.

In this thesis, we have explained the emergence of a network field Fab Labs that is embedded in the maker subculture. Looking at fabbing practices in Fab Lab Amsterdam gives an insight of such subculture, which is characterized by a very close relation with tangible objects. We have seen that personal fabrication is under way in what some call the next industrial revolution. Finally, we have exposed how the idea of openness is both an important feature of this movement but at the same time might also be problematic.

Open spaces and Fab Labs represent the possibility of small-scale fabrication and therefore, challenge the traditional manufacturing world. However, the concept is still very new, though it is expanding fast, and further developments need to be achieved: while it seems that a common philosophy and solid structure of Fab Labs have been settled, it is still challenging to economically sustain such facilities and provide open and free access at the same time. Ultimately, Troxler’s proposal of developing private-collective (hybrid) innovation model is interesting to explore especially in the burgeoning fabbing scene. Indeed, there is a lot of enthusiasm growing with personal fabrication’s promises.

This ethnography on the environment of Fab Lab Amsterdam demonstrates how people in this lab attempt to bring innovation at the core of their praxis."

More Information

Keywords: Fab Lab, Open Design, Personal Fabrication, Rapid Prototyping, CNC Machine Tools, 3D Printing, Commons-Based Peer Production, DIY, Open Source Hardware, Maker Subculture, Mass Customization, Pro-Ams