We Visit Bangkok's FabCafe

January 30, 2015 -- BIT Magazine The spark several years ago that got us into design, making, and personal manufacturing in the first place was seeing MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld present what he called a Fab Lab. The idea stemmed from a class Prof. Gershenfeld titled "How to Make Almost Anything." The course's popularity grew, and so did the variety of students and projects passing through it.

Eventually the Fab Lab became a permanent fixture at MIT. Then, as a kind of local institution, it began spreading around the world helping teach and empower people with the tools of personal manufacturing. Prof. Gershenfeld's book "Fab The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop" is a must read for those wanting to learn more about the early years of Fab Lab.

Enter, FabCafe

From Fab Labs emerged many new ideas, not just in terms of projects, but also in terms of integrating these types of institutions within local communities. The FabCafe is one of these new ideas. Because of the academic and social mission of Fab Labs, managed as a sort of franchise, there are limitations to how it may integrate into any given community. FabCafes seek to preserve the concept and spirit behind Fab Labs, but make them more accessible to a wider range of people.

The first FabCafe opened in Japan. Currently there are 5, including one right here in Bangkok, Thailand. Each FabCafe's team is considered co-founders in the growing network.

Located within walking distance of Ari BTS station, the grounds and interior are clean, uncluttered, and modern presenting a physical space like a blank piece of paper, inviting an artist or designer to fill it in. In FabCafe, you will find many of the mainstays of personal manufacturing, including a vinyl cutter, laser cutters, Formslab and MakerBot 3D printers, and lots of table space to work on.

Unlike the typical makerspace, however FabCafe includes, of course, an actual cafe with a menu of drinks and food developed in-house, along with the atmosphere of an up-scale boutique cafe. It is clearly geared toward designers and artists, and there is a very practical and social side to it all too.

We spoke with one of the co-founders, Chutayaves Sinthuphan, an architect by trade, and who is passionate not only about what the individual tools found inside a Fab Lab or makerspace can do, but the paradigm shift they can help drive, together, with other forms of emerging technologies. FabCafe's co-founders' ability to understand how all these many pieces fit together and the future they will help form, is the driving force behind many of the educational programs either ongoing at FabCafe or planned for the near future.

The idea of interdisciplinary skills means that design students don't just visit FabCafe to have staff print out their ideas on a 3D printer, but rather, requires that the students learn how to use the 3D printers themselves. Taken to the extreme, this interdisciplinary concept includes intertwining personal manufacturing with food, biology, cycling, photography, architecture, or even furniture, all areas not necessarily associated with the current maker movement or personal manufacturing.

Indeed, FabCafe Bangkok envisions an organic garden outside, a food laboratory inside, and fab menus side-by-side the cafe menu, inviting visitors to choose a project to customize and make their own, learning new tools and techniques, all while enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of a modern cafe.

There are also several workshops, each focusing on how to use personal manufacturing to augment specific hobbies already enjoyed by ordinary people. These include workshops to develop custom designed toys, as well as accessories for cycling and photography. 

By visiting FabCafe, it's hoped that one is exposed to emerging technology, imparting a certain sort of "design literacy" on visitors, so that they are not left behind like so many today from older generations who never learned how to use a computer, keyboard, or smartphone. Learning to integrate 3D printing with camera accessories could be the personal manufacturing equivalent of integrating personal computing with photography by learning Photoshop. 

Chutayaves expressed during our conversation a plausible future where people enjoy multiple interests, combining them together, and establishing highly localized communities thriving in self-sufficiency. Businesses and institutions like FabCafes and Fab Labs today, might become nodes in a patchwork of localized communities tomorrow.

Having visited other makerspaces in Bangkok, and seeing FabCafe, such a future is not only possible, it is tangibly being built everyday by the work and imagination of this growing, creative community.

For more information, please visit FabCafe's website here, or follow them on Facebook here.

BIT Magazine is a bi-lingual platform for Thailand's maker movement to connect, grow, and collaborate with maker communities abroad. Follow us on Twitter here or on Facebook here.
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