Decoding Design

Maker Faire: Ponoko and the rise of the personal factory

Maker Faire: Ponoko and the rise of the personal factory

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The third industrial revolution can't be realized through small batch manufacturing. It needs scale. For this, makers are turning to web-based service brokers.

Gnome militia figures, on sale at Maker Faire.

The personal computer and small, cheap printers begot desktop publishing and the publishing industry was completely disrupted. Then came the internet and online publishing and, well, we know what happened next. Here we are.

Just as personal computing forever changed publishing, increasingly cheap and accessible manufacturing tools will likely forever change manufacturing. During last weekend's Maker Faire, Mark Hatch breathlessly championed the entrepreneurs who are using Tech Shop to create prototypes of their products. But once a startup has made a prototype, the next step is mass production.

"I predict that you'll be able to buy a 3D printer at Walmart within five years," Chris Anderson, Wired's editor in chief told Maker Faire attendees. That's great, he added, but a desktop 3D printer of the type one will soon purchase at a department store does not a manufacturing revolution make. Real change will require manufacturing services, he said.

Repeating many of the sentiments expressed by Hatch, Anderson sang the praises of the emerging "third industrial revolution" and explained how Ponoko is serving up a platform for manufacturing services that will enable that revolution.

I should note, first, that Anderson is on Ponoko's advisory board. So it's no surprise he supports the firm. But Ponoko isn't the only organization that helps entrepreneurs begin scaling up production. Shapeways, which we've written about here, is one. Another is iMaterialize. But these two are focused only on 3D printing, whereas Ponoko has a wider purview, with everything from laser cutting and CNC milling services, to printed circuit boards to an application program interface (API) that enables developers to create apps for making things. Basically, it's making the process of making even more accessible.

"Karl Marx talked about the unfairness of not owning the means of production," said Anderson. But with manufacturing services such as Ponoko, he said, we have the means of designing a product and then ordering as many of them as we want, just by keying in our credit cards. "We can get robots in China to do the work for us, with one click."

The personal factory, it would seem, is the new personal computer.

Ponoko's CEO David ten Have then introduced some Ponoko customers who are using the manufacturing platform to build up their dream companies.

MadeSolid is a startup that is aiming to modernize the balls and sticks we used to create molecule models in grade school by providing a service for researchers and scientists (or even students) to order 3D print-outs of molecules. MadeSolid co-founder Lance Pickens explained that scientists, who previously relied on renderings on their computer screens to study molecules as they developed and designed drugs meant to latch on to certain molecules, can now use MadeSolid to create a "cognitive prosthetic" of a molecule.

Another Ponoko customer is Local Motors, which is trying to change the meaning of the term "automakers" to include not just General Motors and Ford, but also your buddy Joe or your Aunt Sue or whomever wants to actually make a car. From parts. Parts that they design and have make. The Local Motors community has already cranked out 35 of its flagship ride, the Mad Max-ish Rally Fighter.

Images: (top) Mary Catherine O'Connor; (car) Local Motors

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure