Among the landscape of French makers, the Artilect FabLab is something of an old hand. Launched back in 2009 in Toulouse, the organisation was the first of its kind in France, In just 6 years, the FabLab has seen significant growth. At the FabLab Festival, we met the Fabmanager premises manager, Philippe Semanaz.
Among the aisles at the FabLab Festival it was difficult to catch Philippe Semanaz’ attention above the noise of the 3D printers and drone races. Organised by Artilect (where he is the Fabmanager), the event brought together the majority of French FabLabs. A key date for the movement - 5 years on from the very first FabLab in France in Toulouse. As the oldest FabLab in France, Artilect organised the event. Today, the organisation has attracted a host of curious individuals making it the benchmark venue for digital manufacturing in Toulouse, Philippe Semanaz remembers the early days of the FabLab.
"There were about ten of us. We used to meet on Monday evenings in a small room in the university."
Artilect attracts a wide public from real technophiles to those who are simply curious. They come to see how, thanks to FabLabs, ideas are born and made a reality by the machines. Everyone is free to develop their own project using FabLab resources. And while we don’t always have the right skills, we do have the willingness to create and share ideas. Key figures of the FabLab, the volunteers are the link between the various skills required to initiate projects.
Discovering the digital world
Educating and raising awareness is a FabLab priority. In order to provide a wider range of people with access to its infrastructures i.e. other than the makers, the association has set up the Open FabLab project. Supported by the FabLab Solidarity Programme, Artilect welcomes marginalised people and encourages them to discover the FabLab universe as well as new digital manufacturing techniques. In collaboration with various charitable organisations (Mission Locale, Apprentis d’Auteuil, etc.), the project team works hard to raise awareness among young people, a group that is often demotivated by traditional approaches and very far from the world of FabLabs.
The Open Fab Lab programme requires special planning. During the sessions, the FabLab premises and access to the machines are reserved for the beneficiaries. This gives them a really immersive expereince in the FabLab. They can learn, share ideas and practice alongside the volunteers, who help run the sessions. While it can be complicated in the beginning, the young people generally adopt the FabLab philosophy to complete their project, explained Philippe Semanaz.
"Initially it’s about making a piece. Doing something and then actually making something."
After the sessions, some programme beneficiaries return to take part in the open sessions. It is still too early to tell if they will continue to return to the FabLab but certain youngsters have already joined the association. They have become full Artilect members and are now passing on the skills they learned from other FabLab members.
>>> Photos taken during an Open FabLab programme session
Like the FabLab movement, Artilect has grown significantly over the past few years. The FabLab premises have grown too and the association has a turnover of around 250,000 Euros generated from its activities. Awareness of and visits to the association have also increased. In order to manage this growing number of visitors, the association counts on it members.Certain visitors have become volunteers and without them the FabLab would not be able to open every day Today, FabLab focuses it activities around two hubs. The FabLab Pro, to encourage the emergence of innovative digital projects and the ’classic’ Fab Lab, which organises projects similar to Open FabLab projects.
Due to these developments and a lack of time and resources, large-scale FabLab projects have become increasingly rare. It is extremely difficult to welcome increasing numbers of visitors while reserving all the machines for a large project. Small communities have formed within the association working on specific projects. But for Philippe Semanaz, it is not impossible to have large visitor numbers and a large-scale project.
"In the beginning we worked on large-scale projects. That’s how FabLab got started."
Despite these teething problems, the FabLab has remained what it always was: a new type of venue for mediation, digital education and its benefits. And even if things change, the association will adapt constantly while retaining its collaborative practices. In brief, Artilect perfectly sums up the FabLab philosophy: learning through sharing and expereince.