An important connection has been made which brings to fruition what I foresaw happening about a year ago in my previous article Part 5: The evolution of mass customization and personal manufacturing Each part of the chain for truly distributed and democratized product design and personal manufacturing have essentially come together to form a coherent whole.
If you want to design a product and have it built you currently have three options — short of contracting with a manufacturer which is complex and expensive.
Slap a graphic design on a commodity product: You might be familiar with Zazzle and Cafepress which allow anyone to upload a design and sell physical products, but these services are limited in that you are stuck simply printing a graphic design on a preselected commodity product which is then shipped from a central location.
Design an object from flat materials that are laser cut. Ponoko is the best example of this. You can choose from a whole host of materials. Designers post designs, Ponoko handles the sale, cuts the material, and either sends it to the seller or directly to the buyer. (Can I interest you in some biohazard coasters, perhaps?)
Design an object in 3D and have it “printed”. Shapeways takes 3D models and creates physical objects from them. (Or would you prefer a small skeleton sculpture?)
Each of these services have been available in the past to people and companies with significant resources, but never before have they all been available and affordable for normal folk. And now, ShopBot and Ponoko have partnered to create 100KGarages. Ponoko is supplying it’s online “click to make” system and ShopBot, which makes CNC routers, brings the distributed digital fabricators who are in 54 countries around the world. Products designed anywhere, printed wherever you are, in runs as small as 1 unit.
This allows for designers and builders to essentially sell a product before it exists! Instead of design->prototype->test->manufacture->market->retail->Sale, the process can look like this: design->market->Sale->manufacture.
The great innovation here is not only the atomization of the process (you can design a product and put it out in the world to see if someone else wants to build it or you can just build other people’s designs) but at the same time the loose coupling of the process (if you want you can take it from start to finish using several services that are tied together). The basic infrastructure is there.
For now it will be relegated largely to hobbyists and, no, it can be expensive (3D printing in particular), but I would imagine within a few years we may see a successful product that comes about through this loosely coupled chain of services… a design student in India uses a free online design tool… a retail site such as Ponoko hosts the design… a buyer in the NY purchases… a 3D printer NY that has the correct materials prints the object and ships it to the buyer.
UPDATE: A few weeks after 100KGarages launched, a similar idea was introduced through CloudFab.com, “a central marketplace to connect buyers and sellers” of 3D printed parts and objects. So, for now, think of this as very similar to 100KGarages, with the main point of differentiation being that CloudFab is focused on 3D printing, and 100K Garages is focused on 2D materials. More info at MadeForOne