Each year from January to June, the Fab Academy offers five intense months of tinkering and digital fabrication. This international program initiated by MIT attracts a growing number of students… including in France, where it is hosted by several labs. Makery investigated.
São Paulo, from our correspondent
“The Fab Academy seeks to balance the decentralized enthusiasm of the do-it-yourself maker movement and the mentorship that comes from doing it together,” MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld, father of fablabs director of the Fab Academy, explained in an essay entitled “How to Make Almost Anything” for Foreign Affairs in 2012. He added, “The traditional model of advanced education assumes that faculty, books, and labs are scarce and can be accessed by only a few thousand people at a time. In computing terms, MIT can be thought of as a mainframe: students travel there for processing. Recently, there has been an interest in distance learning as an alternative, to be able to handle more students. This approach, however, is like time-sharing on a mainframe, with the distant students like terminals connected to a campus. The Fab Academy is more akin to the Internet, connected locally and managed globally. The combination of digital communications and digital fabrication effectively allows the campus to come to the students, who can share projects that are locally produced on demand.”
Fab Academy 2015, trailer for the distributed campus:
Ever since the Fab Academy was founded in 2009, it has trained its future graduates in five months (approximately 600 hours of classes, from January to June), in prototyping and various digital fabrication techniques, in its partner fablabs. In order to probe deeper into this “institution” of the digital fabrication world, we interviewed seven “fabacademics” who followed, organize or are tutors of the fab program: Brazilian “fresh grad” Kenzo Abiko (class of 2015 in Providence, USA); Tomas Diez, Spanish director of Fab Lab Barcelona and coordinator of the Fab Academy (class of 2008 in Barcelona); Romain Di Vozzo, French fabmanager of the Digiscope in Saclay (class of 2012 in Providence); Cédric Doutriaux, French fabmanager of Plateforme-C in Nantes (class of 2014 in Barcelona), Massimo Menichinelli, Italian founder of OpenP2PDesign and numerous fablabs around the world (class of 2012 at Aalto University in Finland) and an instructor ever since; Jean-Michel Molenaar, French fabmanager of La Casemate in Grenoble, student of the pre-Fab Academy in 2008 and organizer of the Fab Academy in Grenoble in 2013; Aldo Sollazzo, Italian organizer of Volumes and Woma at Fab Academy Paris 2016 (class of 2014 in Barcelona).
Origins of the Fab Academy
Tomas Diez recalls: “In 2008, the FAB5 international fablab festival was supposed to be held in India but was postponed to 2009. We worked over the summer to define the contours of the Fab Academy with Neil Gershenfeld, Haakon Karlsen, Vicente Guallart and others. By autumn, version 0 was ready to begin for a three-month session.” For Jean-Michel Molenaar, before the Fab Academy, there were only “bootcamps, intense training in digital fabrication crammed into a single week, often held at FabLab Norway.”
Everything (or almost) about digital fabrication
Today, the six-month course is entirely dedicated to mastering digital fabrication, in order to “make (almost) anything”. The Fab Academy doesn’t train students to be fabmanagers, as Jean-Michel Molenaar points out, but to learn how to go “from coding to physical objects and from physical objects to code”.
During the program, students learn various digital fabrication techniques: building and programming microcontrollers, designing composite materials, reading sensor data, using CAD software, etc.
“The Fab Academy is still currently the most comprehensive course on digital fabrication. The objective of the Fab Academy is to learn everything you need to know so that you can work in a fablab, or better, develop a project in a fablab.”
Massimo Menichinelli, class of 2012
Nevertheless, Romain Di Vozzo, who took the course at AS220 art space in Providence, remarks: “You spend all your time in the space, you meet the general public, you find yourself hosting, organizing events, organizing the fablab itself, which is also a learning experience. You become aware of everyday problems, different kinds of audiences, etc. This part of the Fab Academy is not formalized. It’s not fabmanager training in itself, but it gives a good glimpse into the work of a fabmanager.”
For Cédric Doutriaux, “the program also allows us to develop certain practices related to digital fabrication that might seem a bit obscure, such as molding and using milling machines to make molds, but also composite materials, techniques that we don’t use every day. The fablab inventory recommends surface-mount components (SMC), which aren’t too difficult to solder, fit inside a few boxes and allow you to fix more things, so we got some.”
This is not an MIT degree
While the program is based on Neil Gershenfeld’s popular course How to Make (Almost) Anything at MIT, the website’s FAQ reminds us that the Fab Academy diploma “has no institutional connection with MIT”. A recent post on the alumni discussion list emphasizes this point: “Please remove any referral to MIT on your CV’s and Bios since this is considered as fraud in relation to the Fab Academy, and will be claimed as fraud by MIT itself.”
Wednesdays with Professor Gershenfeld
The Fab Academy is therefore a technical program that tackles a different subject each week. All the course syllabi and Gershenfeld’s lecture videos are published on the dedicated website. The father of fablabs himself lectures for two hours each week via videoconference. He begins with the first hour speaking about the topic of the week, then takes student projects one by one to analyze them collectively and see what worked and what didn’t.
Each class is followed by a mini project to put the theoretical content into practice. For Cédric Doutriaux, “The course is demanding, not inaccessible, but requires a lot of work. We spend 20 to 30 hours a week doing practical work. For example, during the week of microcontroller programming, after building the microcontroller, I had to program it in Assembler, then in C, then in Arduino. We can go really deep into things. We also have to document all our work each week, which takes time but teaches us a lot.” For Kenzo Abiko, “the entire group spent 40 hours a week in the lab, because a lot of people are doing vital projects and want to give it their best.”
