Á FAIRE: French Fab Labs

This article can be found translated in French here.

I was in Paris at the end of April for Ouishare Fest, a conference about the sharing economy.   I spent a Friday afternoon visiting Fab Labs in and around Paris, talking to a number of very interesting people who are very interested in the maker movement and  understanding how it might be taking shape in France today.

Héloïse, Fabrien, Camille, Dale, Véronique and Artur outside Le Petit Fab Lab in Paris
Héloïse, Fabrien, Camille, Dale, Véronique and Artur outside Le Petit Fab Lab in Paris

One thing I learned from the outset was that Fab Lab is a term of art in France, and in other parts of Europe.   While some of the Fab Labs I visited are associated with the MIT Fab Lab program, started by Neil Gershenfeld, others just prefer to use the name for whatever they mean it to be.   For the most part, the people managing and using these spaces don’t see an important distinction between Fab Labs, hackerspaces and makerspaces, using the names somewhat interchangeably.   That said, I’ve run across a few people who have very strong feelings that one is substantially different from the other.   We’ll leave that argument to others.   What’s important to me is to see these different spaces, how they foster making, and help build community.

I was simply excited to see these spaces in very different settings in Paris, which was made possible by Véronique Routin’s efforts.   I met Véronique two years ago when she was visiting San Francisco and wanted to learn more about the maker movement.   A portion of our conversation then was devoted to the rather slow emergence of making in France, as something new and distinct today from traditional forms of making.   We continued that conversation on this occasion.

We were joined by  Héloïse Beldico who was in town from Fab Lab Brazil, Fabien who works with Véronique at a “think tank” called la FING, and Camille Bosqué, a researcher who is studying the maker movement and “how the democratization of the technical sphere and the development of creative practices through material programming enables the expansion of an atypical creative field.”

La Nouvelle Fabrique

Inside an open art and performance space called CentQuatre (104) is the storefront called La Nouvelle Fabrique.  This compact fabrication shop has large windows so you you can see inside.  The main feature of the space is a large CNC machine, which was in operation.   There was a MakerBot Replicator 2 and a display case of projects, mostly cut with a CNC machine.   Vincent Guimas, one of the founders, gave me a tour of what he calls a “micro-factory for designer/producers.”  Guimas said that they want “to figure out the relationship between being a business and being an artisan.”

Dale talks to Vincent Guimas and Véronique Routin.
Dale talks to Vincent Guimas and Véronique Routin. (photo: Camille Bosqué)

A team of three was busily working on a Wikihouse project.   They were about mid-way through cutting the sections from sheets of plywood on the CNC machine.   The plan was to construct a WikiHouse that evening.  The sections were beginning to pile up.  It’s a testament to how much can be done on a CNC even in a small area.

A CNC machine cuts out panels for a wikiihouse.
A CNC machine cuts out panels for a wikiihouse.

The team behind La Nouvelle Fabrique has done a number of projects ranging from art installations to functional designs under the name Mag Lab.   The shop is a place for them to do their own work.   It is also a place where you can have something professionally made, and people walk in with designs that they’d like to have someone from the shop run.   They also offer classes for adults and Saturday morning sessions for kids.   They’ve also had a mobile version of Mag Lab.

One of their projects was railcar that generates its own power and can run on abandoned railways in a city.   “When you think about transportation,” said Guimas, “you don’t just think about new kinds of cars but also new ways to navigate the city.”

Another project that they demonstrated was a CNC portrait.

Portrait made from photo on CNC machine

Portrait made from photo on CNC machine

Vincent demonstrated a paper airplane launched made of wood.

Paper Airplane Launcher
Paper Airplane Launcher

Outside the shop is a wonderful open space with art, performances and practice for a nearby theatrical school.   Pop Shop Tokyo, a container, was also in the CentQuatre space.

CentQuatre in Paris
CentQuatre in Paris

Veronique told me, if I understood her correctly, that the entire space was once a factory for making caskets, offering employment to the deaf.

