FAB9: The intersection of design & technology at The Dream Factory

A video still of a CNC router from the FAB9 website.

Something exciting is happening on the ground floor of The Dream Factory.

There’s been a shroud of secrecy around the Footscray site for months, though if you’ve passed by recently, you may have caught a glimpse of some serious works underway.

Excavators clawing. Jackhammers smashing. Clouds of dust rising to the 6-metre-high ceilings as concrete is poured and forms emerge. It’s a space in a state of total activation, populated by machines ploughing, flashing, beeping, arranging.

The works are probably the most action the former rubber factory (and Lonely Planet headquarters) has had since it was built in the early 1900’s, and they are all in preparation for FAB9 — Melbourne’s newest makerspace.

But what is a ‘makerspace’, exactly?

The term ‘makerspace’ didn’t really exist in the public sphere until 2005. It refers to an open-access space that is purpose built for designing and creating — a space open to the community that offers shared access to high-end prototyping equipment.

Put simply, makerspaces are places where people can turn their ideas into tangible objects. They welcome anyone who wants to access design tools, technology and training to create, make and prototype products.

The Barnett Glass rubber factory now known as The Dream Factory.

The rise of the maker movement speaks of a huge ideological shift happening in the world. In an age where much of what we use is manufactured elsewhere, more people are seeking to take making back into their own hands. The Internet has enabled people of all backgrounds, knowledge-bases and skill-sets to learn anything they want about making. But information alone is not enough if you can’t access the tools you need to turn theory into
practice.

Whether you are an emerging or established designer, technologist, entrepreneur, artist or craftsperson, you are welcome to come and try all of the tools at FAB9, from the wood-working equipment to the sewing machine, the CNC router to the laser cutters, the pick and place machine to the 3D printers, and more.

In concert with high-end machinery, the other critical component of a makerspace is community — ideas, equipment, materials,
skills and knowledge aren’t just the means for creation, but for connection. FAB9’s mission is to become a makerspace that encourages people from different disciplines to come together, share their resources and take part in creating world-changing products.

Two of the driving forces behind FAB9 are CEO Hans Chang and Creative Director Ying Zhang. From the space’s inception, to its actualisation, Hans, Ying and their ever-growing team have aligned their manifold skill-sets, passions and influences to create a space that will compel — and propel — every maker who ventures through FAB9’s doors.

Artist’s impression of FAB9’s timber shop

What was your trajectory into the world of the makerspace, Hans?

Hans:​ I started my career in radio frequency engineering in Wellington, New Zealand, and after a few years, decided I wanted to learn more about entrepreneurship. LA seemed like a fun place to live, so I made the move there to get my MBA at UCLA. During the MBA, I spent a summer working with chipset (wireless) company Qualcomm, based in San Diego. From
there, I worked for SanDisk, the flash memory company in Milpitas, Silicon Valley. One of my first projects at SanDisk was launching the Playstation Vita game card, replacing the old magnetic drive. Later, I launched embedded flash memory, which is now used in smartphones.

Playstation Vita.

While I was in the valley, I discovered the maker movement. Seeing how it worked and how it empowered people, I thought, “Hey, you know, I could do something like this.” I’d caught the maker-bug and I wanted to share it!
The next thoughts were more practical. I wondered, ‘Where would be the best place to do this?’ and, ‘How do you even start a makerspace?’. I began to do some research, and discovered that Melbourne, Australia, was the perfect location.

Firstly, the manufacturing sector in Australia has been in transition for a while. There are factories closing down across the country, leaving a surplus of highly skilled people in their wake. The demise of car-manufacturing plants around Melbourne is a perfect example of this. Secondly, the advent of advanced manufacturing, with the latest innovations in automation, digital fabrication technologies and new materials means the manufacturing sector is no longer a basic industry powered by low-skilled workers, but something much broader, with so much more socio-economic growth potential. Australia’s highly skilled but under-utilised labour workforce, coupled with its broader, well-educated population, means the country is perfectly primed for greater knowledge-intensive research, and the developing of high-value products.

Tesla assembly line.

So as a potential site for a makerspace, Melbourne looked great on paper! And then when I actually moved here in 2015, I began to learn all about the city’s large, tight-knit community of designers and makers. The spirit of creativity is such an integral part of Melbourne’s culture and identity. Seeing that first hand really reinforced my choice to make it the home of FAB9. I applied for LaunchVic Round 1 funding, and luckily, my application was successful!

