The Story of Fabman

Today, I’d like to tell you the frightening story that inspired us to invent Fabman. Think of it as a cautionary tale, a warning to anyone who’s going down the same path. Please, don’t repeat our mistakes!

Don’t leave your baggage laser cutter unattended

It was the spring of 2011. We had recently moved Happylab – the first Fab Lab in Austria – from its damp cellar to a shiny, freshly renovated space in the heart of Vienna. On a particular day, one of our members was working on a new design – using our brand-new laser cutter. At noon, he must have felt hungry and, since the laser cutter was humming along peacefully, thought it would be safe to let the machine do its job and go for lunch. What could go wrong?

When he returned, six fire engines were blocking his way back to the lab. The firefighters were already getting ready to leave again, having just dealt with a serious blaze inside.

Our first laser cutter, after the fire.

What happened? The laser cutter’s axis had gotten stuck, causing the laser to work on the same spot for a prolonged period. The plexiglass caught fire, followed by the laser cutter’s lid, followed by the whole ceiling. My co-founder Karim was in the lab’s office when it happened. He only noticed the fire when the power went out because the electrical wiring in the wall was starting to melt.

Thankfully, no one came to harm, but the laser cutter was beyond repair, and large parts of the lab were burned, charred, or covered in soot. We were devastated. We’ve always taken great care to educate members about the risks of using and misusing makerspace equipment. So we’d never thought something like this could happen. But then: who does?

Expect the unexpected

We decided then and there that something needed to be done. We wanted to prevent such incidents from ever occurring again. One option was to reduce opening hours and make sure that one of us was always babysitting every person in the lab. But this would have limited both our flexibility and that of our members – and would have made Happylab way less customer-friendly. We needed a better solution.

We wanted to make sure that people always kept an eye on their machines. After some initial brainstorming and prototypes, we settled on putting a device between the machine and its power supply, enabling us to control when – and by whom – the machine was turned on and off. That was the birth of Fabman. Members would need to authenticate themselves every few minutes – so they could never wander off too far – or the device would cut off the machine’s power. It works just like the Dead Man’s Switch in a train.

The first version of what we now call the Fabman Bridge was quickly put together. We laser-cut a box out of plywood and put an Arduino inside. It worked great! It immediately reduced our operational overhead while making our makerspace much safer. A real win-win.

From there, we kept expanding the system whenever new challenges popped up, adding features like access control for doors, equipment reservations, and automatic billing. After some time, we needed only a single lab manager to oversee the operation of the entire Happylab Vienna – with more than 1700 members and 24 / 7 access!

Helping others

Over the years, lots of people from other Fab Labs around the world came to visit us, many of them facing the same problems we did. When they saw our solution they wanted it, needed it, for their labs.

But the system was never intended for others. It was built solely around Happylab’s needs. A bunch of scripts, expanded as needed, grown over time. It wasn’t flexible or scalable, at all. But several lab managers kept nudging us to turn our solution into a product – until we finally agreed: in early 2016, we founded Fabman.

Evolution of our bridges: from the first prototype to the latest version.

We had to rebuild the whole software from scratch, on a proper foundation. We had to develop a better Bridge hardware that any makerspace could use. And we made sure to include a powerful, open API so that everyone could adjust Fabman to their needs and create custom integrations.

Growing up

Since then we’ve continued to refine the Fabman Bridge. And we kept improving the software platform, continually releasing new versions. We’re constantly looking for ways to make Fabman more useful. For instance, we’ve recently introduced QR-Codes as an alternative to RFID cards for member authentication.

Today, over 60 other labs and spaces around the world use Fabman to improve their efficiency and safety. In a way, it has become the operating system for fab labs, covering all the important safety and administrative needs they have.

But that’s our story. How are you addressing these needs in your makerspace? Let us know in the comments, and feel free to sign up for a free trial to see how Fabman can help you!

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New in Fabman: Booking info on bridge displays (and more)

The holiday season is in full swing and it’s time for us to deliver a few presents before the year comes to an end.

Over the next few days we’ll roll out a firmware update to all Bridges. Here’s what this update will bring – plus a few other improvements we made in the past month.

Booking information on the Bridge

Imagine you just arrived at the lab. You go to the laser cutter, unpack your materials, set everything up. And when it’s finally time to switch on the machine, it doesn’t work because it’s currently booked – or out of order. Super frustrating.

