This article was published in our newsletter. Sign up here.
How do scientists share their knowledge? Normally they meet at conferences, give lectures, publish papers or get together over a cup of coffee. Rarely do they communicate beyond the boundaries of the research community. Things are a bit different at the Fab Lab in the German capital. Here in Berlin, in a temporary flat-roofed building in the grounds of a former brewery in the city’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg district, knowledge is shared beyond the confines of the proverbial ivory tower: between scientists and amateurs and between start-ups and developers from established companies.
Meeting place for people with ideas
“The Fab Lab is a kind of knowledge hub”, is how its managing director Daniel Heltzel describes it. Everyone who enters contributes something, and everyone who leaves takes something away with them. Heltzel cites Meetup as an example, an app which allows people with similar interests to arrange get-togethers at the Fab Lab. “When a textile researcher visited us and gave a lecture about integrating sensors in textiles, an entrepreneur from a mobility services start-up and a textile design student were in the audience. The student landed herself an internship while the start-up entrepreneur left with the knowledge he needed for his idea of incorporating sensors into the chassis of a car. Meanwhile, the textile researcher found out a lot about how to market new ideas.”
Where innovative 3D printers are developed
Besides occasional guests such as these, the Fab Lab also has regular visitors – including the developers at a start-up called Next Dynamics. They have rented workspace at the Fab Lab and are building an innovative 3D printer that will be able to print conductive material.
Others simply pay a monthly charge to use only the machines: 3D printers, high-precision laser cutters and specialised CNC routers for electronic components. Some high-tech machines in the laser lab, woodworking shop or textiles lab require an introductory briefing. For instance, anyone wishing to use the high-resolution 3D printer to produce prototypes up to a metre in size needs to book a training session with a “rapid prototyper”. These tend to be students doing an internship at the Fab Lab, though they may also be self-employed product designers and engineers.
New labs are being created
Fab Lab users have access not only to high-tech equipment but also to conventional tools such as jigsaws, hammers and sewing machines. That said, the loom and knitting machine in the textiles lab have been specially fitted with a digital interface so that weaving and knitting patterns can be run directly from a USB stick.
The lab, which has something of an improvised look to it, will soon be transformed into a textile prototyping lab. In cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin, the Weißensee Academy of Art Berlin and two textile research institutes based in the state of Saxony, the STFI in Chemnitz and the TITV in Greiz, the Fab Lab is establishing a materials database in which textile designers will be able to find any function they require.
The Fab Lab’s equipment will be brought up to date with a fully-automatic Jacquard loom and a printer for electronic materials. “Software will give users access to other resources in the research institutes”, says Daniel Heltzel, explaining the project supported by Germany’s federal research ministry.
It remains to be seen which other spin-offs the knowledge hub in Berlin will produce in the future. But one thing is clear: anyone wishing to get involved must be willing to share – indeed must be passionate about sharing. “People here become members, like in a commune”, says Daniel Heltzel. “Even for those of us who work here, the pay is secondary – what we love above all is the dynamism with which knowledge is created here.”