FabLab Maastricht, Frits Hoff: “One of the main opportunities in a FabLab is that you can combine ideas and speed up innovation in an affordable way”
FabLab Maastricht specializes in 3D printing research. Its aim is to make both tools and materials as affordable as possible. To do that, they avail themselves of the collaboration with companies, universities and research centers.
21-year-old Floris Hoff managed to build his own company, byflow, thanks to the experience acquired within the FabLab. byflow is a foldable 3D printer with interchangeable nozzles, which allows you to print a wide range of materials through a user-friendly interface.
Frits Hoff, manager of FabLab Maastricht, told us about the research lines conducted in the Lab, and about the adopted policies of financing and sharing.
Could you tell us about FabLab Maastricht and its value for the community?
“FabLab Maastricht started 4 years ago with not enough money, like a normal FabLab. So we started with little equipment.
Finally, we received some funding, from European Union, but also from the local and national government.
Now, we are a professional FabLab doing research in affordable 3D printing. We have a lot of 3D printers and we developed our own ones, such as the byflow.
We try to support the community by raising awareness about digital fabrication, by training people to use machines and software. Plus, we also support companies in doing innovation.”
Your research ranges from developing tools to experimenting new materials. What is going on at the moment at FabLab Maastricht, and how do you economically sustain this activity of research?
“We have developed a large printer for ceramic, but also for food.
We are doing research for a large company, testing glass clay, but we also got involved with the ceramic industry.
As for metal printing, it’s still very expensive at the moment: a metal printer costs 150,000 euro and we are trying to make beautiful objects with affordable 3D printers.
Another research of ours is about 3D printed bio-rubber. This material is an invention of DSM, a large chemical company in the Maastricht’s surroundings. Bio-rubber is very strong, flexible, and you don’t need to buy it, you can make bio-rubber from rapeseed, the small yellow flowers available all over the world.
A very nice project was also the prosthetics of a child’s ear. To produce such a prosthetics, this is the normal process: 3D scan the healthy ear, mirror it in the computer, and print it in wax as a mold. Then, silicone rubber is put in the mold and, eventually, needs to be colored.
This process takes so much time that making such an ear costs 5,000 euro. We are trying to do it directly in one step. We reached a very good print quality, even compared to the only silicone printer in the world. It is a machine from Envisiontec and costs 150,000 euro.
We also use medical silicone, which we need to produce. This project is finished and, now, everybody in the world can print silicone prosthetics.
You can do all these projects with funding from the government, just like universities do. I think every FabLab should have some money to do that.
Universities have special departments focusing on single topics, while one of the main opportunities in a FabLab is that you can combine ideas and speed up innovation in an affordable way.”
The research conducted here in FabLab Maastricht led to the birth of the company byflow. Could you tell us about this project and about the way you manage the fragile balance between sharing and FabLab’s commercial spin-off?
“Well, 3D byflow is a foldable 3D printer. As a FabLab we often go to fairs and schools and, now, taking the 3D printer with you is easy. Schools also say that it’s nice that you can store it in a safe way.
It’s easy to run: you can use an SD card, connect it wireless or with a USB cable.
The design is completely different from other printers: you don’t need to calibrate it anymore, which is one of the biggest problems of 3D printers.
Many people asked us, ‘Since I can print only plastic, why should I buy a 3D printer?’ With 3D byflow, changing the extruder is easy: one could use the paste extruder, the filament extruder, or the granulate one. This way you can print in several materials: ceramic, bio-plastic, bio-rubber, silicone, and even food.
As FabLabs, we are social entrepreneurs; we always want to share the knowledge, but when you start a company like byflow, which is not from the FabLab, then you need to keep the secret in the first stage.
Once you have started are raising enough money, then, you can share the knowledge. So our idea is to share the older versions of the 3D printer and always sell the newest printer in a closed version.”
As chair of the Benelux FabLabs Foundation and international consultant for FabLabs, you have an overall understanding of how things are going in this field. Do you think that a FabLab could, or maybe should, be managed like a business?
“Well, you can compare it, for example, to the TechShops in the U.S. TechShops are commercial and they are much larger than FabLabs.
I think FabLab is an educational and training entity, and it should receive money from the government. Of course, you can raise also extra-money from renting equipment and rooms, or from training. But it will not be enough to keep the FabLab alive, especially if you want to do it in a professional way.”
What do you foresee for FabLabs’ future, will they develop toward something different?
“Well, what I see is that more and more schools are starting a FabLab. Even in our city, we support two schools to buy all the equipment, to train the teachers… Especially to train the students because students are training the teachers, of course! And it’s very nice to see that even young children learn so fast that they can even support us after a while.
In my vision, FabLabs could be small organizations for local innovation. We will still need them because developments are going faster and faster, and somebody should keep up.
FabLabs should specialize in telling stories, in telling about opportunities of the new techniques like 4D printing, for example, where time is the 4th dimension.
MIT in Boston has already a Lab for 4D printing. Well, nobody here knows about it, and we have to tell others about new opportunities.
I think FabLabs will still exist, but in another way: we won’t train the children because they will be trained at school, but we will need to support companies and people in keeping up on all the technical developments.”