If you can imagine an object. Someone can build it. How does personal manufacturing relate to the various topics covered here? Well it democratizes manufacturing and design choices to everyone, everywhere. It decouples the design, manufacturing, assembly, and marketing of products like never before. I have categorized these related concepts into three levels of increasing complexity: 1) Mass customization, 2) 2D and 3D object printers, 3) Home manufacturing.
Level 1: Mass customization.
Mass customization puts a certain level of choice in the hands of the customer starting with a base, unchanging object. It allows you to customize a mass produced product to your specification along certain pre-defined configurations. Anyone can do this. There are thousands of examples of it and most people have experienced this in one form or another. Buying a Dell. Uploading an image for a product on CafePress. Designing a Nike shoe. Even your own tea.
Level 2: 2D and 3D printing.
Ponoko is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of personal manufacturing in the 2D realm. Users can upload image files (whether that be CAD or scanned in free-hand drawing), specify any of a number of flat materials, and Ponoko will input it into their magic laser cutters and send you the result. It doesn’t stop there: you can also sell your resulting products through the site. Ponoko has been improving and releasing new features at an impressive clip over the last 2 years or so. Keep an eye on them. Manufacturing as a service.
Going from 2D to 3D: While Ponoko seems farthest along in democratizing 2D printing of objects, Shapeways seems to have the best, most user friendly, option for 3D printing and distribution of objects.
Confused about the various 2D and 3D printing technologies available? Check out this great compendium of videos on much of the tech.
Level 3: Home Fabbing
For the power-geek: home fabbing (with self-replicating machines, of course) you too can build a CNC machine that creates 3D objects or cuts flat materials. Just download the design and let your machine have at it.
Of course, the current adoption of these various technologies stand at about the same level as personal computers in the late 70s: expensive, geared towards geeks, inconvenient, and a small market.
Bringing this all together you have a decoupling of the design, manufacturing, assembly, and marketing of physical objects down to the individual level. As this evolves further the options expand incredibly; here’s a scenario (And Shapeways comes pretty close to this today). I post a design, then there are many paths:
- I can then order a copy for myself.
- Someone else orders the physical object which is printed in a one-off run.
- Another person licenses the design for the right to produce the object for personal use and downloads it to their home-fabber where they can tweak the design and actually create it.
- Someone licenses the design for 100 copies and sells them locally after having them produced at their local personal manufacturing facility.
- A large retailer licenses the design for distribution in their stores.
Pretty rad, right?
Resources and examples:
Mass Customization and Open Innovation News by Frank Piller
Design a Tea
List of mass customization providers
Design Democracy ’08
List of Personal Manufacturing providers
FigurePrints (print out avatars in 3D)
That’s My Face
Fabjectory: Virtual Objects in Real Life
Design My Idea
Update 1/7/09:An interesting addition to the field: Automake which provides an online 3D modeling tool in the hopes of “combining generative systems with craft knowledge and digital production technologies to create a new way of designing and making objects that blurs the boundaries between maker and consumer, craft and industrial production.”