Derek Elley and David ten Have, founders of Ponoko
he New Zealand company called Ponoko has reinvented the factory for the 21st century. It’s easy to mistake the laser cutter that sits in the Ponoko headquarters for an ordinary office appliance. The machine stands roughly 3 feet tall — about the size and shape of a copy machine — and is encased by that dun-colored plastic that is so familiar in the modern workplace.”It’s basically a big-ass printer,” says Ponoko’s CEO, David ten Have. “But it gives you an idea of where things are headed.” The laser cutter looks sort of like a printer because it is, in fact, a sort of printer. Instead of arranging ink on paper, the machine carves materials using a highly concentrated beam of light that is controlled by a computer. Lift the lid, insert a flat piece of wood or plastic, and in 15 minutes or so, you have the parts for a tabletop, a lampshade, or a toy car. For ten Have — a small, serious man of 34 with close-cropped dark hair that is flecked with silver — this is only the beginning. One day, he believes, perhaps 50 years from now, machines like this will be inexpensive enough to be in every home and will be capable of making almost anything. Buying a physical product — a cell phone, for instance — will be as easy as buying an MP3 on iTunes.
Products won’t be shipped in containers; they will be downloaded as digital design files and then printed on our desks while we sip our morning coffee. Not only will this be exceedingly convenient, but ten Have says that it will reorder the global economy, green the planet, and unleash an unprecedented wave of creativity as regular people design their own stuff. This is the wild, abstract future — fodder, perhaps, for keynote speeches and think tank prognostications but not the sort of thing you would expect to quickly turn into a profitable business. Yet ten Have is building such a business. Ponoko is piecing together an infrastructure for this new kind of supply chain, beginning with the laser cutter that sits a few feet from his office in Wellington, New Zealand. It’s July; the weather is sweltering in the United States, but in New Zealand, where the seasons are backward and buildings aren’t equipped with insulation, you feel the winter wind indoors. Ten Have is standing over a space heater in a small, damp room attempting to explain what this machine has to do with the future of manufacturing. “We’re trying to take Made in China and smear it across the globe,” he says. “We’re designing a factory for the 21st century.” Ponoko did not invent the laser cutter. The machine has been around for a couple of decades — aerospace companies use it to manufacture some parts, and engraving shops use it to personalize paperweights. But Ponoko is the first company to hook a laser cutter up to the Internet and let anyone, anywhere, take control of it. If you log on to Ponoko’s website, you can find some 20,000 items — housewares, toys, and furniture — available for purchase. But Ponoko doesn’t really sell products, not in the traditional sense. The items for sale are not held in inventory; they exist digitally as design files on the company’s servers. What Ponoko really sells is access to rapid fabrication machines — laser cutters in New Zealand and Oakland, California, and, soon, all sorts of machines all over the world — allowing people to make stuff for themselves or buy stuff that other people have designed. Customers use the site to make things they can’t find in stores, like extra-narrow hangers to fit in an extra-narrow closet or business cards made out of wood. I paid $10 to etch my cats’ names and my phone number on a couple of custom-made bamboo pet tags. Ponoko has also become a destination for undiscovered designers and inventors who use it to make and market their stuff. There is, for instance, the Bloom Lamp, which was created by a Los Angeles designer named Igor Knezevic and which you can buy for $160 on Ponoko. It’s a bedside lamp that resembles a delicate flower and is made out of 18 precisely cut pieces of plywood encircling a light bulb. Like something you might pick up at a big-box store, the lamp comes in a flat box and must be snapped together by the buyer. But unlike a store-bought lamp, this one costs Knezevic’s start-up design company, Alienology, exactly nothing until someone pays for it. The lamps are stocked digitally and manufactured on demand. Ponoko cuts the parts and ships them to Knezevic; he inspects them, drops some instructions and a light fixture into the box, and ships the box to the customer. “Right now I’m making a couple hundred dollars here, a couple hundred there,” he says. “But five years from now, people will still be paying a couple hundred bucks, and I won’t have to do anything. That’s revolutionary! To get in touch with Derek and David for any cooperation, business or information just visit their websit here below.