Fablabs in search of a sustainable business model

By September 13, 2016

Fablabs are often run by a handful of enthusiasts, and generally enjoy only modest financial resources. The closure of the Atelier de Beauvais in northern France at the beginning of the year clearly demonstrated just how fragile is the fablab business model.

In recent years the number of open fabrication laboratories – known variously as fablabs, maker spaces or third-party spaces – operating in France has increased. Almost every city and mid-sized town in the country has seen this type of initiative emerge. Very often they are set up by a few enthusiasts in the form of a non-profit organisation and sometimes they are attached to a university or supported by the local regional council or town hall, but a fablab’s financial survival cannot be taken for granted and keeping this type of venue going over time can seem like a never-ending battle.

Given the high cost of the machines, the sometimes tiny subscription fee and machine-use expenses that fablabs charge people who come to work there, they are often simply unable to balance their books. Volunteers have to go out hunting for subsidies and they have to come up with lots of initiatives in order to acquire the machines they need, or even just to continue to exist.

Spending cuts threaten fablabs’ existence

Funding is a very real issue, as the recent closure at Beauvais has shown. A political changing of the guard led to funding for the Beauvais fablab being withdrawn and so it had to close its doors in spite of its success in terms of attracting people to work on ‘maker’ projects there. In the current environment, where local authorities are all now having to reduce expenditure, regional councils, town halls and the other usual sources of funding are increasingly reluctant to finance this sort of project over the long term.

‘Les Fabriques du Ponant’, a fablab in Brittany, north-western France, today focuses on events for schools in order to finance its activities

Romain Heller explains how he came to set up Fabriques du Ponant, a fablab in Brest, on the coast of Brittany in north-western France, which he manages: “The Brittany authorities gave us a 3-year grant intended to cover our capital investments and operating costs. The region also found us 500 m2 of space in a school.” These are pretty ideal conditions for a fablab, enabling it to pay the salaries of 1.5 full-time employees, which is very rare in this sector, where volunteer work is very often the order of the day.

In order to diversify their resources beyond the actual fablab, the Fabriques du Ponant members are currently placing a lot of emphasis on technical promotion and training, such as giving 3D printing demonstrations in schools. When the funding grant runs out after three years, the fablab plans to ask the regional council for a further subsidy but does not exclude the idea of looking for other sources of funding if their grant is not extended.

Limitations of the community approach

Quite often a fablab venture begins with discussions between hands-on ‘makers’ who simply decide to pool their personal resources. One example is TyFab, a digital workspace, again in Brest, which was set up over a drink following an information meeting at the town hall on the subject of fablabs. Explains TyFab member Arthur Wolf: “The venture was set up as part of the ‘Maison du Libre de Brest’ non-profit, because one of its members was present at the meeting and offered to take us in. We didn’t even have to set up our own organisation!” TyFab is basically just a group of people working together. Each person brought along a machine and the whole thing started up practically without any subsidies and with a very light, open organisation. However, this also has some disadvantages. The fablab has had to move five times already and the members have to stump up the cash themselves to buy new machines. “When we decide to buy a machine, we come together as individuals and purchase it jointly, so it belongs to the group as a whole. We did that for a laser-cutting machine and a milling machine this year and it worked very well,” says Wolf.

This entirely informal model does nevertheless limit a fablab’s procurement capacity. “We would have liked to buy larger machines, which would no doubt have been possible in partnership with a company or a state fund, but quite apart from the initial investment, the major issue in having larger machines is the space they require,” Wolf points out. So TyFab’s chosen approach means that it cannot access large amounts of funding, but its members are not lacking in ideas. Today they are contemplating introducing ‘machine passports’, so as to allow members of the many fablabs in the Brittany region, especially those working in the towns of Lorient, Saint Brieuc, Rennes and Auray, as well as Brest, to use each other’s machines.

The temptations of crowdfunding

Another example of the community approach is Albilab, a fablab set up in Albi, in southern France, in 2015. Albilab took advantage of a call for projects from (telecoms company) Orange Foundation , which enabled it to buy its first 3D printers. This equipment then enabled the fablab’s members to do their first promotions at the town’s media centres and during events. ACNE, an abbreviation that stands for Association for Digital Culture and Environment – founded in Albi under a French law of 1901 governing non-profit organisations – occupies premises made available free of charge by the Greater Albi authority. While ACNE does not have very high expenses, its activities do not in fact generate enough revenue to invest in new machines such as the large 3D printers and laser-cutting machines so highly prized by the ‘maker’ movement.


Wide-angle view of the Albi fablab

This is what prompted the Albi-based non-profit to launch a crowdfunding campaign on the Ulule site in October 2015 to finance the purchase of its first laser cutter. Setting out with the target of raising between €5,000 and €20,000 to buy the cutter, ACNE announced one month later that the first milestone had been reached, with €6,102 collected. This apparent success is nevertheless put into perspective by ACNE Board member Jérôme Viviès, who underlines: “It’s true that we raised over €6,000 gross, but in the end, when we had deducted our costs plus rewards to our contributors, the net amount raised through the campaign was only €3,500. So our success was rather modest and we finally decided to take out a loan to buy a larger laser cutter, which will be much more useful to our members. However, this cost €12,000.” This is a clear illustration of the difficulty of financing fablab activities. ACNE’s current strategy is to offer workshops at various venues around the town to help with the organisation’s running costs.