From now on, we’ll show this information on the bridge display at all times – not just when you try to switch it on.

The laser cutter is currently booked The laser cutter is out of order

Scan the QR code for quick access to the machine’s booking calendar – or get more info about what’s broken and when it will be fixed.

As soon as we implemented this, we were wondering why we hadn’t done it earlier. And there’s more! From now on, you also see if there’s an upcoming booking within the next 24 hours:

Next booking (today) Next booking (next day)

So you’ll know exactly how much time you have left before it someone else’s turn.

Remembering your scroll position

Another one of those “Why didn’t we do this earlier” moments: All Fabman apps now remember your scroll position when you jump back and forth between long lists.

Previously, you had to find your position in the list every time you navigated back: Before

Now it will stay exactly where you were: After

Seems obvious, right? Well, it’s not as easy as it seems to get this behavior right in modern, dynamic web apps – especially in “infinite” lists like the activity log. But we did it. And we hope you like it.

Other changes

As always, we’ve also released several other improvements and fixes over the past month:

We’re also working on some bigger improvements for the new year. Stay tuned and follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates.

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Starting your own makerspace

So, you’ve decided you want to open a makerspace? Great! Thirteen years ago, Karim and I started our first makerspace, which has now grown to more than 2000 members and branched into two other cities!

Me, giving an introductory course at our lab in Vienna

Over the years, we made a lot of mistakes – but also learned a few things. In this article I’ll try to share what we know to help you kickstart your makerspace, fab lab or hackerspace.

First, define your makerspace concept and business model

Before you begin excitedly searching for a new location or machines to buy, let’s take a step back and make sure you have the basics straight:

  1. Whom are you building this makerspace for?

    This is the most important question! What audience will you cater to? Are you opening a makerspace for students? For hobbyists? For professionals? Entrepreneurs? All of the above?

    Once you know the answer: find a few of them, and straight-up ask them! What are their needs and pains? Listen to what they have to say and then ask yourself: how can your makerspace match these needs? It’s never too early to start talking to your customers.

  2. What’s your business model?

    Do you want to be a for-profit or a non-profit? How are you planning to raise money? There might be funds and public loans you can apply for.

    How will you get recurring revenue to keep the lights on? Will you charge a flat membership fee, charge for machine usage, add a booking fee? Will you sell materials? How will your users pay you? Cash? Is a tip jar enough or do you need to offer card payments? How will you handle billing?

    Whatever you decide on, Makerspace management tools like Fabman can handle many of these aspects and help you bring your business model to life.

Don’t repeat mistakes: Connect with other makerspace owners!

Go out and take a look at what’s already there. Visit a few makerspaces and get the full tour. Have a chat with their lab managers and find out how they do things. The makerspace community is a tight-knit bunch, and usually happy to share a few “trade secrets”. Plus, it helps to compare notes, as you may potentially end up cooperating with them or complementing each other’s’ offerings. In this ecosystem, a collaborative network is far more common than stiff competition.

Opening of our third lab in Berlin

Location, location, location

If you feel you’ve got a solid concept for how your makerspace will work, let’s think about where! A few considerations you should keep in mind:

Teamwork makes the makerspace dream work

You’ll probably start to set up your makerspace with a few colleagues or friends. However, once your space grows, you’ll want to think about expanding that team.

One of the key roles you’ll need to fill is the lab manager – the on-site superhero. He or she is the one ensuring every machine is working, every member is satisfied, and in general, nothing is burning to the ground – which can happen. 😭 Your lab manager needs to know more about the makerspace than anyone else. They need to be someone with technical know-how and social skills. Someone with design chops, creativity, and a healthy sense of responsibility. Easy, right?

Well, at least Fabman can help you manage a huge community with just a tiny team, so you’ll only have to find one or two superheroes, not five. For instance, Happylab in Vienna keeps 1700 members happy with one lab manager. How? By letting Fabman handle membership management, access control, member training, maintenance, billing, and invoicing.

Important: Don’t forget to consider gender balance when expanding your team. Not only is this crucial for society but also for reaching a wider audience and creating a diverse, healthy community.

And remember: you can source a lot of help from your community. Many people are more than willing to volunteer their time for a cause they’re passionate about. This probably won’t replace a full-time lab manager but it can be a great help for workshops, events, and training courses.

