Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Ponoko and ShopBot announce distributed manufacturing partnership

New Zealand-based online making system Ponoko and ShopBot Tools, a U.S.  designer and manufacturer of affordable CNC tools for digital fabrication of wood, plastic and aluminum products, have combined to launch which will serve as a network of local digital makers that will enable users to get “almost anything custom made and delivered”.

David ten Have, Ponoko’s CEO, is quoted as saying: “By partnering with ShopBot we bring together more than 20,000 creators and over 6,000 fabricators to use a powerful online service to design, make and deliver goods locally”.  (These figures appear to relate to the overall number of users of Ponoko, and fabricators who are users of Shop Bot equipment.)

Users of the 100kGarages website can get their ideas made locally by owners of ShopBot equipment, and delivered within a few days.  It is powered by Ponoko’s online ‘click to make’ system and users of ShopBot digital fabricators.  While there are users of ShopBot equipment in 54 countries around the world, the 100kGarages website currently shows a list of registered fabricators that have signed up to participate.  These are located mostly in the U.S., but also include fabricators in Canada, Mexico, Australia, United Kingdom and Sweden.

To use the 100kGarages service, users can search a map for a local garage workshop, or alternatively submit a request and then choose from bids placed by a range of ShopBot owners to make almost anything.  The service is free for everyone to search and submit requests, and for fabricators to post profiles and bids.  Interestingly, the user (or ‘maker’ in the terminology of the venture) does not have to upload an actual design file;  they can enter a description of the job, including their ideal purchase price and the delivery deadline.   The maker is advised to describe the project in detail so that fabbers can make an informed bid.  The request can also include links to relevant images, for example a sketches of your idea.

Examples of the wide range of products being created includes things such as tables, chairs, cabinets, car parts, signage, boats, musical instruments, gaskets, sheds, housing.  Materials include wood, plastic, metal and composite materials.

The press release announcing the new service quotes ShopBot President Ted Hall as saying:  “Ponoko’s making system gives our ShopBot owners the ability to receive a new stream of work from a wide range of customers.  Our partnership also means everyone now has easy access to their own local 3D fabricator.”

At the moment, the 100kGarages  system is confined to work involving CNC routers (tools that create by cutting away or subtracting material).  Over time, the partners hope to incorporate more types of tools into the 100Kgarage network.  (Ponoko itself already provides laser-cutting services).

The new service is a significant step for Ponoko, which has produced over 30,000 DIY, hard to find and consumer goods.  Until now, Ponoko’s existing manufacturing resources have been centralised in New Zealand and San Francisco, which can mean expensive shipping charges for buyers not located close to either of the manufacturing locations.  The 100kGarages project will add the ability to transfer the manufacturing of custom-made products far closer to the end customer, reducing transport costs, delivery times, and the carbon costs associated with delivery of the finished product.

The phrase ‘democratisation of manufacturing’ generally refers in various ways to the transfer of manufacturing away from centralised industry to a more distributed model where design data can be easily transferred between the customer and a local supplier who will turn the design into a finished product.  The spread of democratised manufacturing reflects the fact that, for some products, advances in affordable manufacturing technology have cancelled out the financial advantage which had been associated with centralised manufacturing for the last 100 years or more.

Democratised manufacturing capacity is measured not in terms of the size of one factory, but the number of local producers who are networked together and the extent of geographic territory covered by this network.

With, Ponoko and ShopBot are taking a step towards the realisation of democratised manufacturing on a very large scale.

Of course, the flexible systems that enable democratised manufacturing are also associated with another concept that is an closely linked to mass customization – it’s called ‘Economies of Scope’ – where manufacturing systems are flexible enough that it is financially viable for the manufacturer to make every item to the customer’s requirements, with no two alike.

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