Each week, the course focuses on a theme that could, according to several of our interviewees, be expanded over several months. For Massimo Menichinelli, “It’s an interesting aspect of the Fab Academy. Instead of specializing in one theme, we try to understand as many as we can, with preferences, of course, for each student. While Neil lectures on theory, and local instructors give classes to structure the weeks, the learning process is mainly based on personal initiatives. We learn what we’re interested in.”
“We learn how to learn. The fields that we touch upon are very wide. Often the local instructors don’t have the answers to certain questions, but the theory teaches us where to research.”
Aldo Sollazzo, class of 2014
The last two weeks are dedicated to the final project, which must practically apply what was learned.
The documentation of all the weekly mini projects and final projects offers a very instructive database of resources. All the interviewees mentioned how the works of previous students helped them progress more quickly. Jean-Michel Molenaar reckons that “project documentation has raised the quality of final projects ever since the Fab Academy has existed”.
One, two, three Fab Academy
Currently, there are three ways to follow the Fab Academy. Some fablabs hosting the Fab Academy are supernodes, fablabs that have offered the program in previous years and have both adequate resources and very qualified tutors. Fab Academy graduates can also suggest that their fablab accommodate students. The supernodes assist these less experienced fablabs. The third option, which Cédric Doutriaux chose, is to follow the Fab Academy in a fablab where nobody has done it before. “It’s really hard, you feel a bit alone sometimes, and communicating remotely with the overcharged supernode is frustrating. Many people in my situation went to supernodes for a week at the end of the program to finish up everything and validate it.”
Tutors who are more partners than professors
Tomas Diez jokes, “More partners than professors, the tutors translate what Neil says into language that is accessible to the average Joe.” Given the extensive field of required skills, it’s difficult for them to know everything. This is where the network comes in, says Kenzo Abiko: “I really wanted to use the Grasshopper software, but our tutor didn’t have that skill, so he referred me to someone in the network in Amsterdam who was able to answer my questions.”
The network is indeed central to the Fab Academy. For Massimo Menichinelli, “The Fab Academy has always been at the heart of the fablab network. It sets standards and builds collaboration among the labs. It’s difficult to organize, but the resulting experience is worth it.” There is a dedicated discussion list for each year’s class, as well as a mailing list for alumni. Jean-Michel Molenaar says he is “more often in contact with people in Wellington, New Zealand, than with neighboring labs in Lyon. If I have a difficult question, I post it to the alumni list, and I get a quick response. The skill level is unbelievable, several hundred people have done this course.”
Tomas Diez and Aldo Sollazzo agree: “The Fab Academy is fundamental to the network. We know who is doing what, the projects develop more resources, and we know whom to turn to when we run into problems.”
$5,000 (or 5,000€) training course
The course costs $5,000 (or the same number of euros). It’s a fair amount, especially in European countries, where higher learning is indirectly subsidized and traditionally less expensive, as several interviewees reminded us. For Massimo Menichinelli, who organized the Fab Academy in Finland, “The cost is prohibitive in this country where education is free, but we found workarounds to finance the positions.” A similar refrain sounds in France: “It’s difficult to find financing.” Cédric Doutriaux is more moderate: “Training in Arduino, 3D printing, etc., cost about 300€ a day, whereas the Fab Academy lasts five months.” Romain Di Vozzo would like the program to be covered by institutional organizations, but this is not yet the case.
Everyone agrees that the Fab Academy is well worth the 5,000 $/€, whether it’s to open a fablab, become a fabmanager or find a job (which is particularly true in developing countries).
The 5,000 $/€ covers 2,500 $/€ that goes to the lab hosting the program to buy the necessary material and pay the instructors. One fourth of the remaining 2,500 $/€ goes to paying the instructors, one fourth to hosting servers, videoconferencing systems and distribution chains, one fourth to the Fab Foundation for administration, sending products, etc., and one fourth feeds a fund to create scholarships for prospective students in developing countries. In 2015, 250 students registered and 139 completed the course. In 2016, 93 fablabs host the Fab Academy, including several in France (Grenoble, Toulouse, Paris, Ajaccio and Gif-sur-Yvette).
Future (and limits) of the Fab Academy
Is the Fab Academy a model? Do our interviewees have any criticisms or suggestions to improve the course? The French wish for a more militant approach. Romain Di Vozzo would like “lectures on ‘retro engineering’ or programmed obsolescence that are written into the Fab Academy’s DNA”, to the extent that “the social potential of this course goes well beyond the techniques of lab machines”.
Massimo Menichinelli and Tomas Diez would add more design in relation to society, while recognizing that this already requires a significant amount of work. For Cédric Doutriaux, “The resources available lack curation, many open projects are often difficult to find.”
While the course has evolved to take into account new machines and technologies, several new initiatives are currently under consideration to complement the program. The six-month Fab Thesis would allow some students to change the scale of their projects, “to make them into commercial or other projects, by offering them the time to develop using the resources of the fablabs—in regards to the supply chain, design, financing, etc.,” says Tomas Diez. Such was the case with Aldo Sollazzo’s final project to build an open source drone, which “became its own project for an open source platform.”
The last initiative—and not the least—is the launch of distributed courses that follow the concept of the Fab Academy. The Academany now includes the Fab Academy, the prototype synthetic biology course How to Grow (Almost) Anything, and will soon host a program to build your own modular machines.