Published on 9 July 2018

This year Fab14, an event that gathers fab labs from around the world, will take place July 12th to 22nd, in France. Through its FabLab Digiscope, Université Paris-Saclay will organize the FAB14+ Conference and, on July 13th, host Niel Gershenfeld, creator of the fab lab concept and the MIT MediaLab. The American researcher would like to meet the communities within our new university model.

A fab lab is a space filled with all kinds of machines, a place for experimentation frequented by a diverse audience naturally disposed to using digital technology and open to sharing knowledge. In the late 1990s, Niel Gershenfeld, the inventor of the fab lab, was a researcher at MIT. He decided to experiment with “spaces for digital and technological creation” open to all. He noticed that a diverse community could become collectively more creative and productive when everyone, whether researchers, students, teachers, or citizens, were given access to machines to test research or projects and visualize them through a fabricated object. It’s a concept full of possibility.

Rethinking how fields are traditionally structured

“The fab lab is a laboratory for digital creation based on an inventory of machines,” explains Romain di Vozzo, Director of FabLab Digiscope, the first French lab to be accredited by Niel Gershenfeld via the Fabacademy in Boston. “Whether projects are personal or professional, initiated by a researcher, a doctoral candidate, or a citizen, we accept them all. One of the main characteristics of a fab lab is that it is an inclusive place, where all practices may flourish, thanks to the availability of simple and complex machines, expensive or otherwise, and technology accessible to all users.”

Build your plane

“We tend to say that what is unique about a fab lab is that you can build the plane and fly it at the same time,” says Romain di Vozzo. “Fablabers can do anything, on the condition that they document the project for the purpose of spreading it, to ‘distribute’ it to the whole world in a spirit of empowerment. It’s one of the biggest drivers of change in society today. There are few things we really forbid in my fab lab,” quips Romain, “as long as certain rules, directly taken from the original MIT Charter (see boxout), are respected.” At his instigation, the FabLab Digiscope, originally just a storage space for technological machines squeezed between two INRIA laboratories, has become a noisy, iconoclastic, and vital space “for experimentation and innovation by and for the public.”

Merging disciplines, identifying issues, and overcoming the disappointments of modernity

Digiscope researchers who continue to carry out their work have been joined by other people from diverse disciplines within the Université Paris-Saclay ecosystem. “Fab labs have entered the post-modern era by becoming spaces where disciplines merge, since modernity has failed to deliver on its promises,” says Romain di Vozzo. “It has divided everything, compartmentalized everything. To the contrary, we must merge everything together, return to basic, essential behaviors,” he continues. In other words, collaborations that arise between Fablabers are not limited to their respective fields, professional expertise, or position. The person who makes his or object simultaneously creates a market for it: the fab lab enhances knowledge when it is shared, enables local production, and challenges thinking based on elitism and mass-production.

FabLab or FacLab?

Romain always asks first-time visitors to the FabLab Digiscope the same questions: Who are you? What do you want to do? Clearly, “the do-it-yourself approach originates mostly from within non-profit and slightly ‘punk’ fringes of society, and not so much from the classic, elitist higher-education track,” Romain di Vozzo willingly admits. And yet, he has observed that university fab labs are the most stable in the world, as they are based on technological experimentation practices deeply rooted within academic research laboratories. To ensure the long-term survival of the Université Paris-Saclay fab lab, trust-based connections that unite the original audiences—university students, doctoral candidates, and teacher-researchers—must continue to be cultivated, while expanding on what has made the fab lab successful with other audiences in the area. Consequently, a project to turn to the FabLab into a research laboratory in its own right is being studied.

Boxout The Fab Lab Charter

What is a fab lab?
Fab labs are a global network of local labs, enabling invention by providing access to tools for digital fabrication and a large close-knit community.

What's in a fab lab?
Fab labs share an evolving inventory of core capabilities to make (almost) anything, allowing people and projects to be shared.

What does the fab lab network provide?
Operational, educational, technical, financial, and logistical assistance beyond what's available within one lab.

Who can use a fab lab?
Fab labs are available as a community resource, offering open access for individuals as well as scheduled access for programs.

What are your responsibilities?

  • Safety: Not hurting people or machines
  • Operations: assisting with cleaning, maintaining, and improving the lab
  • Knowledge: contributing to documentation and instruction

Who owns fab lab inventions?
Designs and processes developed in fab labs can be protected and sold however an inventor chooses but should remain available for individuals to use and learn from.

How can businesses use a fab lab?
Commercial activities can be prototyped and incubated in a fab lab, but they must not conflict with other uses; 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.