How about you, Ying?

Ying:​ I’m trained as an architect but had a previous life working as a design project manager in branding and graphic design. Before that, I worked in publishing. I’ve always been attracted to design — my first job was at a boutique publishing house called POL Publications, they produced a beautiful coffee table magazine called POL oxygen which explored the intersection of design art and architecture.

What brought you both together to work on FAB9?

Hans: ​Initially, I thought I could do everything on my own! I had a go at writing an architectural brief, but it didn’t get a very good response. I realised I didn’t really know how to articulate everything I wanted for this project in a way that architects could understand, so I sought out an architect friend’s advice. When I asked him how much his company would charge for a feasibility study, the figure he gave me was astronomical! So, he was like, “Ok, Hans, I have this colleague who recently left and you should get in touch with her.” That colleague was Ying.

Ying: ​When Hans and I first connected, ​FAB9 had just received the LaunchVic grant. Hans needed someone to help him write an architectural brief in order to find an architect practice to design the space. Most entrepreneurs try to write their own briefs, or don’t have one at all. Hans knew that a good brief forms the foundations of a good project and wanted to do things
right from the start.

We met over a coffee at CIBI, a beautiful space in Melbourne, always frequented by designers. Our second meeting was at RMIT Design Hub, I gave Hans a tour of the Design Hub workshop, which is basically the university’s equivalent of a makerspace .

University of Melbourne’s FabLab.

We then visited the FabLab at the University of Melbourne’s (then) new architecture building, where I introduced Hans to Jas Johnston, a friend of mine from architecture school who was the Fabrication workshop manager at FabLab.

Hans and I discussed the things we thought were working well at the University of Melbourne’s FabLab, and the things that could be improved at Design Hub’s makerspace. This really aligned our vision for FAB9, and the collaboration developed from there.

What are your respective roles within FAB9?

Ying: ​My role grew organically. It started off with writing the architectural brief. Then, I drafted up a shortlist of firms I thought FAB9 should contact with an Expression of Interest. Once we received responses to our Expression of Interest, I assisted Hans in selecting the firm best suited to FAB9’s needs.

When the architecture design process started, it was pretty clear that it could not be managed by one person. Architectural projects are inherently complex, but a project like this, where a new typology is inserted within a beautiful but highly protected heritage building, means the project is even more challenging than usual.

One of the main parts of my role as Creative Director is to attend design meetings with the architects, and give clear, consolidated client feedback. There is a particular way you need to deliver feedback to designers — you need to convey client intent, aspiration and reasoning without being prescriptive. The direction has to be clear, considered and unambiguous, but
respectful of the designers’ agency within the project.

Another of my roles at FAB9 is to keep the project moving — to ensure that we are on track for the timeline we’ve set. In addition to the architectural design, I manage the work we do with our branding agency U-P, and with our copywriters, The Good Copy.

FAB9 graphic identity by U-P.

Shortly after beginning the spatial design, it was universally agreed that we needed to revisit our branding and graphic identity. It made sense that I would manage this too, because of my background in branding.

More than the practicalities, I think of my role as Hans’ collaborator, adviser, co-conspirator, devil’s advocate and, sometimes, taskmaster.

How do you align your skill set with Hans’?

Ying: ​Hans and I have very different skills and temperaments, but often
quite complementary. Hans tends to be more spontaneous — he jumps into things and figures them out later. Whereas I tend to be a bit more of a mull-it-over-and-work-it-out-first type, considering all the implications before acting on something.

The thing we both share is that we can be a little impatient and sometimes reactive, which can lead to misunderstandings. But we’re getting better at understanding each other and developing a shorthand, listening first and reacting second, which makes the process so much more enjoyable. It’s easy to overcome the arguments and frustration when we share a common goal, which is making FAB9 a roaring success.

Specifically within FAB9, Hans looks after the technical, business, financial, legal, and operational side. I’m the one driving FAB9’s design, branding and culture — deciding how FAB9 should look and sound, how best to express its’ personality and DNA.

Having never lived in Melbourne before moving here in 2015, Hans is an outsider, without the inherited hang ups and restrictions of someone who is local. I am pretty much a born and bred Melburnian, so I’m more familiar with the local cultural context and landscape. But I am also interested in looking outwards. I’m wary of Melbourne being too insular, as it’s so far from everything.

