The Significance of Open Source Hardware

By Catarina Mota and Marcin Jakubowski

Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.
— The Open Source Hardware Definition


  • Allows us to (re)shape the artifacts we use and in this way shape our own experiences – as opposed to allowing artifacts to determine what we can do and how we can do it.
  • Allows us to understand how artifacts work and how they are made and in this way teaches us how things work (technological literacy).
  • Fosters creativity by lowering the barrier to the creation and modification of physical artifacts.
  • Fosters peer-to-peer communication, collaboration and community, and with these a sense of belonging and connection.
  • Fosters self-reliance and resilience by allowing us build and repair artifacts on our own or in collaboration with others.


  • Allows companies to innovate faster by providing access to prior work and crowdsourced contributions.
  • Ensures that derivatives and innovations built on open source designs (and released with a share-alike clause) must also be shared publicly, thus everyone benefits from advancements and improvements devised by external contributors and competitors.
  • Allows consumers to modify, customize, remix and mashup products to create custom solutions for their specific needs (as opposed to one-size-fits-all). This benefits both consumers – who can obtain exactly what they need – and companies – whose customers are more satisfied.
  • Provides valuable market and usability information from voluntary customer suggestions and modifications.
  • Allows for better products as the more numerous and diverse the contributions to a design the more wholesome and inclusive it can be (“given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow”)
  • Allows for lower costs in customer support as customers themselves will often generate and share a wealth of information and troubleshooting tips.
  • Lowers internal research and development (R&D) costs through distributed R&D (customers and competitors contribute to R&D). Lowers opportunity cost of non-transparency.
  • Reduces expenses in patents, trade secrets, and other legal costs of secrecy and exclusivity.
  • Allows for cheaper products by reducing competitive waste – via distributed R&D and absence of the high costs typically associated with secrecy and exclusivity.
  • Increases public trust in businesses and brands due to the open and transparent nature of the open source model.


  • Encourages distributed and decentralized production, along the lines of Jeffersonian democracy, more consistent with human needs than centralized production.
  • Improves access to production capabilities through the application of the open source approach to the design and distribution of sophisticated processes and production tools (laser cutters, 3D printers, etc.).
  • Lowers the barrier to entry into manufacturing by not exercising the right to exclude (as patents do) and thus fosters the emergence of a greater number of small and medium producers resulting in a broader and more diverse ecosystem.
  • Allows for import substitution via production based on local resources by promoting substitution of global supply chains with local feedstocks.
  • Encourages collaboration between enterprises and increases interoperability via access to common building blocks of design.
  • Enables local production of artifacts where and when they are needed. This is particularly relevant for disaster areas and isolated regions of the world where local production may be the only option.
  • Compels businesses to compete based on innovation, quality and price – instead of exclusive rights – thus benefiting consumers and encouraging rapid innovation.

Education & Learning

  • Enables informal and independent learning. This is particularly relevant in parts of the world where formal education is costly or otherwise unaccessible.
  • Provides both formal and informal education organizations, regardless of their budget or location, with plans and knowledge with which to teach design, engineering and science.

Sustainability and Regenerative Design

  • Promotes modular, interoperable design standards by promoting external R&D collaboration between enterprises.
  • Promotes integrated systems design by allowing a larger number of stakeholders to collaborate in the design process.
  • Promotes closed-loop manufacturing cycles by increasing potential for involving additional contributors.
  • Allows for products to be manufactured when and where they are needed (decentralized production) thus decreasing waste and pollution associated with transportation, storage and surplus.
  • Allows us to repair devices and other artifacts thus extending their life-cycle and reducing waste.
  • Enables longer life-cycles of artifacts as the special attachment we form with the artifacts we build ourselves (the IKEA effect), either from raw materials or kits, provides an incentive to keep and repair them.


  • Encourages collaboration and sharing, thus strengthening social ties, as well as promoting debate and diversity.
  • Acts as a democratizing agent by distributing production-related knowledge across class borders.
  • Promotes a shift from a society of passive consumption to one of proactive production.
  • Makes possible the emergence of an equitable economic system in which access to knowledge is no longer what separates those who can produce from those who can’t.
  • Promotes an economy of affection – an economy based on interdependent community relations.
  • Increases trust between all participants based on the open nature of the model.
  • Helps form knowledgeable, curious and proactive citizens.


  • Encourages political engagement by providing participation tools for voices to be heard via open software/hardware platforms.
  • Fosters democratic participation in the construction of our environment by allowing everyone to contribute.
  • Eschews top-down approaches and replaces them with a more active public sphere.
  • Reduces conflicts over resources by enabling ubiquitous access to knowledge of how to produce goods.
  • Promotes economic self-determination by lowering the barriers to entry into production.


  • Promotes cultural diversity and specificity by encouraging place-based solutions to problems.
  • Reduces cultural homogeneity (Coca-Colonization of the world) by encouraging local adaptation of product designs.