Non-profit fablab in tandem with commercial company

Jérôme Viviès argues that the fablabs operating in Amiens (northern France) and Toulouse (southern France) are the best models to follow. Toulouse-based Artilect was the original pioneer fablab in France. Today it boasts 1,000 to 1,200 members and – doubtless helped by the fact that in this region the economy in general and manufacturing in particular are especially buoyant – is one of the most dynamic ‘maker’ communities in the country. And in addition to the success the fablab has achieved, the Artilect Lab, an entity set up alongside the main organisation to meet the needs of companies, is the envy of very many fablab creators. “Our fablab has a wide range of users, both among the general public and from the business world, and we were having to deal with increasing demand from business people who wanted help and support with their professional ventures,” reveals Fanny Desbois, Communications Officer and one of the ‘FabConnectors’ at Artilect Lab. She explains: “It was clearly unthinkable to ask our volunteers to work for professional clients, so the idea of setting up a separate company to meet the needs of business clients gradually took hold.”

Toulouse-based pioneer French fablab Artilect has set up a separate firm in the form of an SAS – a kind of simplified limited liability company – in order to meet the needs of local companies and business people. Revenues from the SAS help the fablab to purchase new machines.

The Artilect Lab has a special legal status known as Société par Actions Simplifiées (SAS), a kind of simplified limited liability company.  The specific purpose of the SAS is to meet the needs of companies and businesses but it maintains strong links with the not-for-profit fablab. Says Fanny Desbois: “The basic idea is that the commercial company will help to support the non-profit and that we can make joint investments in equipment. The non-profit has its own model, it responds regularly to calls for projects and the aim is to be in a position to respond to those calls and obtain financing from the commercial arm.” The non-profit currently has five full-time and several part-time posts. “Artilect Lab is still in the launch phase so we’re still in start-up mode, but our intention is to be able to balance the books very soon. We’re already running projects in conjunction with the non-profit, on the publicity side, for instance, and also the first financing exercise for a new machine. We’ve just invested in a Shopbot digital milling machine, which will be useful both for our members and manufacturing firms in the region,” she underlines.

TechShop model set to catch on in France?

Meanwhile TechShop , a fablab founded in Silicon Valley in 2006 that is now established in eight cities in the United States and newly arrived in France, takes an approach that is way out of tune with the French fablabs and co-founder and former CEO Mark Hatch talks a very different game from the non-profit mindset prevailing in France. TechShop’s goal is to become market leader in serving the ‘maker’ movement but with its $150-a-month subscription fee the company seems to be targeting startup founders and project managers rather than individual makers. Hatch’s publicity material highlights for example the commercial success of his customers, who have developed such products as the mobile payment system Square and the DODOcase for the iPad – both created at TechShop workshops.

TechShop’s relatively rapid development demonstrates that its model is profitable on a US scale, but will it work elsewhere? In order to expand internationally, TechShop has set up an organisation in Ireland with the task of finding a local partner to run each new country’s fablab. This risk-sharing policy has enabled TechShop to set up in Tokyo with the support of Fujitsu, in Abu Dhabi with Innovator – an entity which benefits from the support of an Emirates innovation promotion fund – and in the Paris region with French DIY specialist Leroy-Merlin.

US TechShop has set up at Ivry sur Seine in France with the support of Leroy-Merlin; next stop Lille.

At Ivry sur Seine, TechShop and Leroy Merlin workshops provide ‘makers’ with a 2,000m2 space and over 150 machines and pieces of equipment. Most non-profit fablabs can only dream about having such facilities but for the members, or rather subscribers, of the Ivry TechShop, these rich resources come with a price tag. The least expensive subscription costs €50 a month; this gives you access to the machines on weekday mornings only. Unlimited use will cost you €180 to €300 a month, which tends to limit availability to the well-off and, to a large extent, business users.

Is a 100% commercial fablab viable in France?

Is this model viable in France, where to date no community fablab has been able to pay for its machines and equipment solely from members’ fees? TechShop and its partner Leroy Merlin seem to believe so; the second French TechShop is scheduled to open in Lille in the spring of 2017, in partnership with EuraTechnologies and the Catholic University of Lille.

Meanwhile there is another commercial fablab that seems to be on the way to balancing the books, which would be a first in France: Usine IO. Just a few steps away from the Ivry TechShop in Paris, this space opened in 2015, with the backing of a trio of French entrepreneurs: Xavier Niel, Henri Seydoux and Jacques-Antoine Granjon. Co-founder and President Benjamin Carlu argues that Usine IO is not just another fablab: “We’re not in direct competition with the fablabs. Our model is rather to help people running projects to develop actual products. We make available the technical resources, plus experts and a manufacturing network to our members to help them get to the goal of making the product,” he explains.

Commercial venture Usine IO is not positioning itself as a competitor to traditional fablabs, but rather as a facilitator of hardware projects

Usine IO has already signed up over 500 members. Given that a subscription to use the elegant Usine IO premises costs around €200 a month – a fee at which you’re not likely to attract Sunday DIY enthusiasts or ‘cosplay’ performance artists searching for a 3D printer or laser cutter, but only people running serious ventures – this is an impressive milestone. “It’s the engineer’s or inventor’s equivalent of a gym membership,” says Carlu, explaining: “A fablab enables you to learn to use a machine, whereas we at Usine IO play more of a sports coach role for people running hardware projects. We take your basic idea, help you draw up a project roadmap and put you in touch with the right people in manufacturing who’ll help you get further down the road with your product, from making the prototypes through to the launch of a production run.” Among the first products on the market to have benefited from this coaching are the Smiirl ‘Like’ Counter for Facebook, urban e-scooter ElectricMood, and – a more ambitious venture – the robot parking valet from Stanley Robotics. Benjamin Carlu’s approach appears to be bearing fruit. He claims that, two years after the launch, Usine IO is now about to achieve financial break-even.


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