Le Petit Fab Lab de Paris

If I thought La Nouvelle Fabrique was small, Le Petit Fab Lab was even smaller.  This fab lab is not open to the public, said Artur Schmitt who gave me the tour.   Artur works for a company called NOD-A that owns a larger adjoining commercial space but decided to share with other the fabrication equipment they use in their business.

Artur Schmitt of Le Petit Fab Lab
Artur Schmitt of Le Petit Fab Lab

Instead of being open to anyone, Le Petit Fab Lab was established for people who have a project they want to develop in cooperation with others.  Artur and others help find mentors.   It is a free-form incubator, a place where experiments take place.   “We are looking for projects that are open and collaborative,” said Schmitt, indicating that they’d like to see the work from the space shared outside it.

Artur cites the price of real estate in Paris as the primary reason why it’s hard for a group to start their own makerspace.  Le Petit Fab Lab de Paris is listed on the MIT list of fab labs but it is its own thing.   Veronique Ronin commented that “fab lab is a fashionable term for spaces dedicated to making” in Europe.    Héloïse said that in Brazil people are more afraid to use the fab lab phrase informally and so there are more hackerspaces.  Camille added that “Fab Lab is really a fancy label in France for anyone to try to raise public funds.” She added: “It’s more friendly than “hackerspaces”, because here people tend to think of hackers as crackers.”

Le Petit Fab Lab really lives up to its name.
Le Petit Fab Lab really lives up to its name.

Artur explained that Le Petit Fab Lab was one of 16 Fab Labs around the world participating in FabJam ( on the coming Saturday.   “16 sites, 1 topic”, he explained to me, bringing people together to work on projects.    The theme was to be Urban Farming, exploring what kind of tools might be built to help small-scale agricultural production in urban areas.  I had announced the theme on my talk at OuiFest.

Here’s a video of what happened at FabJam.

Artur organized lunch and we sat out in a courtyard and talked about making. We ended talking about why making is struggling to take off in France, and why the conditions in the United States are perhaps uniquely different.  Now I must say that comparing one country to another can be an uncomfortable exercise, at least it is for me.   One can’t help but trade in generalizations, which may point towards the truth but are also simplifications.     Nonetheless, it is a good thing to have an open exchange of impressions and insights.    I’ll try to paraphrase the discussion.

We don’t take things on ourselves.   We wait for others, the government or society, to do it.  We can’t just go ahead and do it.   We don’t believe it’s possible.

France is not a good place for entrepreneurs.  It’s a cultural difference. Do makers have to become entrepreneurs to be successful?

I said I didn’t think so.  It was one of many options.  I can see how some makers pursue their craft, and  to be a successful artisan means you take pride in perfecting your craft.  You’re the judge of what success is, and you set your own goals, and whether commercial success is one of them.   Makers can have deeper reasons for making that aren’t measured by traditional goals around success or failure.    Some do want to turn a hobby into something that supports them.

In France you don’t want to stand out if that’s what being successful means.  The definition of success is different; it’s conferred on you by institutions.   Your credentials are what’s important — your degree, your job title, your social standing.    We’re uncomfortable with the individualism that we see in the United States.  All this makes it difficult to believe that you can do things yourself, that you can create change.

I asked if this was something they wanted to change, or rather see it stay the way it is.   It’s one thing to hope for change and identify the obstacles to change and try to overcome them.   It’s another to resist change.   Someone laughed, as if to say — “see that’s how you Americans think.”   But I did get a clear sense that they wished it were different, that they felt more empowered themselves to do things.   I mentioned Kickstarter.

We would have difficulty raising money to do things.    Kickstarter works in the United States but it hasn’t taken off in France.

Giving money to fund a project is not what we think we should do.    We think that’s what government should do.   We don’t sponsor or donate money as individuals.   So Kickstarter doesn’t make sense to us.  The amounts that are raised in the US seem intimidating, setting a high bar for success.   Nonetheless, they noted a French startup got a PO Box in the US to qualify for running a Kickstarter campaign.   There is a similar site called KissKissBankBank.