Time for some inventory

It’s time to think about machines! Laser cutters, 3D printers, and CNC mills are the workhorses of many makerspaces. But it all depends on your target audience. Always remember what the Makerspace Playbook says:

Equipment lists are as individual as the space and its members.

This topic is complex enough to warrant its own article. Follow us on Twitter or Facebook to get notified when it’s available.

Take your makerspace to the next level

What makes great makerspaces great is not just their machines and location, but the community they’ve built. Don’t forget that as you set out to create your own. There’s no easy step-by-step guide to building communities, but some useful ideas might be:

Don’t worry if you still have lots of open questions or feel a little overwhelmed! Use the resources at your disposal, talk to people who’ve been there, and don’t be afraid to go your own path.

Looking forward to hearing from your successful makerspace in the not-too-distant future. Got questions or feedback? Leave us a comment below!

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New in Fabman: Member filters, group memberships, one machine per member

Here’s what we’ve added to Fabman since the last announcement:

New filters for the member list

We’ve added a few additional options to filter your member list. You can now filter by permissions (admin, owner, or normal member) and whether they have any active packages:

Member billing page

Paying for other members

There’s also a new option when adding or editing members: Who’s paying for that member? With this you can set up family packages or company accounts, where one member pays for others.

Member payment options

This connection will be shown both on member’s detail page as well as their Charges & invoices page.

Member detail page for members who doesn’t pay themselves

All charges caused by these members (like usage fees or recurring package fees) will be created for the paying member. But you’ll always see where these charges are coming from:

Charges created for other members

Prevent members from using certain machines in parallel

You can enable a new restriction on bridges to prevent one person from using multiple machines at the same time. This is really useful if you want to prevent one member from…

Here’s how it works: Enable the new bridge option Exclusive equipment for every equipment that you want to restrict:

Exclusive equipment option

Every member can only use one exclusive equipment at any time. If they try to switch on another exclusive equipment while the first one is still running, they will be denied.

But they can still run all other machines in parallel. So they can still use the laser cutter while the 3D printer labors on their 16 hour print job.

Other changes

As always, we’ve also released several other improvements and fixes:

Give these improvements a try and let us know what you think! What do you like? What’s missing?

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New in Fabman: Self-service payments, big billing overhaul & SCA support

Over the past weeks we invested a lot of time into improving billing and payments in Fabman. Here’s a quick look at some of the features we’ve just launched.

Members: pay invoices & update payment method

From now on, members can pay their invoices directly from the member portal:

Member billing page

They can also update their saved payment method – so they don’t have to bother you every time their credit card expires.

All you need to do is connect your space to a Stripe account and invite your members to your member portal.

Retrying failed payments and Strong Customer Authentication

If a payment cannot be completed for any reason, you can now send the member a link to a payment page where they can retry the payment with their current payment method (or enter a different one):

A pending payment Payment page for members

Why all this effort? Starting September 14, there’s a new set of reasons for payments to require your members’ attention: Due to the EU’s new Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) requirements, banks may reject even authenticated, recurring payments from time to time. If that happens, users need to explicitly confirm the transaction using techniques like 3D Secure (also known by brand names like Visa Secure, Mastercard Secure Code, or Identity Check). These SCA requirements are also the reason why many European banks have forced users to switch from SMS TAN to other authentication schemes in recent months.

But we’ve got you covered! If a transaction is rejected, simply click the “Send email” button or copy & paste the payment link and they can confirm the transaction within a few seconds. This works regardless of whether you’ve set up your member portal or not. You don’t need to invite your members to the member portal. They simply have to click the link to confirm the payment.

This process is also useful if their credit card expired or has insufficient funds. Just send them a link so they can update their payment method and retry the payment.

Improved invoice list and a new payment list

In order for you to have a better overview over your invoices and payments, we’ve updated the invoice list, making it easier to see unpaid, overdue and dunned invoices:

Improved invoice list

We’ve also added a list of all payments with various filters, to help you keep track of your payments:

New payment list

UI improvements

We’ve taken this opportunity to re-think some of our UI design decisions. We’ve cleaned up all our list views and tables and improved several detail views. No big redesign, but little improvements here and there.

Some examples:

Other changes

As always, we’ve released several other improvements and fixes. Here are the most important ones, if you’re curious:

Give these improvements a try and let us know what you think! What do you like? What’s missing?

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