FAB11: how corporations are participating in supporting the maker movement

Panel at Fab11 member conference


 Editorial Staff

 13 August 2015

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FAB11 member conference: how corporations are participating in supporting the maker movement

Saint-Gobain, Solidworks, Google, and Chevron meet the maker community: deep conversation at FAB11 about the growing presence of corporations in the making places.

Fab11, the 11th International Fab Conference, has just ended. Whether we were in Boston or not, all the people who followed updates and news of the event are in the mood for discussion.

Among the several sessions, on the 5th August Fab11 offered member corporations the opportunity to explain the vision that drives them to get involved in Fab initiatives and to be listened to also by fabbers who work in areas where no big companies are located.

Discussion mod was Blair Blackwell, manager of Education and Corporate programs at Chevron, and the rest of the panel was no less notable: SolidWorks, Google, and Saint-Gobain.

The debate focused on the relationships which have been woven between FabLabs and the industry. For years we have read of FabLabs approaching corporations to find ways to sustain themselves and to obtain the support that often institutions are not able to offer them.

However, is it only a matter of looking for funding on one side and, on the other side, to promote a company? Results of the discussion suggest a “no” as an answer. According to all the participating speakers, these collaborations always prove to be a mutual mentorship.

The panel included two kinds of companies’ attitudes: 1- “We want innovation within our company” and 2- “We want innovation in education.” (Whole conference on Vimeo)

Saint-Gobain: a FabLab to reinvent the company

Laurent Provost, managing director at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, explained the experience that brought the corporation to open a FabLab in the middle of its German plant. Provost, who is from Belgium, was asked to move to the German site in order to renovate its organization.

Saint-Gobain’s point of view was as much clear as uncommon: the German plant was doing very well in terms of business and, therefore, that was the right moment to dare to make a change and bring the startup spirit in a company as solid as Saint-Gobain.


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Laurent Provost also availed himself of the collaboration of Alain Heureux, founder of the startup incubator The Egg and partner at Your Own Lab.

First step of the process was to train people. About 10-20 volunteers from the plant went to FabLabs in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Manchester, and Japan. [/ezcol_1half_end]

FabLab Amsterdam also tailored a 10-day Fab Academy specifically arranged for Saint-Gobain employees.

Then, the Lab was built in the middle of the plant and visible to everybody. Trained voluntary employees, the “ambassadors”, would have trained others. But Provost aimed higher:

The FabLab in the plant is not a place just to turn ideas into prototypes. This is one part. […]

Just imagine you have people showing up in the FabLab, coming from the shop-front, from the marketing, from the sales, and those people meet together in a fully different organization with no boss. [..] We sit as a team, and we don’t know each other. How do we take decision? How do we manage conflict, if we don’t agree?

If you only focus on how to co-create and on how to turn ideas into prototypes, and you miss the step of ‘how do we work better as a team to manage those projects?’ then you fail.

[…] (Another) aspect is related to what we call “work environment.” It’s not only about offices and desks. […] It’s about the structure.

How many of you, guys, spent time on training? It happened to me many times: being away from home for 5 days and learning something else, going back home and I was with so much passion: ‘Ok this is something I want to do, I want to put this in place in my plant’.

Going back in the plant, you have the whole structure with the boss telling you what you need to do, where to keep the eye. And I realized that, after a few days, all my dreams were gone. I was turning back into the way I knew, the way the structure organizes everything. […]

If you don’t address the structure, then you will generate a lot of deception because the structure would not allow people to go different ways.” (Laurent Provost)

Therefore, Provost’s thinking was that, in a FabLab, not only creativity comes into play, but also the balance within the team, and the relation between the team and the company’s structure.

Google for education and internal innovation

Google was also in the panel thanks to the presence of Tory Voight and David Saff, respectively program manager and software engineer at the company.

Google has also had a Lab within its offices since 2009. The space is fully equipped with every kind of machinery one would expect to find in a FabLab. Spaces and activities are completely self-sustaining and are run by voluntary googlers.