Pondering the Relationship Between OSHW and Business

A few days ago, Bre Pettis, the CEO of MakerBot Industries, one of the most prominent open source hardware companies, published a statement about why the company released its newest software under a closed-source license and is considering not open sourcing parts of its new products. These are some of my thoughts on the questions Bre raises.

Before going into that, I’d like to reiterate Tom Igoe’s and Phil Torrone’s advice that we all remain very civil. The open source hardware community is relatively new, we have a lot to think through and many public discussions to engage in as we address developments, obstacles and successes. In the many years I’ve been involved with this community, I’ve always been impressed with how kind, polite and respectful everyone is. I’m so proud of being part of a massive and international group that can express opinions, debate issues and arrive at solutions with no ‘blood shed’. We’re a shiny example of collaborative production, all eyes are on us, so let’s keep the high standards we’ve maintained so far.

I respect MakerBot’s stance. Their commitment to honoring the licenses of the external contributions that go into their products does not seem to be in question, and that’s all we can ask of them. Many of us, myself included, have an idealistic and somewhat emotional relationship with open source – we want to do what we love and make the world a better place in the process. However, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s not up to any of us to dictate how each company is run. We may wish they did things the way we think they should be done, but our wishes are just that and we must respect everyone’s choices.

Having said that, I’d like to address some of the broader questions Bre raises.

In a comment on his statement, Bre suggests that although we have a definition, we don’t have a business model. This isn’t completely accurate. There is a business model and it works, as SparkFun, Adafruit, Arduino, EMSL and many others have shown. It just doesn’t translate point by point to MakerBot because their situation is different: they have a single large product (instead of many individual products), their hardware is targeted at a consumer market (instead of the education/maker market) and they have more employees than the average OSHW company. Even if OSHW is not working out for MakerBot for any number of reasons, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the first OSHW company to face the growth dilemma. SparkFun has 135 employees, a revenue of over $20M, and has been around since 2003.

Bre mentions Chumby as an example of an OSHW consumer product company that didn’t work out. This is a bit misleading in this context since, as a far as I know, being OSHW has nothing to do with why Chumby is no longer around. It’s important to keep in mind that this is not about OSHW in general. This is about MakerBot’s specific nature and the choices the company made (which are not for us to judge).

So I’d like to respond to Bre’s question – what examples of big, successful OSHW companies are out there? – with another question: what examples are out there of hardware companies that failed because they were open source? As far as I can see, management, pricing and market are bigger liabilities for companies than being open. This is not a comment on any specific company’s management style, just something to keep in mind when assessing the performance of OSHW companies in general.

It’s true that there is no one in the OSHW community comparable to MakerBot – not because of its size (SparkFun is probably just as big), but because of its product type. But if we look beyond the confines of our community, there is a very good example: the fashion industry. They don’t share designs, but then again that’s not strictly necessary. Everyone can pick up a dress, figure out how it was made and replicate it, legally. Fashion companies – big, small and medium – are manufacturers (facing the same issues as all other manufacturers), co-exist in a highly competitive space, all their products are consumer products, and they’re not protected by copyright nor patents. Rather, they rely on brand and fast innovation. So there is indeed a very old and well established precedent we can all learn from. Check out at this great overview by Johanna Blakley (thanks Dustyn Roberts for pointing it out!)

Finally, if everything can be reverse-engineered and cloned — and most OSHW products can, even if their plans weren’t freely available — this is, in my opinion, the very reason to do it the open source way. Not releasing plans is only giving a company a few days head start, since that’s probably how long it’ll take their competitors to reverse-engineer the average device. So why not make a statement and release the plans under an open source license? The outcome will be the same, but the support and respect of their customers, the number of people who chose to buy from them instead of from their competitors because they appreciate what they are doing, will increase.

MakerBot has a few clones, most of which are illegally using its trademark, but will this new direction change that? Or will they continue to be cloned and eventually be pushed into enforcing IP that may not even be applicable outside the US borders? And at what price, both in currency and reputation, would this come?

Whatever the motivations each of us has to contribute to open source hardware, the reality is that IP doesn’t prevent cloning nor unfair competition (if you’re in NYC take a trip down to Canal St.). And companies should ask themselves whether they are willing to sue their own customers in the process of preventing competitors from copying their products. Can reputation and taking a stand by pioneering the collaborative economy be much bigger and practical assets than IP?

These are timely questions looking for answers. More than mourning the (eventual) loss of an open source hardware project, it’s important to start creating and testing additional business models that work for different types of companies and products.

Be excellent to each other and, when in doubt, try Tom Igoe’s grandma test :)

A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Fabrication

A few months ago, Strategy + Business commissioned Tom Igoe and I to write an article on the democratization of manufacturing. The intro is transcribed below. The complete article is available at the S+B website (requires registration but it’s free) and as a PDF (no registration required).

Rapid advances in manufacturing technology point the way toward a decentralized, more customer-centric “maker” culture. Here are the changes to consider before this innovation takes hold.

