A revolution in manufacturing is quietly occurring around the world, bringing us ever closer to that dream of geeks the world over: the Star Trek replicator. We talk to one of the pioneers of this new frontier, Derek Elley - co-founder of Ponoko.
For those who haven't come across it, Ponoko is a platform for the digital distribution of 'things' - not software, or music, or films, but actual, physical objects, rendered into their digital DNA and transferred across the Internet to production centres where they can be given form or even tweaked and altered to create a custom, one-of-a-kind variation.
At this point, if you're of a certain age, you're most likely thinking of one of two things: the replicators in Star Trek, which happily create any object you care to vocalise, or the device which led to Mike Teavee's shrinking in the original 1971 Willy Wonka film.
"Back in 2006 a couple of us sat around and asked some fundamental questions about the future of products, and how the cost of oil was going up," Elley explained to thinq_ during an interview. "Since then it's more than doubled, and the cost of carbon [emission] is being priced into products.
"What came out of that enquiry, I guess, was that products of the future are going to get expensive if people want them customised and they've got to go by the current product manufacturing and distribution infrastructure that exists."
That infrastructure is one that we're all familiar with: items are created en-masse in a faceless factory across the other side of the world, shipped to a warehouse in our country, split and further shipped to additional warehouses closer to their destination, before being individually delivered to each customer.
Under that process, Elley and his colleagues realised, there's an awful lot of transportation going on - representing a real cost to both consumer and environment. With the cost of fuel rising inexorably upwards, it's a problem that's going to get worse before it gets better - so Elley and his fellow founders set up Ponoko, with the desire to tackle the problem digitally.
"All along we've been a software company and that's our background," Elley explained. "We could have set out and set up another company doing time-management software, or another bit of accounting software, or another piece of e-mail software - but we didn't do that. We've done something crazy - no-one in their right mind would really tackle this, so perhaps we're not in our right minds," he joked.
Elley's solution to the problems he and his colleagues discussed back in 2006 is the Ponoko platform - a revolutionary system whereby designers can upload their custom creations for consumers to buy, with each item created individually as close to the buyer's location as possible. It's something Elley calls 'distributed manufacturing,' and it has the hallmarks of a classic disruptive technology.
"To put it in some sort of 'sexy' language, if you like, we've built a software system to support the Star Trek replicator," he said. "It's all got to do with changing how the world works. The current system that we have of mass manufacture - you know, it's a hundred-year old system, and it's time for change."
"We're seeing manufacturing follow in the footpath of the print industry or the computing industry, where it's gone from warehouse-size printers or warehouse-size mainframes to a personal, distributed system," Elley explained, describing his company's approach as being fundamentally similar to that of Kinko's, a company which introduced the US to the joys of printing and photocopying back in the 70s.
Initially, Ponoko launched as a means for designers to share and sell two-dimensional creations. "We connected a laser cutter to our system and we set about providing, essentially, a laser-cutting service to the market, to enable people to both make and sell their laser-cut goods. We sized up, do we do 3D printing, do we do laser cutting, do we do CNC routing - we chose laser cutting because the market size for 2D design and making 2D goods is larger than for 3D. It's the basic economics of it - there's more people with drivers' licences than airline pilot licences," Elley explained - pointing to the relative complexity of 2D and 3D design.
Since then, the company has added new manufacturing technologies to its offerings, including full 3D printing facilities - but Elley argues that the Ponoko principles run far deeper than such considerations.
"We see this as being somewhat more fundamental than any one technology," he said. "3D printing is certainly the poster child for this movement, because it's so unique and so wonderful - but the reality is, if you want to put customised product into people's hands and make a large business out of that in the shortest time possible, you need to be able to tap into multiple manufacturing technologies.
"3D printing is certainly an important part of that, but it's part of a mix. So, what we're all about is enabling people to get customised products - not enabling people to get 3D printing."
The technology behind Ponoko is designed to be scalable - and while the company is currently aiming for a manufacturing centre in every major country, Elley envisions a time when every PC in every home will have its own hyper-local factory - and the concept of shipping a physical product will have gone the way of the telegram. "That's exactly what the software is built for," he enthused, "bringing distributed manfacturing, ultimately, into the home."
As with any disruptive technology, Ponoko's approach has the potential to upset the old guard. As digital music distribution has led to a rise in piracy - something which, the traditional labels tell us, is killing the industry - so too could digital design distribution and hyper-local manufacturing make creating knock-off products that much easier.
Elley's response? Bring it on. "The sooner people complain the better - that means something is happening, some change is happening," he argued. "Copying is a human trait - that is not a trait of any new manufacturing system we're trying to bring into play. Yes, it does speed that up," he admitted, "but at the same time, the lessons that have been learnt from the music industry et cetera in terms of DRM and trying to protect that sort of thing - it's a basic mathematical formula: you can put a million developers in a room building the best DRM security system around your digital rights, but there so happens to be a billion people that are connected to the Internet.
"So, you put a million against a billion - it's pretty simple who's going to win that fight, and there's no-one with a million developers in a room trying to set up a security system. So, we think it's backwards to try to set anything like that up. We think that the product industry has something to learn from there, and actually move forward and create a new way of doing this."
While Ponoko was the first company to offer a comprehensive infrastructure for distributed manufacturing, it's at the forefront of what is increasingly looking like a revolution in the making - and that's something which keeps Elley up at night. "We're the first in the world - and when you're first in the world, there's no-one to copy," he explained. "When you're a pioneer, it's like climbing Everest every day. So, I think that's the biggest barrier - walking into the blackness every day and pushing the boat out before everybody else, and not having a model to follow."
Objects uploaded to the Ponoko system are licensed under the Creative Commons system - meaning that designers have the option of making their creations freely available for manufacture and modification without sacrificing their ownership or copyrights, or taking a more traditional route and refusing re-use permissions without some form of payment.
It's a model which has worked well in the past, and one which has attracted the attentions of several open-source manufacturing and rapid prototyping projects - including RepRap, a project which aims to create a self-replicating rapid prototyping machine, a printer which can print more printers.
"You can go to the Ponoko site, and RepRap have a showroom on Ponoko.com currently, where you can download the design files for their machine," Elley told us. "I think we've got four different open-source 3D printers on the Ponoko store, where they are providing their design files out to others to be able to fabricate, laser-cut or whatever, the chassis for these machines."
The ability to share Creative Commons licensed designs, created using the company's Personal Factory platform, is proving popular. "We're trading thousands of design files on-line per month, currently," Elley explained - and that's long before the manufacturing technology has progressed to the point where 3D printers and laser cutters are suitable for general home use.
As with any disruptive technology, the next few years will be critical for the movement - but the growth of Elley's company certainly reveals an interest in the technology, and as fuel becomes increasingly scarce the day could come when we're all downloading designs for production right there in our living rooms.