You Are Here.

We Find Ourselves Right of Center
I love the collaborative eco-system that has developed in the open-hardware/software movement over the past few years.   Thingiverse has become a recent obsession, It’s the closest thing to jazz I’ve ever seen online. It’s not something I was much interested in previously, but there is something so infectiously exciting about watching people “riff” off each others ideas; iterating fast and quick with one designers revised version inspiring the next designer to improve, I just can’t help myself.

One missing piece of the puzzle was making the jump from “Great Idea!” to “Enough people want to buy it to get it made”, but in my opinion and its myriad of fund-alikes have kicked down that door quite firmly.  The amount of money pouring into joe-schmoe products shows that not only is there a need for this type of funding, but there is a demand for these types of products.   Sure, there have been failures to deliver and more than a couple scams, but like the old saying goes, you can’t have the good without the bad.

From where I sit, we’re at the precipice of a  revolution on par with the introduction of the Internet; it is impossible to imagine where we’ll be ten years down the road simply because nobody has ever seen anything like it.   Several technologies are conspiring to dramatically liberate the “means of production back to the people.” to borrow a loaded term…

  • Inexpensive, Local Manufacturing It’s a race! Here’s my first unit which was the cheapest & most advanced at the time I bought it, but has since been challenged for cheapest in the two months I’ve been waiting.  THIS is what happens when you unleash innovation and tell everyone they can make money, just develop the best thing.
  • Passively Collaborative Open Source Hardware & Design Encourages everyone to work on improving the best designs (and sell it/incorporate it without worrying about licensing), while still allowing anyone to work on improvements they may value that others do not.  A practical application of Voluntary-ism if I’ve ever seen one.
  • Complexity Makes it Cheaper  Cost = Weight, therefore more intricate designs reduce production costs, often substantially.
When you’re talking about conventional manufacturing, it is always SUBSTANTIALLY more expensive to make one hundred of a thing than to make a hundred thousand of the same thing – This is because conventional manufacturing is usually some derivative of “Spend a lot of time/effort/resources crafting one or several perfect molds of your product, then stamp/inject/pressform/etc the material into it under high pressure and heat, pop out the finished product and do it again every 5 seconds”.   This works if all your customers want identical products, and it works if you have a use for a hundreds of thousands of units.

My background (professionally) is Sales, although my (limited) schooling was in audio engineering.    For the five years I was employed as an environmentally friendly foodservice packaging salesman, I was often frustrated by the difficulty of matching the needs of customers who wanted anything done custom.  One (non) customer had wanted to buy a PLA cold cup that was 8″ long, had little taper, good stability and punch-outs at the “bottom” of the cup, along the base, which of course does not exist.    I asked him what the item was for, and he told me he was heavily involved with the shellfish industry on the pacific northwest coast.  At the time they were using (and might still be) lengths of PVC pipe with holes drilled in the bottom, these are used like glorified collars that are dug into the sea floor around the crustacean to protect it from overly strong currents and (I assume) predation.   The first question on your mind as a salesman having this conversation is “What kind of quantity are we talking about here”

It’s been some time now, but if I recall his usage was 200,000 units the first year for the pilot project with expected usage of 2,000,000pc per year following a successful completion.  The total market was substantially larger than that.     So these are not small numbers we’re talking about in any kind of sane world, the only problem is we’re talking about mass produced manufacturing!    To make something like this, it would require a completely new mold be struck, so anywhere between $40,000 and $100,000 in up-front costs.

So lets do some ballpark math here.  Assuming for a second we get lucky and the design is very simple, which keeps the cost down –

The tool costs $40,000….

Divided by the first years usage 200,000

Comes to $0.20 per cup JUST for the tool.   Manufacturing and distribution  this size probably would cost $0.15-$0.30/ea by the time it gets put in a box and delivered, so total $0.35-0.50 per piece!      The manufacturing of course costs roughly the same per piece as any other cold cup, BUT the good news is that if your product works and everything is great than you pretty much don’t need to ever buy that tool again (unless it breaks).   Of course, if you decide the cup needs to change in ANY way, better get your wallet.

Problem is, mostly people don’t have that big a market when they’re getting started, and even if the market does exist they often don’t have the resources to cover the up-front costs.  So the inevitable results:  “I can’t justify putting that kind of money out up front when all I want to do is see if my concept will work”; they keep doing the same thing.

I don’t know about you, but that’s just never worked for me.  Products are works-in-progress, releases should be viewed as a snapshot in the timeline, not a stopping point. ideas to be observed in the physical space and improved upon as our understanding evolves alongside.  Somewhere along the road to industrialization that concept was left behind; I am excited as can be to include myself in the generation that’s rediscovering it all over again.

Turns out, it doesn’t have to be this way.

I welcome any comments or suggestions.

h/t for the image at top I modified

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One thought on “You Are Here.

  1. […] this project is based around additive manufacturing (3d printing in its various forms), we have all the advantages previously mentioned – Among them, Complexity is free!     Why not build each modules walls with a “bee […]

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