Anton Molina: FabCity Hamburg and Open-Source Software
Background and motivation: When I had originally applied to the GRIP program, my research career had focused on understanding the physical and chemical aspects of self-assembly phenomena. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I had the opportunity to work on a project that allowed me to leverage my background in chemistry and physics to tackle an important materials manufacturing challenge at the time: the production of non-woven face filtering respirator material. Working on this project gave me a frontrow seat to the great experiment in collaborative design and distributed manufacturing that took place in laboratories, hospitals, and also FabLabs around the world. I had long been looking for ways that my work could have a more tangible impact in the world and this pandemic experience pointed towards a door that the GRIP program gave me the opportunity to walk through.
A FabLab is a term used to describe a type of open workshop and typically contains a variety of digital manufacturing tools that enable prototyping and small scale production of a wide variety of objects. I had first encountered these tools during my PhD in the Prakash Lab where they play an important role in our scientific work. However, I had been aware that there were many organizations interested in exploring how these spaces can be used to have a broader impact on society. One such organization is the FabCity Foundation which imagines what might be possible if FabLabs become networked, specifically asking to what extent a city might be able to produce everything it needs within the city itself. Together with the city of Hamburg, the New Production Institute at the HSU made Hamburg the first FabCity in Germany by supporting the foundation of FabCity Hamburg e.V., essentially turning the city into a living laboratory for urban production and collaborative design.
My motivation was therefore to gain a perspective on how the tools and ideas around distributed manufacturing that I developed while working on COVID-19 response projects could extend beyond the lab and into society.
The internship: Initially, it was quite challenging to orient myself in the project since the group was not only undergoing a transition in leadership but also organizing as well as participating in several events during the summer. While this made it challenging to quickly settle into a specific project, it did provide a fantastic opportunity to meet a variety of leaders working at the interface of open source development and sustainability with backgrounds including policy, design, and engineering. The events included the Circular Design symposia hosted by Interfacer in Hamburg and a mini-conference on open source business models for hardware development hosted by the OpenNext foundation in Berlin.
Fortunately, I was able to settle into a project led by Pieter Hijma and J.C. Mariscal which allowed me to develop my software engineering skills. The goal was to build a series of software tools that extended the open source computer aided design program FreeCAD that would automate the generation of documentation, specifically assembly guides. My role was to lay the foundation for the web rendering tool which would allow the automatically generated documentation to be viewed and manipulated in the browser. I was tasked with evaluating potential candidate libraries and implementing an integration that would essentially allow FreeCAD to communicate with the browser. While the project is still on-going, this work will be integrated into the final project deliverable.
Community engagement: I was able to share Planktoscope, a frugal and open source scientific instrument developed by the Prakash Lab with several communities in and around Hamburg. The Plankotscope is a flow-through microscope that can enable continuous surveillance of microorganisms and can be built using readily available parts and the digital fabrication tools commonly found in a FabLab. The digital nature of my internship project permitted me flexibility in where I could work in Hamburg. A favorite location was at the Curious Community Labs, a bio-oriented maker space in the Oberhafen Kreativquartier run by Sebastian Wendel, a board member of the Fab City Hamburg e.V.. It's convenient location near a quiet bank of the Elbe river allowed me to easily make measurements using with Planktoscope. This activity led to many informal workshops where I introduced the tool and its philosophy to members of the community lab. Later, I was invited to give a more formal workshop on the instrument to the 42 School in Wolfsburg, who were interested in potential intersections between software development and the potential capacities of their makerspace that open source hardware projects like Planktoscope offered. I was able to connect with an on-going citizen science initiative organized by Prof. Dr. Niklaus von Schwartzenberg, an expert in fresh water algae, whose lab maintains the MZCH, one of the world's largest collections of microalgae. The project uses data from amateur microscopists to monitor the health of Bogs (Moore) around Hamburg by quantifying the number and diversity of microalgae species. We discussed the potential of planktoscope as a tool in the citizen science initiative and in the maintenance of the microalgae library. Finally, Planktoscope will be included as a member of a set of 12 open source hardware projects, serving as a basis for a series of build workshops conducted under the umbrella of the Interfacer project. The goal is to better understand how knowledge transfer and documentation for a variety of open source hardware projects can be improved and streamlined. For example, understanding how well new or proposed open source hardware specification standards such as the recent DIN SPEC 3105 work in practice.
Living in Hamburg: There were some initial challenges with my housing in Hamburg that ultimately resulted in me living at the Helmut Schmidt University for about one week. Ultimately, my housing in Hamburg was arranged with the help of Niels Boeing, journalist, co-founder of Fabulous St. Pauli FabLab, and board member of FabCity Hamburg e.V. I settled into a shared apartment (WG) close to the infamous Reeperbahn in Hamburg's St. Pauli neighborhood. It was a convenient location that allowed me to experience all that the city had to offer. During my stay, I was able to visit several museums in Hamburg including the Museum of Hamburg History, the Hamburger Kunsthall, The Hamburg Museum of Work, Artstadt - a pop-up art gallery and communication space taking advantage of vacant space in an old shopping mall. I was able to attend a concert at the Stadtpark by one of my favorite instrumental artists, a Hamburg local who goes by the name of Erobique, as well as a memorable concert in the Nazi-era Flaktum IV.
In addition to the cultural aspects of the city, I was able to gain an understanding of the economic landscape of the city and region as well. Through my participation in the Emergence organization at Stanford a group focused on purposeful entrepreneurship, I was able to meet the Darion Aikens the consulate at Hamburg, Caroline Berg who provided me with an overview of the business and entrepreneurial landscape in Hamburg, and Achim Tappe who is the chief innovation office at Fehrmann, a fourth generation Mittelstand firm specializing in high performance metallic window casings.
The 9-euro ticket made traveling within and around Hamburg exceedingly convenient. I made a few weekend trips, perhaps most notably to Cuxhaven, Wolfsburg, and Berlin. After my internship I spent the remainder of my Schengen time traveling along the alps from Zurich to Vienna where I was able to visit old friends, many of whom I had met during my time at Stanford. Finally, I was able to arrange a visit to researchers at both Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. While this was my second extended stay in Germany, it was the first where I had reasonable command of the German language. Unfortunately, while I could perform much of my day-to-day life in German, deeper friendships were still built in English.