The Making Rooms Interview

I was recently interviewed by my former mentee and long-time friend, Amy Mather, AKA @MiniGirlGeek. Amy and I have been going to maker spaces, talks and faires for years! She is now studying Design Engineering at Imperial College London and recently asked to interview me about The Making Rooms as part of her essay Makerspaces: their structure, flaws and importance.
Below is that interview. Enjoy!

Me the Maker

Amy, Dan (Amy’s brother) and Tom at Fab Lab Manchester creating a Raspberry Pi photobooth


When did The Making Rooms open?

November 2016.


How do provide funding for your Fab Lab?

The set up costs of the lab were funded by The Arts Council of England, Blackburn with Darwen Council and the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership. We had additional funding from Blackburn with Darwen Council for 3 years gradually released on a sliding model to allow time for the commercial side of the business to grow to the point where it is able to support the organisation and the free activities we deliver to the local community.


What are some of difficulties with sourcing funding for the lab?

We can apply for funding bids from various funding bodies, such as Arts Council, The Lottery and Heritage Lottery funds. However these grants are usually for a discrete project, not the organisation as a whole, and have to be done at cost of delivery. Some of these grants can be hard to win and there is no guarantee when submitting a bid that we will win it.


How secure is your funding? As in is it all guaranteed if so for how long?

Our initial funding was extremely secure as it was granted in-full to our local council, and released to our organisation in gradual stages. Past this initial funding period, funding is only secure once it clears in our account and the projects are delivered.


Do you think you’ll ever be in a position where you don’t rely on external funding at all? How do you hope to achieve this?

I believe so, however there will always be a place for funded projects in our organisation as we can achieve some great results for those involved. The stage we are currently at is the hardest, as lots of time still has to be spent setting up the lab/best practices/experience/business relationships/evidence of ability/business strategies, while our funding has decreased, but things are looking hopeful.


Do you have any other sources of income for the lab?

Our sources of income include:

  1. Commercial prototyping.
  2. Commercial machine hire.
  3. Public workshops.
  4. Private/bespoke workshops.
  5. Commercial machine training.
  6. Rental/space hire income from our flexible workspaces.
  7. Material purchases by lab users (minimal). Do you have markup? Yes 30% to cover staff time of purchases. Some materials may include a surcharge, such as laserable ply to help cover the cost of filters for the laser cutters.
  8. Our maker shop.


Do you think that having a diverse range of incomes for the lab is important?

It’s good to have a diverse range as if one under performs the other channels can take the slack. Also things tend to cross refer, so a client hiring time on the laser may decide they want training in using another machine or to rent a studio space. The cost of customer acquisition drops.

What are the hardest things about running the lab?

Making tough decisions; you can’t always do things the way you would like to. The workload can get pretty intense sometimes too.


Have you come up with any unique ways of providing income for the lab – are you doing anything the majority of other makerspaces / Fab Labs etc aren’t? Or do you have any ideas?

One of the things I wanted to do most when joining The Making Rooms was start a shop that we and our users could make items using the lab’s machines and sell them on site. My focus over the last year has been to encourage regular users to start making products and found companies.


What do you think is are the advantages of running the lab as a job as opposed to having a volunteer lead space?

It is a lot of work running a lab (it’s literally a full-time job! – or in our lab’s case 3 full time jobs). It would be difficult for these responsibilities to be split across a small team working on the lab part-time, it would take lots of volunteers which I imagine could make decision making difficult as everyone may have differing opinions on how the lab should be run.

If a lab has to have a commercial element for funding, then employing professionals in a lab could give commercial entities more trust in the organisation’s ability to get the job done.


What do you think is are the disadvantages of running the lab as a job as opposed to having a volunteer lead space?

I think volunteers and users of a lab that is run primarily by staff will feel less ownership over that lab, and as such may not feel like they should give as much of themselves to help run it. Most users are extremely helpful and grateful for the work that lab staff do, however some can from time-to-time take advantage or see a lab as a right, I believe this would probably be less likely in a volunteer run lab.


What do you think is the best way to ensure that making is as accessible as possible?

Exposure. Exposure of people to labs/companies/other organisations. Labs also need to focus on well thought-out projects.


Why do you think so many UK Fab Labs’ have closed?

Running a non-continuously funded Fab Lab is a difficult business model, if most businesses had to stay open for 2 days each week to the public for free, they would struggle to cover these costs. The FabLab model requires two mindsets in one, public access and business. It is difficult to find a he type of people that are attracted to FabLabs are usually not as business minded.


What’s your aim with running the lab? Is it to inspire new entrepreneurs, or to improve access to making? Or both? Or something else?

To experiment with the extended model we are running and to make running self-sufficient labs easier with more understood sources of income. Most labs do not have workspaces for users to start businesses, which is essential.


Do you intend to share what you have learnt from running the lab? If so how do you intend to do so?

Absolutely, when we find activities/ways of doing things that work well for us, we want to share them with other labs, the Fab Lab network is stronger together. We also want to continue to generate learning materials and share these with other labs (and other useful things we come up with), there’s no point in every lab reinventing the wheel. There are many tasks that we could eventually distribute across the network to take the load off of each lab.


Would you share your knowledge to people outside of the Fab Lab network?

Yes. We would probably release our materials under creative commons to encourage people who find our materials useful, to reshare any improvements they make in order to aid others.

Knowledge-wise, yes too! The more successful labs there are, the more people can rely on each lab, the more people hear about labs in general and seek out other labs in other areas too. Most labs are far enough apart for them not to be competing in the same geographical markets.


Who do you think should be in charge of labs? Volunteers? A board? Paid Staff?

Labs need to have a range of technical skills, but also business skills and still maintain the Fab Lab ethos. It is all dependant on the specific characteristics of the lab and surrounding environment, however I have found volunteers to be essential to every lab.


Do you prefer being a user of a lab or the manager of a lab? What was good about each scenario? What was bad?

Hmm that’s a tough one. They both have been extremely enjoyable and important in my life.

As a user, I could make whatever I wanted, for myself, the way I wanted. However my ability to help and positively impact other people was limited by when I was in the lab and whoever was there. Users don’t tend to have much control in labs that have funding/staff.

As a manager, I can now implement changes to the model that I believe will be beneficial to the lab, from my own experiences as a lab user and business owner. We will see if they work :). I also have to do a lot of administration, some of which isn’t as fun as designing and making stuff (I’m still a maker at heart!) but it has to be done, and as it helps keep the lab running, I’m happy to do it.


What do you think is the best model of community access to machining?

I think the Fab Lab model is great, and the setup we have at The Making Rooms works well. I love visiting other labs and seeing what works well. I have a couple ideas for setups that I haven’t seen yet:

  1. A lab that works like a co-operative, with one or two administrative staff who find the work, create funding bids and market the lab. Then lots of little sole trader companies that are each specialised to one or two of the machines and are able to deliver commercial work, workshops etc.
  2. A stripped down lab that can easily be moved from building to building. Machines would include a small bed laser cutter, a Form Labs resin 3D printer, a vinyl cutter and one of those hand CNC routers that adjusts itself (which I’m desperate to have a play with).


Why do you think community access to making/machining etc is important?

For a lot of our visitors, it’s their first experience of making, and for some you can tell it’s going to be a defining moment in their lives.

I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I hadn’t had access to the machines and knowledge through Fab Lab Manchester. Fab Lab was my main reason for staying in Manchester after I finished my degree. Most of my friends I have met in some way due to Fab Lab. I am so grateful to everyone who made my experiences with Fab Lab possible.

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Amy and Tom at Maker Faire UK 2017