Audio: Gespräch mit Jaap vom Fab Lab Truck

Hier ist der Mitschnitt eines Gesprächs mit Jaap letzten Freitag vor der Kogge. Darin erzählt er, wie er mit der Fab-Lab-Idee in Berührung kam, was ihn motiviert, was er vorhat und was die Fab-Lab-Bewegung für ihn bedeutet. Länge: 22:37 min.

Gespräch mit Jaap (mp3)

Wer das Ganze lieber lesen will, kann auch die Abschrift des Gesprächs auf Englisch lesen (dazu weiter klicken).

Gespräch mit Jaap Vermaas
vom Fab Lab Truck –
Bernhard-Nocht-Straße, St.Pauli, 6. August 2010

nbo: First thanks again for coming to Hamburg, it’s great. I think you will have seen that everybody is really thrilled by what’s possible in the truck.

The Fab Lab idea is a few years old. What gave you the idea to put it into a truck and make it mobile?

Jaap: Well, I’ve been doing mobile stuff in the last few years anyway. I bought an old truck, restored it and made a cinema and mobile hack lab inside. So going from a mobile hack lab to a mobile Fab Lab was just a small step for us. The truck was already equipped with solar panels and battery power, so it’s suitable for a Fab Lab as well.

Then last year I was building a 3D printer in one of the Fab Labs in the Netherlands and I thought, hey maybe it’s nice if we try to make this mobile as well.

nbo: And which one, which printer – a Makerbot?

Jaap: No, I built a RepRap 3D printer. The Makerbot is like a kit, you can buy it completely. With RepRap, you have to make everything yourself. We did it with a group of people, we built eight RepRaps at the same time.

nbo: Eight?!

Jaap: But that was easier than building one. We could share the work. Most of the time when you have the tools in your hand anyway it doesn’t matter if you make eight or one.

nbo: So you have been involved with the Fab Lab scene in the Netherland with that project?

Jaap: Yes, that’s the way I got in touch with the people running the Fab Labs. I’d seen people working with fab equipment before in different locations, but I hadn’t used the machines myself before I started a 3D printer.

nbo: What has been your experience when on the road with the truck so far?

Jaap: We started just a few weeks ago at the Fusion festival here in the Germany and that was really nice, because it’s a very big festival and all kinds of different people visit the festival and also the Fab Lab Truck. So people came there mostly to make T-shirts or stencils. I was amazed by the number of people who were interested in the technology and also they came to ask about 3D printing, how it works. Of course the festival is a bit too chaotic for people to sit down and make 3D designs. But we did some workshops to explain how 3D printing works and to show it a little bit. I got some emails afterwards from people who said „now I finally know how it works and I can start designing, see if I finde a printer in my neighbourhood“. Because also in Germany there’s quite a few of these printers around.

nbo: At the moment we have only one Fab Lab in Aachen, at the Technical University. In the Netherlands it’s like a virus, that’s what Ton Zijlstra said in Bremen at the Fab Lab Camp. So how come it exploded in the Netherlands, so to say?

Jaap: I don’t know exactly. But maybe one of the reasons is that in the Netherlands the people who were starting the first Fab Labs came from different parts of the Netherlands. And they started working on different Fab Labs at the same time. Not all of them happened in the end. What they made was not only a Fab Lab but also a foundation that is organising regular meetings for everybody who wants to start a Fab Lab in the Netherlands and also in Belgium. These meetings are very helpful how to run a Fab Lab, what you would need, how to negotiate with the producers of the machines and how to get funding for your Fab Lab.

So it helped the Fab Labs that started later to find the information they needed. I also found that it was a good way to find how to organise a Fab Lab. And yet they are completely different in most of the existing Fab Labs because in the mobile Fab Lab we try to use cheaper and self-made machines instead of the professional and more expensive machines. But I got a lot of help from the other Fab Labs.

nbo: In Germany some people say, or a reaction from the engineering world is mostly, that they don’t get the concept or they think it’s playing around. They don’t take it seriously. So there has to be a more open mind-set in the Netherlands. Is this because of the strong design culture in the Netherlands?

