In 1998 Neil Gershenfeld, a professor at MIT in Boston, inaugurated a course called How to build (almost) something. The course included only ten seats and Gershenfeld had no idea whether it would had been success or not. The professor prepared a twenty lessons and made to set up a laboratory. The lessons were talking about adding and subtracting techniques, 3D Printing, how to cut and shape the materials, electronics and microcontrollers, programming, and specially how to transfer designs and projects carried out with a computer to machines able to realize them.
The first FabLab in the world was equipped with machines for cutting materials with laser, plasma and water, 3D printers, scanners, electronic instruments and anything else necessary to make prototypes. He was baptized FabLab, contraction Faboulous Lab but also Fabrication Lab. The first projects were a kill-squealing bag, a browser for parrots, some plexiglass bicycles, etc. The news about this course and about the laboratory in which it was possible to create something went around the campus.
Later editions of the course were a success. Soon the workshop was open to all students. The fame also grew outside the university and a few years later it was opened to the general public. Even other universities created a FabLab and within a few years there were about fifty laboratories around the world.
Afterwards it started talking about Digital Fabrication and self-production. The digital fabrication allows you to create unique items or small series, with artistic or craft features, but thanks to technologies and industrial parameters these items have very precise and repeatable finishing.
In Italy the first FabLab was opened in Turin in 2011, at an event pavilion organized to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Italian Republic. Today there are about twenty laboratories, born spontaneously throughout the peninsula. Workshops are open to the public, where anyone can enter and use CNC machines to realize items in a short time. Some machines are needed training to use them independently and safely. All FabLab adopt the Charter: a document that sets out the basic rules of operation and conduct and ensures the ethical and social order of the structures. The set of machines in a FabLab requires some initial investment amounting to several ten thousands of euro. The laboratory in order to survive relies on annual subscriptions of members, inputs, subscriptions and income from “service” for cutting or printing. It can also get profit from technical and design advice, from the sale of consumables and organizing courses, workshops and events.
Massimo Menichinelli, studying for years the business models of the FabLab, identified 4 main types:
- business enabler: the laboratory promotes and sponsors new laboratories and supports them by providing B2B services;
- business based education: the FabLab offers courses and “training” advice to individuals and societies;
- Incubator: supports and hosts the birth of startups;
- Business replicator / network: the FabLab becomes a local point production and distribution of a product. The network of laboratories is used to distribute the product among the territory.
In Italy, the FabLab phenomenon is spreading, but very few people are still known what they exactly are. The workshops are designed to solve the problems of ordinary people, they are turning to the mass audience and this offers many possibilities for development.
In our country we have enormous potential offered by the artisan tradition that for centuries passed down knowledge and practical know who might find new ways and applications in the exchange with FabLab: both figures would come out enriched.