In an unassuming studio near the border of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, you’ll find shelves littered with a smattering of objects that look like they were teleported from a sci-fi film.
We spot a seemingly nonsensical clear plastic cylindrical object with multiple gears built into its core… It’s actually a prototype of a solar power concentrator aimed at making solar panels more energy efficient, explains Wolf Jeschonnek, Fab Lab Berlin‘s General Manager. And that rugged palm-sized neon green sculpture? It’s a 3D map of Switzerland – not based on the country’s physical topography, but rather, on values of pollution. Both objects were produced by 3D printers in his lab.
In July, Jeschonnek along with Nicolai Hertle and Murat Vurucu opened Berlin’s first Fab Lab – an open fabrication laboratory set up to help individuals, entrepreneurs and companies “turn ideas into products”. The “digital fabrication” workshop offers 3D printers, laser cutters, design software as well as a vinyl cutters “to make (almost) anything you want”. The goal? “To build the Star Trek replicator,” says Jeschonnek earlier this month in a talk at the MaketechX Conference.
Bringing an open prototyping and development lab to Berlin
After graduating design school, Jeschonnek worked on an education project that focused on sustainability and how students can design/create their own products in order to be less dependent on mass-produced objects. While working on this, he noticed a gap in the German capital…
“We would’ve needed a Fab Lab for the project but there was none, so we ended up working with a school and travelling to my old university for the prototyping and production part,” he recalls. “After that experience, I thought: Berlin is missing a Fab Lab.”
Fab Lab Berlin is part of an international network that originated as an outreach project from MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms. Its aim is to provide widespread access to the tools and environment needed for invention and to stimulate local entrepreneurship. The Fab Lab network reportedly spans 30 countries and 24 times zones – with spaces in rural India to inner-city Boston and, now, Berlin.
“The nice thing is that you don’t have to ask MIT for permission to start a Fab Lab, they came up with the concept but because it’s grassroots, it’s very hard to control,” says Jeschonnek. “Every Fab Lab is a little different depending on the team that starts build it. They always have a different focus.”
Ultimately, the focus is “digital fabrication”
With the abundance of spaces in Berlin offering workshops and equipment for entrepreneurs and the maker community, it’s easy to confuse Fab Lab with the likes of coworking spaces such as Betahaus – so what’s the difference?
“Betahaus has a very good wood workshop and they have two 3D printers, as far as I know, but they are missing a lot of other digital equipment,” says Jeschonnek. “One of the very few rules we have is if you want to offer a workshop, it has to have a connection to ‘digital fabrication’.”
At the core, digital fabrication is the ability to produce physical things from digital files. So if you’re interested in providing solely a knitting or papier mâché workshop, Fab Lab Berlin is not the place to do it. However, “if it’s an electronics textiles workshop but there is knitting involved and you connect the textiles to a micro-controller” – then there’s the digital fabrication link.
The studio is oriented towards four groups – companies that need to test and develop their products, individuals who need resources and a network for a project, students and researchers. Jeschonnek hopes Fab Lab Berlin will act as a platform allowing innovations to travel between these groups.
For startups and budding entrepreneurs, Fab Lab seems to be most useful as a place to begin building a prototype. But it’s not limited to product development and testing, says Jeschonnek.
“We’ve been building, and are still building, a network of partners in Berlin. Almost everything you can do here, we have a partner that does it professionally,” he adds. “If you want to build a circuit, you can prototype it here but if you want to take it to the next level then we can recommend you a design and production service for circuits directly. The same goes for laser cutting and production.”
What’s next for Fab Lab Berlin?
At the moment, Fab Lab Berlin is focused on offering its studio on a project basis and doesn’t have a huge amount of space to accommodate startups, but it’s on the roadmap…
“At this stage our capabilities are a bit limited. We want to grow, especially in terms of working with startups. From the technological angle we’re set up very well because our workshop is very well-equipped and there’s people who can really help you make what you want,” says Jeschonnek.
“If you have a plan on what you want to make, you can come, make it and then leave again. But we don’t really have a coworking area where you can have a desk for a couple of days for a project that takes longer. That’s the next step…”