All this makes it harder for us.

Matilde Bercheron described KissKissBankBank as “pretty successful for France with 6.5M dollars invested by French backers so far.”

I found myself saying that it is not so easy in the US as it might seem from the outside.   If all you hear about are success stories, you don’t hear about the many failures.    While I’d like to believe that many people in the US feel that they can do things for themselves, not everyone does so.   We have those who also conform to what others expect of them, who express their own value in terms of a job title or a degree, or how much money they make.   Maybe we’re not so different as it might seem.

I also felt that they equated entrepreneurialism with capitalism.    I tried to explain that many entrepreneurs see themselves as pitted against large companies, who don’t innovate fast enough.   It’s an opportunity to challenge them that’s exciting, not necessarily the prospect of becoming one of them.   The worst view of capitalism is that everyone is out for themselves, driven by greed and self-interest.   That seems to be how some Europeans understand America, and the pursuit of individual goals at the expense of the common good.    Yet I think that America is more complex than that, and a lot of good business not only depends upon individual initiative but also upon collaboration.   We don’t achieve much working alone; we learn to work with others and we gain new capabilities as a result.

I must emphasize that it was a friendly and fascinating conversation.


FAC LAB opened 15 months ago at the University of Cergy-Pontoise, which is north of Paris in Gennevilliers.  It was the second Fab Lab in France, started by Laurent Ricard and Emmanuel Roux, and it is affiliated with the MIT Fab Lab.  Laurent gave me a tour of the space.   The space is new with white walls but there’s lots of evidence of work in progress, which Laurent worried I might think was a mess and so apologized for how things looked.  He needn’t have done so — he should see Make’s Lab.

The main room in FAC LAB
The main room in FAC LAB

The goal of FAC LAB, says Ricard, is “to create a place where young and old can exchange ideas of how to make things and learn new ways of making things.”  FAC LAB is open to anyone.   The motto of the space is “Learn. Create. Share.”   The only thing they ask of people who use FAC Lab is that they document and share what they do.

Laurent Ricard of FAC LAB
Laurent Ricard of FAC LAB

A new ShopBot desktop model had recently arrived, and someone perhaps an elf had already cut out a beautiful piece.   Laurent was a bit surprised because the machine had not been fully tested.   There is a high-end laser cutter, which a student was using for an architecture project.


A teenage boy by the name of Ilyes is the local savant and he’s now leading classes in how to use the laser cutter.  There’s a training room that also serves as a workroom.   There were several models of 3D printers, an older Makerbot and an Ultimaker among them.   I met Julien Desprez who has been working on building his own 3D printer, which goes by the name “Dood”, for Digital Object On Demand. He has been working on this design for quite a while and he was proud that might start making and selling 3D printers.    Since I met him, Dood has launched the Digital Object Maker project on KissKissBankBank, raising 4,000 EU so far with 40 some days to reach a goal of 5,000 EU.  This is the kind of project and enterprise I’d expect to see in any American makerspace.

Julien Desprez of Dood in front of the Digital Object Maker
Julien Desprez of Dood in front of the Digital Object Maker

In a textiles room, I saw a fascinating project in progress, which was recreating a historical costume using modern tools and methods.

Gustav III costume
Gustav III costume

I really connected to Laurent’s idea about the purpose of FAC LAB.   He felt it was to promote the growth and development of individuals, encouraging self-directed learning, experimentation and sharing.   “It is not a technical place; it is a social place,” said Ricard in the video featured below.  (Midway through the interview, somebody started using a rotary tool for cutting in the next room.  So much for quiet.)

[wpvideo ezb52q9H]

Laurent expressed one major surprise, which is personally disappointing to him.   “People have a hard time believing that this facility is open to them, that anyone can come in and use it without paying anything.   It’s an open bar and they can’t believe it.  They might suspect we have a hidden agenda.”  He also said that it can be difficult to get locals to come in because they are uncomfortable coming into a University setting.   Nonetheless, FAC LAB has people drive some distance to come and use the facility.

