IN WILLIAMSBURG, Brooklyn—the hippest part of New York’s hippest borough—you can pick up a seat for $750 made from the redwood reclaimed from an old water tower; or fork out $3,200 for a “Bilge” lounge chair, crafted from bourbon barrels and truck springs. Alternatively, if you are trend-conscious but cash-poor, you can download the free designs for strikingly similar items, get them cut at a local shop, and assemble them at home.
Designers are beginning to go “open source”, allowing users to download tweakable templates for everyday objects like furniture. “Ship information not stuff!” declares the website for AtFab, which is spearheading the trend along with SketchChair and MakeMe. Both AtFab and SketchChair specialise in homewares that can be put together from flat interlocking pieces of wood or acrylic. They are cut from a digital file by a laser-cutter or a computer numerical control (CNC) mill—machines which are becoming increasingly cheap and common. SketchChair also offers software that lets you draw-on components like legs, and test the physics of the chair against a manikin sized to the proportions of your body.
“The idea of a ‘factory’ is, in a word, changing,” writes Chris Anderson, a journalist and entrepreneur, in his new book, “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution”. “Just as the Web democratised innovation in bits, a new class of ‘rapid prototyping’ technologies, from 3-D printers to laser cutters, is democratising innovation in atoms.” Mr Anderson is an advocate of the “maker” movement, a community that champions the digital and the do-it-yourself. He believes that mass customisation could re-energise manufacturing, create environmentally responsible jobs, and empower consumers to surround themselves with objects uniquely tailored to their needs.
Once upon a time, industrial designers would toil in their studio, hoping to hit upon something that could tempt investors to a major capital outlay and production run. “If you score big and a manufacturer buys your design, they put it into production and make a million dollar factory somewhere far away,” says Gary Rohrbacher, an architect who is one of the brains behind AtFab, along with Anne Filson. “They exploit labour, and they source things from all over the world—cast metal from here, hardware from there. Then they sell your item to consumers for several thousand dollars; you as a designer get around 99c per piece.” Joris Laarman, a Dutch designer who advised MakeMe, said in aninterview that the designer gets around 3% of what an item is worth straight out of the factory—after which the brand adds 300%, and the shop doubles it again. (All of which is represented in this nifty graphic.)
This model fails not only the designer, but also consumers, who don’t have much input until the pricey product hits the market. Yet crowdsourcing platforms such asKickstarter—which lets users promise funds to nascent projects in exchange for small rewards, and only calls in these pledges if the venture meets a declared target—are changing this. They allow designers to test public enthusiasm. More generally, social media has acclimatised consumers to sharing information and feeding off one another’s ideas.
What is more, as fabrication technology becomes cheap enough for individuals and small businesses, a distributed network of small-scale manufacturers is springing up. Ponoko and 100kGarages are services that let makers upload their digital designs and identify fabricators in their area, who can then bid for work from buyers. “There are people in the Midwest and the rustbelt who have great skills with their hands and experience with tools, but who are out of work,” Mr Rohrbacher says. “We’re really interested in the idea of fuelling micro-manufacturing opportunities.”
The big question is how to profit from all of this fevered making. Does open-source design risk breaking the link between intellectual property and value, and doing to designers what the internet did to music and journalism?
Micropayments and royalties for commercial use might be one way out of this trap. MakeMe plans to give a percentage commission to designers on the price of each download. AtFab envisages a 99c fee for each of its blueprints, a cheeky hat-tip to designers’ remuneration per mass-produced piece. “Freemiums” could permit free content but encourage users to pay for upgraded access.
Greg Saul of SketchChair thinks “tipping” could work, where consumers give a percentage of the manufacturing cost back to the designers. But Mr Saul admits it makes the shopping process more cumbersome and is likely to be voluntary, both which are big downsides. And micropayments are less appealing in an industry where durability counts; it’s only so often that you need to replace a custom chaise longue.
Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. “At some point, the models that work become formalised, and as they become formalised, they become businesses,” says Tad Toulis, design consultant and former creative director at the Teague agency. “The good ones will rise, the bad ones won’t.” Trusted open-source designers are likely to become brands in their own right, developing a consumer following and an incentive to protect their stuff from being copied. There’s a growing consensus that a hybrid open and closed-source model might be the way to preserve profit margins without smothering creativity. Mass bespoke is here to stay, but in the world of design it’s unlikely to be a file-sharing free-for-all.
From the Economist, published under license. The original article can be found on www.economist.com