Jaap: Maybe. At least in many Fab Labs in the Netherlands design is a big part of the use of the Fab Labs. It’s also closely related to the design academies. But I think it’s also that the German technology institutes take technology too seriously instead of using these machines. In fact what the Fab Labs do is presenting the machines as toys. They are for everybody to use, it doesn’t matter if you make something serious or something playful, a piece of art or just something you want to use at home. If you make your own kitchen tools it’s also OK. It doesn’t have to be something special.

nbo: When you were building the eight RepRaps was it to just see how the technology works, or did you already have in mind – or the whole group – what you wanted to print out with these machines later?

Jaap: No, I still don’t know what to print out. What I printed till now was for a large part replacement parts for other printers and improvements of the printers. I think it’s the same with the first computers: people didn’t build computers because they needed a computer at home. They built home computers because they could – because it was new technology and something you could play with. They will get more useful. For example the Makerbot is getting more stable, you can use it actually for production purposes. Yesterday I was printing a design and it was a big ? and a bit complicated. I had to print it 3 times before it came out right.

nbo: Do you have to finish it somehow?

Jaap: You can, and for some designs it’s nice to finish it. With sandpaper or, to make it stronger, with superglue.

nbo: What are your plans with the truck? You will drive around and if you’re at home in Amsterdam you use it as your base and make stuff.

Jaap: Yes. One of the things I’m interested in is trying to improve the fab machines. Modify them in a way that it’s easy for people to build their own machines. I think it’s more important to make it easy to build than that the quality of machines is very high. You can start with machines that work – they should work, they should not break at the first time – maybe the result is less precise than on an expensive machine. But the more expensive machines are often more difficult to build yourself. So for spreading the technology I think it’s important to make it easy to build these machines and use them with open source software. So partly I want to be involved with developing the machines and partly with showing what these machines can do and bringing them to places for people to see them. A large part of what I also want to do is building the machines myself, testing them and developing them?

nbo: What’s your background that you got interested, in the first place, in doing all the stuff?

Jaap: I did a lot in computer science, was running a hack lab in amsterdam for about ten years. From this hack lab I got the idea it’s time to do the same with machines that actually make stuff instead of software.

nbo: That’s a very good move. Do you think or do you hope that even the laser-cutter which seems to be the most industrial machine so far in the truck… [Autolärm]… do you plan to build a laser-cutter on your own? I could imagine that it’s not so difficult to build it.

Jaap: Actually I see no real difficulties in building a laser-cutter. The machine itself, I would know where to get the parts for it, and – except for the laser tube itself – most of the parts are so similar to other machines that you can even make them out of recycled parts of old printers. But with a laser-cutter the laser beam is quite dangerous so what you need is a metal casing that is protecting the user a little bit. Making the metal casing is something you cannot do with the regular fab equipment because it cannot cut through metal and bending the metal is a problem. So actually having a casing made in China is a cheap alternative. But one of the nice things about the cheap Chinese laser-cutters is that when you open them and look inside all the parts they look so similar to what you find in do-it-yourself CNC shops. And the machines are also easy to reproduce.

nbo: Is any of the Dutch Fab Labs already moving into metal works?

Jaap: No, and I don’t think it’s the most important thing. There’s a lot of different machines that you could have in a Fab Lab. But the most important is that the machines are easy to use and accessible, and sometimes you need bigger and stronger machines to make what you want to make, but you can use the machines in the Fab Lab to make a prototype and then send your instructions to a bigger machine tool company that has this machine. You cannot have all the machines in the Fab Lab because there’s so many different types.

nbo: I remember that Neil Gershenfeld once told me when I made a telephone interview with him, some years ago, that ultimately he hopes one Fab Lab can reproduce itself completely.

Jaap: We’re getting close. I think the most important equipment in a Fab Lab is the laser-cutter, a 3D printer, a CNC mill – which is the opposite of a 3D printer: taking away material instead of putting it together, and a vinyl cutter. Vinyl cutters are quite easy to build yourself, 3D printers are actually at a level I would say that it’s more useful for Fab Labs to have a home-built 3D printer than having a commercial version. Because commercial versions – although their results look nicer and they have a higher resolution –, the machines take very long to make something. So the practical use of the home-made machines is actually quite high in comparison because they’re quite fast. They can make a prototype much faster than a commercial machine.