We had a brief conversation about the French term “bricolage or bricoleur.”    Wikipedia defines it as a “construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process.”   It might be thought of as tinkering but has connotations of folk art or pastiche.   It’s a term I was familiar with but the French I’ve talked to don’t warm up to using it as an equivalent to makers or making.  We also talked about “bidouille”, which is more like tinkering and hacking but it is considered a childish term.

Fab Lab at Cité des sciences et de l’industrie

Our final stop was a quick one at the enormous Museum for Science and Industry in Paris. (Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie)   There’s a small Fab Lab inside the museum but there’s work underway in building a new larger version across the hallway.

There's a Fab Lab inside the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie
There’s a Fab Lab inside the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industri
David Forgeron and Dale at the Fab Lab inside the Paris science center (photo: Camille Bosqué)
David Forgeron and Dale at the Fab Lab inside the Paris science center (photo: Camille Bosqué)

It was the end of the day and everyone was wrapping up.   Yet I was happy to meet David Forgeron who is managing the Fab Lab.  He says there is real support for the Fab Lab within the administration of the science center.   They are looking forward to the expanded space.

They see the Fab Lab as a way to engage the public in science and technology.   I met a man who works in professional development for teachers and he’s planning programs for teachers in the new space.   He said that “learning by making” has been a tradition in French education, and he’s like to help give it new life.

DIY Bio Lab

I did not visit La Paillasse, a Paris Community Lab for Biotech.   However, I met Thomas Landrain from La Paillasse at Maker Faire UK in Newcastle, part of the DIY Bio exhibit.   He showed me a demonstration of how he’s using bacteria to create ink.    It’s one of the better DIY Bio projects, which has a practical outcome.

A Nascent Maker Movement

Certainly, the tour showed me many different sides of making in Paris, giving me a glimpse of a nascent maker movement in France.     It emphasized two vital aspects of making: what it can mean to a person to develop as a maker, a producer and a creator, and how that helps all of us build a context and welcoming community that supports diverse personal, social and commercial interests.

Personally, I like learning about the cultural context of making in different countries and I feel privileged that Make and Maker Faire have provided a way for me to have this conversation.    Each country has its own traditions of making, and making is fundamental to all cultures and should be perhaps more widely recognized.   Not all have re-framed the traditions and practices of making and connected them to new technologies as has happened in America with the maker movement. Yet it certainly feels like we are starting to see it happen throughout Europe, and there is some sense that it is becoming a global cultural movement.

A few loose bits:

French translation of Make: Electronics by Charles Platt.
French translation of Make: Electronics by Charles Platt.
  • Make Magazine is not available in translation in France.   If you know anyone…
  • Make: Electronics by Charles Platt was just published by Eyrolles as L’Électronique En Pratique.
  • The first Mini Maker Faire in France will be the Saint-Malo Mini Maker Faire on Oct 11 & 12 at the IUT de Saint-Malo (Technological Institute).   It is organized by Bertier Luyt, an architect and 3D model builder.    Sain-Malo follows the week after Maker Faire Rome.
  • Camille Bosqué has a Make Hack Fab tumblr blog.    Mathilde Bercheron lives in SF and started the Making Society blog.
  • Fab Central at MIT lists eight Fab Labs in France.   Of the places I visited only FAC LAB is on the list, not Le Petit Fab Lab nor the Fab Lab at the Paris science center.   (There could be other lists of Fab Labs.)  The Fab Central lists includes:   Gennevilliers (FacLab),  Grenoble (FabLab de Casemate), Nantes (PiNG),  Rennes (labfab de Rennes),
    Strasbourg (AV-Lab),  Strasbourg (FabLab INSA Strasbourg), Toulouse (Artilect FabLab), and Villeneuve-d’ascq (FabLab Lille).
  • Ariane Conrad wrote “Mais Oui, We Share”, an article for about Ouishare Fest.
  • Parrot, the makers of the AR Drone, is a French company.

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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