Hans: ​I think the insight I had when I was in Silicon Valley was that a lot of great products should not be made by engineers. Let’s take Apple as an example, right? Steve Jobs was never the engineer, Steve Wozniak was the engineer. But Jobs had the vision about how things should look beautiful.

Design is a culture, and Steve Jobs prioritised it in every aspect of Apple. He knew that it’s not just the outside of the product, the parts that you can see and touch, but also everything else hidden inside it. If you rip the product apart, you’ll find the most beautifully designed piece of PCB (printed circuit board). A lot of people would say, ‘Why bother to make it beautiful when we can’t see it?’. But from the company’s point of view, the whole product matters, and so the whole product should be beautiful. I think that type of discipline and care inspires greatness.

So, essentially you’re saying Ying is your Steve Jobs?

Hans:​ ​Basically. (laughs)

Ying: ​(laughs) I think Hans engaging with me as an architect, and someone who knows the inherent value of design, shows his appreciation and respect for design. Having an engineer work with a number of architects and graphic designers creates this interesting tension — a tension that embodies the greater collaborative dynamic FAB9 is trying to achieve from the inside out.

FAB9 floor plan.

What were your hopes for FAB9 from the outset?

Hans: ​When we first put our brief together, we knew diversity and inclusion were some of our key objectives and that they couldn’t just be a marketing slogan. A company’s goals have to be built into its DNA. And, again, coming from an engineering background, I think that products and companies must function with intent. All of those buttons on your laptop have been considered, they’re not an afterthought.

For us at FAB9, diversity is very important, personally. And then from a business point of view, having a more diverse membership means that we’ll have a bigger market! So, it’s actually good for business to make diversity a priority. It’s not just talk — being open and inclusive is a fundamentally powerful part of how we operate.

Who is FAB9 designed for? Who do you envision coming into the space?

Hans:​ We really want this to be a hub for design, technology, art and training.

Ying:​ In a nutshell, FAB9 is a place for hardware entrepreneurs, designers, artists, tinkerers, craftspeople and anyone who wants experiment and explore through the making of physical objects.

Tell us about who else you’re collaborating with on FAB9?

Ying: ​The space itself is a collaboration between Therefore, an emerging Melbourne architecture and interior practice led by Alex Lake, and Ample, an architecture studio founded by Jas Johnston and his wife Cassandra Chin.

Our website, and graphic identity is by U-P, an ideas-led creative consultancy led by Paul Marcus Fuog and Uriah Gray. Paul is trained as a sculptor, so he really appreciates the craft of making. That was one of the reasons we wanted to work with him. In addition to U-P, Paul runs Field Experiments, a nomadic design collective that explores traditional crafts by engaging in making with local craftspeople in regions around the world.

We worked with The Good Copy on FAB9’s brand articulation and language style guide, because we not only admired their work with the likes of MPavilionDesign Hub, and ACMI but also their multifaceted approach of being a writing school, a communication consultancy practice and a retail store. We knew it would help them understand our mission of being a school, a makerspace and a place of connection.

Artist’s impression of FAB9’s assembly area

How have you found working with so many stakeholders and suppliers? Can you offer any advice around navigating these kinds of relationships?

Ying: ​As a start-up, we need to be very lean! So when we’re looking for collaborators, we go through a rigorous selection process. We prefer the relationships to be an ongoing partnership that evolves over time rather than simply transactional.

It’s important for us to respect the knowledge and expertise of everyone we work with. Sometimes it can be hard, especially when you’re in the thick of things, with time and budget constraints. But we have to remind ourselves why we chose our collaborators in the first place — because they have valuable insight and experience that we don’t have, and that they are, of course, good at what they do. It’s about respecting their guidance while still giving clear directions around our vision for FAB9, so that our collaborators can help us interpret, translate and execute this vision. For example, because they designed the space, we wanted our architects to have input into the branding studio we would work with. It was important that FAB9’s graphic identity would sit cohesively with the architect’s vision of the space.

Hans:​ We have three pillars; community, access to machinery, and education, which comes through workshops and classes. The school side of things is a very similar model to General Assembly, where a third party instructor delivers the content. That in itself is an innovation because, again, from a business point of view, we don’t have these people on the payroll. And from a community point of view, it’s powerful because people who are passionate about teaching usually bring their own community with them. They don’t want to be owning or operating a fabrication lab, which would be a very difficult to do, so it’s a win-win for everyone.