The choice to involve employees in these kinds of initiatives on a voluntary basis is common to several companies. Indeed, this grants the actual interest and motivation of people and, therefore, chances of success increase.

Google has a two-pronged approach to the maker movement.

Google apps for education

GAFE Login. Photograph: Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones on flickr. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

On the one hand, the company focuses on internal structure development and on stimulating team-work by organizing workshops and show-and-tell events. On the other side, Google is more and more involved in educational projects collaborating with school and institutions.

The company has recently launched the free platform “Google play for Education” to support U.S. k-12 schools that adopted “Google for Education”, a wide range of products and training programs built for both students and teachers.  Main scope of those programs is to help schools focus on processes rather than on notions, which is the spirit of making places.

SolidWorks: how to fill the gap between designing and making

Marie Planchard, director of education portfolio, and Suchit Jain, vice-president of strategy and business development, spoke on behalf of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.

The company pays specific attention to capitalizing on the connections with the FabLab world, where the software is very well-known, in order to enhance both education and its users’ experience.

As Planchard specified, SolidWorks offers tools to design everything a person is able to conceive but, if those ideas aren’t concretely realized, there’s so much of the learning experience that is missing.


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SolidWorks operates in education collaborating with MIT and the Fab Foundation, which have the power to enter the educational system and change the current theoretical approach. Since last year the company has donated its 3D design software to more than 350 facilities in the FabLab Network. [/ezcol_1half_end]

Suchit Jain added that we are used to seeing makers just like tinkerers. But behind everything they make, only an articulate and functioning design can ensure the success of ideas. So, on the one hand, the trickiest part of a project is often the conception and design phase.

On the other hand, it’s not given for granted that people who are able to design are also able to handle digital fabrication tools and “make.” That’s why SolidWorks is also committed in building a bridge between FabLabs and its user community.

According to Jain, makers are the future innovators and entrepreneurs but, to achieve this vision, we need to fill the gap between software and hardware, between design and making.

Chevron in helping FabLabs and schools stand on their own feet

Beyond Blair Balackwell, also Janet Auer, global investment specialist, was representing Chevron in the panel. Chevron doesn’t have a FabLab within the offices but, in partnership with the Fab Foundation, it offers FabLabs a 3-year support from their start.

The program has a holistic approach and consists of providing tools, teacher professional development, funding, know-how in management so as to make FabLabs able to run independent. All the process is based on the analysis of capacity and needs of the community, which have to match the unborn Lab’s vision.


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As for education, the company works mainly in collaboration with FabLabs and educational organizations such as Project Lead The Way (PLTW),  U.S. provider of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs.

Janet Auer explained that what is emerging through this kind of environment is that critical thinking and problem solving tend to fade away when students leave school.[/ezcol_1half_end]

Therefore, Chevron’s effort lies in taking kids to realities where they can understand how things work and learn principles while applying them. This approach will hopefully intrigue students and stimulate them to undertake STEM studies and cover the current shortage of STEM skills in the job market.

Benefits for corporations and measuring of success

The discussion went on examining how the maker movement is stimulating and opening corporations to new organizational models.

The first aspect that emerged was the influence on the traditional concept of structure within companies. Marie Planchard noted that a certain structure characterizes also the Fab Academy, which has a specific program meant to take people to be autonomous makers and to train other makers.

The point was that the Fab Academy uses structure as a process that doesn’t aim at a grade or at figures. It’s about personal achievement and has nothing to do with hierarchy or numbers.

From this point, the second topic derived and generated a more intense debate: how to measure success?

In terms of business, the answer was pretty easy: it’s a matter of numbers.

Considerations about measuring success in education and FabLabs were way less immediate. Impact evaluation of projects, decrease of drop-out rates, and involvement of the youth in STEM studies appeared to be possible parameters.

The lack of a formulated thought on this matter arose clearly from the discussion. This hesitation and uncertainty may have to do with the fact that we are exploring very new paths and points of view.

The maker movement is becoming a school of thought opposed to the traditional top-down vision of society. Corporations, of course, have recognized the power of this bottom-up push and, if their interest meets the needs of the maker movement, their support can really be an asset for the whole community.