/ News Yoda is one of Makers' favorite figure for 3D print. © John Biehler - CC

Life in lab mode

These spaces dedicated to digital fabrication and open hacking (of electronic objects) are multiplying. With more than 400 geolocated addresses, Makery’s lab map shows the movement’s popularity, at least in France (by cross-referencing data and systematically verifying if the fablab, makerspace or biohacklab is indeed open, if its address is correct… needless to say, a work-in-progress).

In a little less than two years, fablabs have grown from around 50 worldwide to 360 fablabs officially recognized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The number of hackerspaces listed on hackerspaces.org has increased from 1127 in 2012 to 1754 in spring 2014.


At La Paillasse in Paris, FlyLab presents its project during the open house in June 2014. © DR

La Paillasse, “community laboratory for citizen biotechnologies” is an example of the “lab” movement’s dynamics. Founded in 2011 within one of Paris’ oldest hackerspaces, /tmp/lab, La Paillasse moved into its 750 m2 space in Paris in May 2014—appealing to the generosity of Kisskissbankers to pay the deposit on the space, which will open to the public in September 2014. In Lyon (La Paillasse Saône), Grenoble, and even in Switzerland: “Based on our model, the science department opened a 1,000 m2 already furnished lab, UniverCity, in Renans, near Lausanne, Local communities of bio-hackers inspired by La Paillasse work with us. A community and multidisciplinary citizenlab of 1000 m2, UniverCity, is under development in Renens near Lausanne, and we will soon have an extension of La Paillasse in Manille”, says Adrien Clavairoly, neurobiologist and La Paillasse member. (Update: details of the UniverCity project have been sent to us from Switzerland).

Thomas Landrain (La Paillasse) on DiY bio (2013, TEDxParisUniversité):

The origins of the movement

Labs have proliferated for a number of reasons. To understand them, we need to return to the origins of the movement. In the late 1990s at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), professor Neil Gershenfeld advanced his theory on the next phase of the digital revolution: personal fabrication. In 2001, he imagined the concept of the fablab (contraction of “fabrication laboratory”), drafted a charter of this provision of digital fabrication tools for all, and created the Fabfoundation. He then toured around the world, touting its merits—with much success. Watch how he explains the potential of fablabs in 2007 in a TED conference.

Neil Gershenfeld, “The beckoning promise of personal fabrication” (2007):

If the term fablab was indeed born at the prestigious MIT, it’s not the case of the DIY movement (Do It Yourself), which catalyzed the current frenzy around shared personal fabrication. Makers are hobbyist coders who have moved on to a form of material artisanry. They learn how to do alone and collectively what an entire production chain would have been responsible for up to now. Uprooting the industries (music, gaming, design, environmental, etc), their fabricated objects mix technique, pure electronics (circuit welding) and open software (whose source code is open, allowing for appropriation, improvement and exchange).

Once online activists, DIYers have moved on to “physical” activism. Using social networks, they offer alternatives to closed design. “The DIY and Diwo (Do It With Others) movements exist because hacktivists not only need each other but they also need to return to the raw materials, whether it’s electronic components or gardening,” explains Taiwanese artist Shu Lea Cheang, member of the international collective Re:Farm the City.

Up until the 1990s, 3D printers were nothing but a designer’s dream, an industrial object so costly that it was impossible to imagine any kind of democratization. However, zealots, researchers and open software activists launched the same revolution as personal computing: the promise of open source democratic and cheap 3D prototyping is now a reality. The 3D printer, like the inkjet printer that we know, reads a file before printing. Instead of “jetting” the ink on paper, it identifies the 3D images and transforms them into objects. Chris Anderson describes the way they work: “Some extrude layers of melted plastic, others use a laser to harden layers of powdered or liquid resin in order to make the product emerge from a pool of raw materials. Still others can produce objects from any material such as glass, steel, bronze, titanium or even pastry frosting.”


MakerBot, one of the 3D printer models designed from RepRap’s open source diagrams. © Tony Buser – CC

RepRap (Replication Rapid prototyper) is a concrete example of the DIY printer: this rapid prototyping machine was designed in 2006 in a lab at Bath University by Britsh mechanical engineer Adrian Bowyer, who then made the blueprint freely accessible on the Internet. This machine is but one among many prototypes of 3D printers, but it has also become one of the most popular, thanks to its huge self-replicating quality. As Bowyer defends his principles of sharing and horizontal distribution, RepRap’s potential scares or fascinates capitalists and artists, while millions of videos posted on YouTube are tutorials to produce pretty much everything and anything with them (from hordes of Star Wars figurines to entirely customizable design objects).

Adrian Bowyer and the RepRap project (2010):

For largely a decade, digital fabrication tools have multiplied (thanks in part to the notion of open source, which in opposing the idea of intellectual property, allowed each engineer to create their own tools based on research done by the community). Digital milling machines cut objects out of a block of plastic, wood, metal. These digitally controlled machines can just as well cut out signs as fabric or vinyl. The laser cutters use a powerful laser to carve into 2D materials, in order to design 3D objects like Lego. The 3D laser can scan any object in order to create a 3D image (the same ones that are used to make video games or special effects in disaster movies).

As the tools become accessible to a greater audience, we see a growing number of tutorials, websites for exchange, books, Maker Faire (the first Paris edition took place on June 21-22, 2014 at 104) and even festivals and exhibitions (in Japan, France, UK, United States…)

However, the emergence of the labs goes well beyond a mere increase in their members. As Chris Anderson reminds us, “What was once a cultural movement—a fascination for new digital prototyping tools and a desire to extend the online phenomenon to the real world—is also becoming an economic movement.” From institutions to corporations, the appeal is growing.

If the first makers’ projects were supported by participative funding (according to Anderson, 12,000 projets in 2011 were granted 100 million dollars), investors are now jumping on board: MakerBot, which sold 3,500 3D printers based on RepRap in 2011, was acquired for 403 million dollars in 2013. In France, EDF, Safran/Snecma and Renault have all opened their own labs. As Fabrice Poussiere, director of Safran/Snecma fablab, recently explained on BFM TV: “The fablab is altogether transposable to the company.”

“The protocols for participative innovation have existed since the  1970s. Creativity is a great engine but evaluating the idea was unrealistic. The idea is what we need to do.” Mickaël Desmoulins, Renault Creative Lab

As more and more actors and spaces for experimentation inspired by the open workshop appear, so do the first big problems. Partisans of open software, sharing and collaborative exchange are choking on the industrial and financial “refurbishing” of open source projects. Opening labs in all kinds of places (in France, some post offices offer 3D printing, local governments in Strasbourg and Tourcoing are investing third spaces to bring together hackers, research and industry) goes well beyond the context of the initial movement. Or maybe this is just the price to pay for success?


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