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Ponoko 'the future of manufacturing' - Anderson

Ponoko 'the future of manufacturing' - Anderson

Ponoko gets Wired-up to more cutting-edge advice

US comedian Stephen Wright says he is a peripheral visionary. He can see into the future, it’s just way off to the side. That’s the feeling I get from New Zealand’s make-it-yourself company, Ponoko.

The firm recently announced the recruitment of Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson to its advisory board. Anderson is in the process of writing a book about what he calls “the forthcoming manufacturing revolution”. He believes Ponoko is at its epicentre.

He joins existing board members Treehugger.com founder Graham Hill, Cafepress.com co-founder Fred Durham, and Design Led Futures co-founder Ross Stevens, who are all taking this idea very seriously indeed.

People say we make our own future. Ponoko takes that literally. The phrase ‘cutting edge’ was never so apt. Founded by David ten Have and Derek Elley in 2007, Ponoko’s range of software and webtools enable customers to design, make and sell two-dimensional and three dimensional items in paper, cardboard, wood, plastic, leather and more.

It’s already carved out an enviable media profile, not least in Idealog’s pages, and rightly so. Fully realised, the idea of manufacturing by the masses—on-demand online or in your home—has the potential to open up a creative revolution in real objects comparable to what the internet is doing to the virtual world. Desktop 3D printers are now available for about $1,000 and Ponoko even enables you to make your own. Design software giant Autodesk is also weighing into this new market. But this technology remains in its infancy, and so far Ponoko can come across more like an online craft fair than the next Big Thing.

Elley is realistic about the company’s progress, but thrilled that Ponoko is being seen as a first port of call for this embryonic sector: “We are at is an incredible place,” he says. “In April 2006 we had this vision of making things by just waving your arms around and getting it pumped into your house like the Star Trek replicator. We wanted to be the first in the world that would allow people to make products online. We knew that this would not be actualised in a real hurry, but we have proved to the world that digital manufacturing is on its way.”

Ponoko isn’t paying or offering him shares, but Anderson is clearly a Ponoko convert and now evangelist. Last year he wrote that, “Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, user-generated content—all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world. In short, atoms are the new bits.”

I interviewed him by email, because speaking on the phone is so yesterday.

“I first encountered Ponoko as a customer, more than a year ago,” he tells me. “I use it to make lots of things. Just today my 14-year-old made a whole sheet of little figurines for a tabletop strategy game. I cleaned up his file. We make lots of robot parts, too.

“Making it easier for people to use powerful tools is the key to liberating creativity. I’m a robotics geek, I love making things, and for me, Ponoko is one of the inventors of the future of manufacturing and the new industrial revolution.”

Elley says: “The profile Chris has on this is sublime. He has been in this for a long time, completely independently of us. He has experience of running a business in this space, which is gold, and as he is writing a book he needs to get across the whole market.”

Anderson is keeping whatever advice he may have to give Ponoko under his hat for the moment, but is confident the firm will be “much, much bigger” in a decade’s time.

The company already has manufacturing hubs in the US, Germany, Italy and the UK, and its users have knocked up more than 100,000 products. It could yet turn out to be a great way to manufacture money.