February 15, 2024

The future of FabCafe
“Just a café” atop Shibuya’s Dogenzaka street explores endless possibilities beyond manufacturing

FabCafe Global Editorial Team


FabCafe Tokyo was created as the first base of operations of the global creative community, FabCafe, which spans locations including Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Spain, France, and Mexico.

This café equipped with digital manufacturing machines including laser cutters, UV printers, and digital embroidery sewing machines, attracts people of many kinds and invites them to participate in workshops and events centered on digital fabrication (the technology of producing creations based on digital data). It also acts as a venue to hold events spanning a wide range of other cutting-edge topics from biotechnology to Mirror World to Web3, in addition to sustainability activities for the community.

FabCafe Tokyo leads multiple community-driven projects for a wide range of clients and partners, and sometimes also collaborates closely with its creative parent company, Loftwork.

Scenes from the “WTF (We The Future)” mushroom leather FAB workshop held at FabCafe Tokyo from September to October 2022.

So, what position is FabCafe Tokyo aiming to hold in society? In this interview, Daiki Kanaoka, the current COO and CTO of FabCafe Tokyo who has been involved in operations from the start, discusses what the future holds.

Planning, interviewing, editing: Quishin
Interviewing, writing: Mitsufumi Obara
Editing: Miki Osanai
Photography: Daisuke Murakami

Interview series directed by Ryoko Iwasaki (Loftwork Editorial Department).
The English version has been translated and edited by Sarah Burch and Judit Moreno (Global Editorial Team).


——   FabCafes have the unique qualities of being outfitted with equipment such as 3D printers and laser cutters. As the COO of FabCafe Tokyo, the original FabCafe, what sort of presence do you consider it to be?

Although FabCafe operates with the concept of creating the innovations of the future by freely crossing the wall that separates “digital” and “real,” and is equipped with digital machine tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters, I still think of it as “just a café.”

——    “Just a café”…?

While it does have an environment that makes digital fabrication possible, people can just come to have a cup of coffee, and the café space can also be used to organize events.

To me, it’s “just a café” in the best sense of the word. Even if the concept is based around innovation, there’s no awkward air of pretentiousness—people can do as they like with no restrictions and are free to come and go as they please.

——   Still, it’s a bit of a surprise to hear you call it “just a café” considering FabCafe Tokyo has a capital relationship with creative company, Loftwork, in addition to holding a variety of unique events that surpass the borders of manufacturing in fields ranging from food to art, bio, AI, and even education.

FabCafe Tokyo is often misunderstood as a part of Loftwork, but it’s not used as a “space that belongs to the company”. Instead, its existence is more like that of Dejima Island, the only area where trade and communication with other countries was permitted when Japan was closed to the world. In other words, an open space for all.

Of course, it’s also utilized as a space where Loftwork can try new endeavors, but FabCafe Tokyo often collaborates with creators and artists independently from Loftwork.

——   So, it’s “just a café” in the sense that anyone can use it for any purpose regardless of connection to Loftwork?

That’s right. Although, its role as “just a café” changes as the years go by. If I were to put the value of FabCafe Tokyo’s existence into words, I’d probably say it’s “a place that amplifies individual interests.”

In the past, equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters were only viewed as cutting-edge machinery, but as a result of the permeation of new technologies, the number of people who see them and think “I want to try my hand at making something” is increasing.

And as another result of this societal permeation of technology, fewer people are visiting the café for the purpose of digital fabrication itself.

——   So, although they can take part in manufacturing, fewer people are visiting for that purpose these days?

For the last 10 years, since 2012, we’ve held the “YouFab Global Creative Awards,” an event where top creators from around the world submit works and activities that use digital fabrication.

YouFab 2021 awarded the Grand Prize to two works. A total of 19 works were selected under the theme “Democratic experiment(s).”

The Museum of Edible Earth / masharu studio

Public Voice / Creator: Dora Bartilotti / Collaborator: Leonardo Aranda

When the YouFab Global Creative Awards first started, it was a contest of works made using a laser cutter, but as that technology has permeated society, no one is talking about the technology itself anymore. The focus has shifted more to a stance of “let’s find out what we can create with this technology and what its significance is.” Similarly, the value provided by FabCafe has also changed.

In addition to creators who are active on a global scale, the people who work at FabCafe and Loftwork are also using the technology of the café as a base to shape their personal interests to the fullest. I see that as an increasing trend lately.

—— Would you mind providing some examples?

FabCafe’s Chief Community Officer, who is also Loftwork’s Sustainability Executive, Kelsie Stewart, is currently working on various sustainability-related projects. She originally launched them from FabCafe Tokyo out of her own interests.

Since Loftwork is an agency, aside from some internal endeavors, projects are usually first launched after receiving a client request.

However, at FabCafe, it’s not unusual for FabCafe employees to start projects based on a strong motivation of “I want to try this” either individually or partnered with external creators and engineers.

Kelsie also utilized what is “just a café” to express her interests through holding activities such as pop-up markets and “design-a-thons.”

—— Were you the one who nurtured FabCafe Tokyo in that direction?

To be honest, I think it was just a natural progression.

“Fab” is derived from “Fabrication.” The dictionary definition is something along the lines of “constructing or manufacturing a product,” but the meaning is changing all the time.

I referred to the YouFab Global Creative Awards earlier, but basically the same principle applies. “Fab” doesn’t just mean “manufacturing” anymore, it also captures the essence of the significance of making something and what lies beyond.

FabCafe Tokyo is a place where an ever changing “Fab” is projected, so to speak. As “Fab” changes, so does the meaning of its existence. And in accordance, the realms I can work with have likewise expanded.

—— Mr. Kanaoka, what events led to you participate in the launch of FabCafe Tokyo?

I was originally studying architecture in England.

After returning to Japan, I was walking through my old stomping grounds of Shibuya, when I came across FabCafe Tokyo, which was on the verge of opening at the time.

The glass paneling provided an excellent view of the interior, and I noticed a laser cutter—a device I’d often used at my university—when I peeked inside.

At the time, using laser cutters for manufacturing wasn’t very common, so I remember my curiosity being piqued and thinking, “so a place like this also exists in Shibuya.” The sign on the entrance of the café read “Coming Soon.”

More than architectural design itself, I was strongly drawn to the surrounding technology, especially the world of digital fabrication, where things I designed immediately became tangible objects. I decided to work there—as a part-timer initially—that was how it all started.

—— So, you started working at FabCafe Tokyo because it had a laser cutter?

In university, architecture students design various buildings and submit models of their creations. In order to make the models, we used a “model making room” that was outfitted with a laser cutter.

I thought diligent work by hand, such as cutting styrene boards with a conventional cutter, would be required to make the models, but the laser cutter was a completely different beast. Something I’d just created could immediately be given shape—it shocked me to the core.

Of course, there were still manual aspects of the process such as polishing the materials and assembling them, but I’ll never forget the feeling of something I was manipulating as data on a screen manifesting in my hand just like that.

I encountered FabCafe right when I was in Japan considering whether I wanted to continue with architecture or use the impact that had left a lasting impression on me to pivot in a different direction.

FabCafe Tokyo’s laser cutter, the “Trotec Speedy 360.”

── After working at FabCafe Tokyo, did the path you wished to take become clear?

I noticed something after I started working here. I certainly had an interest in architecture, and I like manufacturing too, but I realized I was the type who preferred thinking about the process of bringing ideas to fruition rather than the act of designing and creating itself.

If someone has a talent for design, it’s better to allow them to handle it. Rather, I was interested, not in the narrow sense of the word, but the concept of design. The entire process of how it was brought to reality—from creation to the materials used. When I thought about what kind of place would allow me to realize the things I wanted to do, I reached the conclusion that FabCafe Tokyo was exactly what I was looking for.

——  What sort of work have you done at FabCafe Tokyo thus far?

Shortly after joining the company, I was basically a jack-of-all-trades. I managed technical workshops as well as architecture-relevant projects. It felt like everything I did at FabCafe Tokyo was exhilarating.