And also building your own CNC: I know that at MIT they have several designs for making a CNC yourself. I’m also building a couple of these machines at the moment. And I think that Fab Labs could now – instead of buying a machine – use a CNC that has been built in another Fab Lab.

So that leaves the laser-cutter as the only machine that I would prefer to buy at the moment.

nbo: And what do you think, how will a Fab Lab wave – at the moment it feels a bit like it’s gonna be a wave in the next years – how will it change things?

Jaap: Well what I hope and I what I think is a little bit different. What I hope is that it will make people more aware that a lot of things are quite easy to produce yourself. And instead of going to a shop and buying something new that people look into the opportunity of recycling something that doesn’t really work anymore, that needs to be repaired, to be improved. And especially if everybody who repairs or improves something puts his designs online then maybe the next person who also wants to repair the same machine or tool doesn’t need to design it himself but looks it up on the Internet and print it. Or improves it even more and print it then.

And I think that the way a lot of things are produced is very inefficient. Because every company keeps the design secret, so everybody is designing the same thing basically. All the designs that are on the Internet can be used by anybody to improve it and make something new. Maybe we can produce less and recycle more and also make the things that we use more useful or adapted to what we actually want to have.

nbo: So you’d say it’s part of becoming more sustainable?

Jaap: More sustainable but also more changing from just consuming to thinking about what do you really need and how do you want it to be. Instead of just shopping and not finding what you need but finding something that looks nice and shiny but in the end doesn’t work.

nbo: Do you think that because it’s against the common industrial production model there will be resistance at some point? For me the analogy is that once people start to share designs and also rip designs you’re coming to a situation that is similar to what has happened in music.

Jaap: As far as I’m concerned I think that the music business has lost the copyright battle and I haven’t seen musicians dying on the street, so I think that maybe some corporate businesses made less profit but I don’t think it affected the musicians. The same thing I think will happen in production. Maybe it brings back more the crafts idea of working. People are appreciated for their knowledge of how something works instead of working in a production line making the same materials all the time.

nbo: Richard Sennett has recently published a book about craft – I don’t know how the original English title is, in German it was titled „Handwerk“. I have read only interviews with him about it but I found it very interesting that somebody like him suddenly picks up this old-fashioned idea. And it’s more like hightech-craft what’s going on in a Fab Lab.

Jaap: Fab Labs encourage people both to start using old-fashioned tools again – because you cannot produce anything without a screwdriver and a hammer, you also need the normal tools – but on the other hand they make all the hightech stuff that was out of reach for normal people as far as production is concerned and suddenly make it accessible. You can make things as detailed as the production in China or Taiwan.

nbo: The advantage of having a mobile Fab Lab is that you don’t have to pay a rent…

Jaap: …that is actually not completely true because you have to park the truck somewhere.

nbo: But apart from that: does it cost a lot, electricity and materials you use?

Jaap: The machines are still quite expensive…

nbo: …but once you have them, the operations…

Jaap: I don’t know yet, because I don’t know how much it will take to maintain them. But the way I collected the machines for this Fab Lab costed a lot of time but not so much money. It was more about investing time in finding out how the machines work, building them myself with a group of people. The same with the truck itself: it was a cheap old truck but it needed half a year of welding before it was ready for the road.

nbo: But it looks lovely. It’s really great. The last question is a question we as a group here in Hamburg ask a lot of people but we might be interested in your answer: What would you like to build – some day? Even if it’s quite complicated: is there something that you say if I could do that I’d be really, really happy?

Jaap: One of the great challenges in making the Fab Labs successfull I think is building electronics because a lot of machines require part of it being electronics. And what we can make ourselves is a double sided printboard that you can then fill by hand with parts. But improving that maybe even in the long run designing your own chips or transistors, to start with, would be very nice. This is very high precision equipment, but it would enlarge the opportunities of making machines in a Fab Lab very much. To make basic electronics in a simple way.

nbo: Thanks a lot!