So how far along in the development process is FAB9?

Hans:​ We are currently in tender, and once we work through it with the builder, we hope that construction will commence in mid 2018.

Ying: ​We launched our website awhile back, and started an Instagramaccount to build a digital presence and community. We are also hosting events with Open House Melbourne and Academy Xi (pronounced ‘ex-eye’) to generate awareness and build up FAB9’s profile before we open.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Hans:​ I think like any new business or start-up, fundraising has been incredibly difficult. I met our co-founder Evan in early 2015, I flew to Philadelphia to talk to him about starting a makerspace, and I sold the idea of Melbourne as a location even though I’d never lived here! I knew that Melbourne had many designers and makers, and though it might not have as many engineers, I always felt like the two disciplines should meet and co-create. So even though there are some big challenges, I think we’re in the right place at the right time. There is nothing like FAB9 in Melbourne, and that’s what makes the venture so exciting.

Workshop at NextFab, a network of makerspaces in the USA.

Who and/or what have been your biggest influences on this project?

Ying: ​NewLab in Brooklyn, New York. A former ship building factory that has been converted into an interdisciplinary collaborative workspace for entrepreneurs working in emerging technology and human experience. It’s a beautifully designed space with an incredible machine list — a real landmark.

A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York. A former warehouse, renovated into a space that seeks to promote design to the wider general public. They have incredible programming — a real commitment to culture and events — and they have a small digital fabrication space within the workspace.

MPavilion, in the botanical gardens in Melbourne. In terms of its civic presence in Melbourne, MPavillion is a real success, as an events hub, a meeting place and a cultural laboratory of experimentation and experience.

NewLab, a hub for entrepreneurs working in advanced technology in NYC.

Hans:​ One of my key influences is TechShop, a network of membership makerspace based in the US, where one of the co-founders of Twitter, Jack Dorsay, invented the payment system Square. When I lived in the States, I was a member of the Bay area Techshop, so I had direct experience from the member’s perspective. I know that a membership model can work because I’ve seen it in action at TechShop. In terms of a bigger, personal inspiration for this project, Evan himself has been a huge influence. He’s been building makerspaces for years, and now has three on the East Coast of America. He has also been involved with humanitarian, philanthropic projects in Jordan
and Greece. It’s interesting because in some places where they have many refugees from Syria, they don’t have schools, there’s no formal education, so a makerspace is an alternative for people to stay engaged and gain skills. It also encourages positive social-economic development.

Ying: ​Evan, is working with Refugee Open Ware, which seeks to use technology and innovation to alleviate repercussions stemming from the refugee crisis in the Levant. One of the many initiatives undertaken by Refugee Open Ware is National Syrian Project for Prosthetic Limbs, which is creating prosthetics for as many as 200,000 Syrian amputees victimized by the war.

EXO 3D printer prosthetic limb by William Root.

Where do you see yourselves and FAB9 heading in the future?

Ying:​ As the architecture design phase wraps up, I’m shifting my focus towards developing strategic relationships with creative and cultural partners, and really embed FAB9 as a destination in Melbourne for design, art, technology and making.

Hans:​ We’re excited about this beta version of FAB9 at The Dream Factory. If it goes well, we could expand. I really think we can become an exemplar of a makerspace, so when people think about design, prototyping and experimentation, they will think of FAB9. Giving entrepreneurs affordable access to powerful machinery is going to bring some very interesting start-ups into the space.

Ying:​ We want to be accessible and approachable — to democratise access to machines and technology. We want to deliver on our manifesto and encourage people to get their hands on tools. We want making to be fun for everyone who walks through our doors and we want our visitors to know that at FAB9 we embrace failure! Because failure, is not something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of, but to be cherished, as it’s an integral part of the learning and experimentation process, no true creativity can be achieved without it.

Any final thoughts?

Hans:​ To me, technology has always been about empowering people. A makerspace like FAB9 will allow more people to have access to technology, to make it themselves and engage with it however they want. The relationship between the consumer and the producer has well and truly shifted.

Aerial view of The Dream Factory with the CBD skyline in the background.

A 15-minute walk from Footscray train station to the banks of the Maribyrnong River, FAB9 is located inside the heritage-listed Dream Factory — a hub for businesses focused on technology, design, and social change.