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FABmonday ep. 1 | How to face a lockdown as a maker: challenges and resources of a Fablab in the time of Covid-19

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It’s a known fact that, in the maker culture, the ability to make a virtue of necessity and find unconventional solutions where at first you can only see obstacles is an essential skill. For the Fablab Torino maker community, very few things have challenged this ability as much as the Coronavirus emergency.

The lockdown brought along many issues and just as many new solutions. To help each other, to reinvent ourselves, and to keep on creating things. Even from one’s home, with one’s own 3D printer and one’s own working tools. What brought people together was the wish to share ideas and skills.

Marco Cassino, designer, maker, and President of the Fablab Torino Association, tells us all about how the Turinese and Italian maker community has faced – and is still facing – the hardships of the pandemic.

Fablab Torino through the first and second wave.

The first wave of contagions and the first lockdown, as we all know, caught everyone off guard. The Fablab is a place that, way more than other cultural associations, needs a physical space and the presence of people. The lab can’t go on living without its machines and people to use them. The first closing found us not ready and prepared to find a way to bring Fablab into people’s homes. At least until one of our historical members, Giuseppe Treccarichi, told us: “I want to teach an online course of CNC milling”.

And so our first online course was focused on our bulkiest, biggest machine. An experiment which for us was more like a bet: how many people can be interested in a milling training course in the middle of a lockdown, with the Fablab closed and the milling machine inaccessible for who knows how long? But we tried it out, and the Livestream was followed by over 30 people. Since then we live-streamed a 3D printing online course, a meetup on drones with flight instructors from Nimbus Drone Academy, and a talk with Precious Plastic Torino. All very successful.

Now that Piedmont is once again on lockdown, we have the platform and the format ready to start over with online courses. I’m very happy about this because we had been toying with the idea of moving our basic courses online for a while, and this unprecedented situation finally pushed us to make it happen.

Also back in October, when the safety rules started to get more and more rigid, we made a huge effort to regulate the access and use of the lab. Now we are equipped with an internal protocol and a policy for contagion containment, a strict set of rules to regulate the capacity and use of the working areas, and a procedure that everyone is required to follow religiously when entering the lab: you will have to check your body temperature, sanitize your hands, and register your visit by scanning a QR code and filling out a form. Next to each machine and work surface, you will find everything you need to sanitize it after you’re done, so whoever’s coming after you will be safe. We’re 100% ready to re-open the lab safely as soon as possible, and we can’t wait for that day to come!

The contribution of makers to the Covid emergency.

Back in March, the sudden closing of Fablab was destabilizing at first. But one thing was crystal clear since the beginning: our users were mobilizing, showing a great civic sense and dedication. We had to find a system to organize and join our forces to help out with the emergency. The trigger which really pushed us to act as the famous Isinnova case. A small company in Brescia had released a project for an emergency breathing mask, created by readapting a snorkeling mask you could find easily on the market – its distributor, Decathlon, promptly started to supply it for free – by using 3D printed valves.

In the common imagery, Fablab is seen as space where you can make pretty much anything (and it is!), so the requests were skyrocketing. The project by Isinnova went viral very quickly, and everyone in the fablabs community started printing valves because they had found the answer to the wish for the solidarity of the maker community. During that chaotic week, though, we sensed that a lot of energies were going wasted: there was no coordination and the fairytale of local capillary production crumbled because there were evident logistic problems and quality issues. That’s the moment when we started to regulate the activities.

First of all we created a dedicated email address to centralize information: covid@fablabtorino.org. We then generated four different routes to answer to all the people who were reaching out to us:

  • One for the makers
  • One for the hospitals and medical centers
  • One for the manufacturing companies
  • And one for the press.

As open source enthusiasts, we also invited other fablabs in the north-west of Italy to copy and follow the structure we created and that was holding up surprisingly well under the wave of supply and demand. 

Essentially, we made a census of the local makers and manufacturing companies that were ready to help, of their skills and their machines, to put people in contact and coordinate the projects. We also handled communication with the companies and hospitals as an Association, which helped to keep their already clogged contact channels as free as possible. We tried to understand directly from them what the medical facilities really needed. For example, the Alessandria Civil Protection was supplied with hundreds of adapters, printed by the FCA additive manufacturing center thanks to our coordination and our precious associates who work in the best local industries.

The main project that came to life during the emergency is Zefiro – DIY Covid-19 Mask, born as a collaboration of Fablab Torino and VIRTUALAB (Politecnico di Torino). Thanks to the coordination of our maker Fabrizio Alessio (who back then was part of the Fablab Torino board of directors) and prof. Fabrizio Valpreda (professor at Politecnico di Torino and Academic Mentor of Fablab), a team was formed of 14 people with different backgrounds, skills, and passions, working together with a common interest: joining forces to project and respond to the Covid-19 emergency. Zefiro is an individual protection device designed for healthcare and sanitary personnel that works in the Covid-19 wards.

It is an electroventilated mask with positive pressure, that allows you to fully protect your face and provides you with a constant stream of fresh, filtered air. Zefiro is composed of a frame that can be self-made with a 3D printer (the project is available on Github for anyone to print, alter, adapt, improve…) and of other components that can be easily found on the market. This way, anyone can produce it and adapt it to his or her own needs. The web is bursting with cases and stories of projects and ideas by makers from all around the world to fight the pandemic and help the healthcare personnel.

This summer’s brief truce allowed us to discuss with other fablabs and build better coordination. We centralized the repository of national projects on the Make in Italy website and we decided to make the Open Source Medical Supplies website our lighthouse.  If you are curious, on the official page  https://www.fablabs.io you can find a direct link to the projects that we’re following on a global level as part of the Fablab network.

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