Kanaoka planned and executed a summer program for students from SUNY Buffalo in New York in collaboration with FabCafe Tokyo and FabCafe Hida. In 2022, the third year of the project, they verified whether a global team, including carpenters from Higa, could collaborate using augmented reality (AR) and 3D.

I enjoyed seeing creators from a variety of fields utilizing digital fabrication, the technology my roots are based in.

Digital fabrication itself is only a technology, but the increasing number of contact points I made with the world through using it in my daily life imbued me with the same excitement as the concept of “pioneering the process of creation” that I’d vaguely opened my eyes to before I joined the company.

—— It sounds like cross-disciplinary collaborations are being made possible because of FabCafe Tokyo’s “anyone can use it for any purpose” stance. What about you, Mr. Kanaoka? Is there anything you would like to achieve in the future?

Let me see…

Even as the world continues to change, I want FabCafe Tokyo to continue to fulfill its raison d’etre. I think that starts with keeping the café open no matter what happens.

FabCafe Tokyo didn’t close when COVID-19 started spreading in Japan because some people were experimenting by making their own masks and faceguards. I believe that even when faced with changing situations, humanity’s ability to adapt and create something through trial and error is one of their greatest fundamental strengths.

FabCafe Tokyo will continue to welcome those who want to create something, no matter what their ideas may be. I want it to remain a place where people can come together.

Earlier, I said that the value provided by FabCafe had changed in these 10 years, but the social atmosphere has drastically changed in that time as well. Companies now exist in an era when the significance of the services they create is being questioned. Whether it be the impact they have on society, or the impact they should be created to have.

As such, so-called “testing grounds” will be required more than ever before. When a topic is born ahead of its time, there needs to be opportunities to ask society about it and places where the impact of new services can be tested.

I think FabCafe Tokyo can be a place that fills that role.

—— What do you want to FabCafe Tokyo to be in the future?

Instead of branching out into something new, I’d rather keep things the way they are now. As long as people keep visiting FabCafe Tokyo with the expectation of, “now that I’m here, maybe something will come of it,” that’s enough for me.

In any case, this is a very accepting place.

People from various backgrounds gather here. Some start their own businesses, create original brands, or get hired by the companies of people they meet through attending events. Encounters and chemical reactions occur even where we don’t intend them to. The staff also reflects this diversity. There are full-time employees and those that only work twice a week. Some have backgrounds in biological research, while others are dancers.

If this chaos can’t be maintained, there’s a chance FabCafe Tokyo could become “just a cafe” in the literal sense.

The definition of “fabrication” may change, but the meaning of “Fab” should never be lost. To ensure that doesn’t happen, FabCafe must increase their bases and friends in various cities, and venture into collaborations with a wide variety of creators. I’d say my role in all this is to constantly seek out new collaborators and ensure that the ever-changing flow never stops.

—— On that topic, what sort of meaning do you think “Fab” will hold in the future?

To put it in my own words, “Fab” is a way to connect with others in a society that is continually being divided using the act of “making” as a common language.

Still, it’s difficult to say. FabCafe is “just a café,” but it’s also a “connection hub” and a “testing ground.” The value of its existence can change in a multitude of ways depending on who comes.

After hearing me speak, I’m sure many people will wonder, “what exactly is FabCafe Tokyo, then?” I would highly encourage anyone thinking that to visit, even just once. FabCafe Tokyo may be “just a café,” but I’m sure they will realize the potential that “just a café” has.

The roots of cafés can be traced back to “salons,” places that once flourished as social hubs where cultural figures gathered.

While speaking with Mr. Kanaoka, I realized that the establishment he calls “just a café” located on top of Shibuya’s Dogenzaka has a culture not unlike the roots that cafés originated from.

It transcends language barriers, differences in ideologies, and social stagnation using the fundamental human act of “making” as a common language.

Even if you feel suffocated living in a society where discussion of close-minded topics never seems to stop, perhaps a visit to “just a café” is all it will take to unlock your future.



  • FabCafe Global Editorial Team

    This articles is edited by FabCafe Global.

    Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions on this article with us.
    Contact us

    This articles is edited by FabCafe Global.

    Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions on this article with us.
    Contact us

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