The entire production chain is being opened up, ever so slowly and minutely. Small scale design, manufacture, and distribution – in units as few as 1 – have been decoupled and are available to anyone, anywhere.
The latest example of which is Ponoko (via MadeForOn), out of the recently productive New Zealand (see: Flight of the Conchords). Essentially it works like this: Anyone can design a product, send the design to Ponoko, and they send the finished physical product to you. Pretty cool so far, but eMachineShop does similar work. However, you will also release and sell your design on Ponoko’s website. Nothing is built until a customer buys your design, which Ponoko builds and distributes, and you get a cut. Although the term is overused, it seems this is another case of the long tail at work: essentially it is limitless inventory and designs. (I imagine pricing will be an issue. Who decides how much to charge? Will Ponoko be able to easily calculate their cost of production for various items?) Users will even be able to purchase designs and build the objects for themselves, perhaps they could employing a home fab machine or computer controlled laser cutter.
Extrapolating from this, perhaps the future could look like this:
Step 1: Anyone makes a design. In the future, perhaps you will be able to use multiple design tools, producing a standardized file. Maybe: Google sketchup, CAD software, eMachineShop’s design tool, etc. Design departments become decoupled from manufacturing companies and can range from a guy tinkering at home alone to a highly experience, large team.
Step 2: Release the design into the wild. Here you have the choice of doing a number of things: release it into the public domain or creative commons, sell it through a broker/aggreggator like Ponoko, put it up for bid by manufacturers, etc.
Step 3: Customers, whether they be individuals, communities, or retailers, then decide how they would like to have their product built: make it themselves, have a local manufacturer produce it, or order it from a manufacturer that specializes in the type of widget you need made. When buying a design for commercial purposes or medium scale manufacture, buyers will be able to purchase a number of licenses corresponding to the number of finished products.
Designs are decoupled and freely available to anyone (or for a fee). These designs can then be manufactured anywhere. Some items will become popular and others will be made by a handful of farmers in the developing world who need an extremely specialized tool. (Fab machines are becoming cheap and easy enough to build such that local manufacture of specialized items is possible in the developing world).
Anyone with an idea, some design skills, and 0 money can now test out physical product ideas on the market.