At a research meeting in late 2010, a primatologist studying monkey genetics took a tour of a university’s digital fabrication shop. She mentioned that her field research had stalled because a specialized plastic comb, used in DNA analysis of organic samples, had broken. The primatologist had exhausted her research budget and couldn’t afford a new one, but she happened to be carrying the old comb with her. One of the students in the shop, an architect by training, asked to borrow it. He captured its outline with a desktop scanner, and took a piece of scrap acrylic from a shelf. Booting up a laptop attached to a laser cutter, he casually asked, “How many do you want?”

This question is central to most manufacturing business models. Ten units of a comb — or an automobile component, a book, a toy, or any industrially produced item — typically cost a lot more per unit to produce than 10,000 would. The price per unit goes down even more if you make 100,000, and much more if you make 10 million. But what happens to conventional manufacturing business models, or to the very concept of economies of scale, when millions of manufactured items are made, sold, and distributed one unit at a time? We’re about to find out.

The rapidly evolving field of digital fabrication, which was barely known to most business strategists as recently as early 2010, is beginning to do to manufacturing what the Internet has done to information-based goods and services. Just as video went from a handful of broadcast networks to millions of producers on YouTube within a decade, and music went from record companies to GarageBand and, a transition from centralized production to a “maker culture” of dispersed manufacturing innovation is under way today. Millions of customers consume manufactured goods, and now a small but growing number are producing, designing, and marketing them as well. As operations, product development, and distribution processes evolve under the influence of this new disruptive technology, manufacturing innovation will further expand from the chief technology officer’s purview to that of the consumer, with potentially enormous impact on the business models of today’s manufacturers.

The Rise of Personal Fabrication

Update: a slightly revised version of this paper was presented at the 8th ACM conference on Creativity and Cognition and is available on the ACM library.

In recent years we have been witnessing the first stages of a democratization of manufacturing, a trend that promises to revolutionize the means of design, production and distribution of material goods and give rise to a new class of creators and producers. A disruptive technology and several cultural and economic driving forces are leading to what has already been called the next industrial revolution: public access to digital fabrication tools, software and databases of blueprints; a tech Do-It-Yourself movement; and a growing desire amongst individuals to shape and personalize the material goods they consume. This paper is an overview of the current state of personal digital fabrication and the trends that are shaping it.

Objects made with personal digital fabrication tools and shared by their creators on Thingiverse. From left to right, top to bottom: 8-bit Violin by Ranjit, Herringbone Geared Extruder by Rhys Jones, CylPanel03-001 by Marius Watz, Steampunk Couture: CNC Goggles by gianteye, Bauhaus Model II 1924 Chess Set by TeamTeamUSA, Christmas Lego Man of Kansas City by Michael Curry, Glasses by William Langford, Warhammer 40k Dreadnought by BonsaiBrain, Enclosure for LinkM USB adapter by Tod E. Kurt.

Table of Contents
The Promise of Digital Fabricators
The New Factories
:: Online Fabrication Services
:: Distributed Manufacturing Networks
:: Local Production Shops
:: Personal 3D Printers
From Bits to Atoms and Back
Factories at Home
The Future?

The Promise of Digital Fabricators
In his 2005 book FAB, Neil Gershenfeld [9] describes a not too distant future in which everyone will have a personal fabricator, a machine capable of producing not only material objects but also other machines:

Like the earlier transition from mainframes to PCs, the capabilities of machine tools will become accessible to ordinary people in the form of personal fabricators (PFs). This time around, though, the implications are likely to be even greater because what’s being personalized is our physical world of atoms rather than the computer’s digital world of bits.

This democratization of manufacturing,—which has already been termed industrial revolution 2 [21], a manufacturing revolution [23] and the next industrial revolution [2]—is based on the fact that, after one century of mass production and consumption, a growing number of individuals now has access to sophisticated production tools and the knowledge to manufacture objects for artistic, personal or commercial purposes.

Digital fabrication tools turn bits into atoms, i.e. they create material objects from digital designs. A computer-aided design (CAD) model is fed into a fabricator which then builds its physical instance from a stock material. Laser cutters, computer-numeric controlled (CNC) mills, and 3D printers are amongst the most practical and versatile of these tools. While laser cutters and CNC mills create parts by cutting sheets of wood, acrylic, metal, cardboard and other flat stock, 3D printers build the objects up by depositing and binding successive layers of materials such as thermoplastics, ceramics and powdered metals.

From point cloud data to material object by Tiago Serra

One of the major advantages of these technologies is that, unlike mass manufacturing tools, they make possible the production of many or just a few one-of-a-kind parts at the same cost as a series of identical items1. Besides this general-purpose flexibility, the additive nature of 3D printing wastes almost no stock material and, in some instances, allows the fabrication in one single piece of objects which would otherwise have to be manufactured in several parts and then assembled.

Laser cutters, 3D printers and CNC mills can make objects out of a range of plastics, wood, glass, ceramic slips, wax, resins, leather, and metals (including titanium), but most digital fabricators provide the ability to make parts from only one type of material at a time and no single of these machines can yet create a finished complex device, such as a cell phone, in one swoop. Likewise, the speed at which 3D printers can currently manufacture products is not yet comparable to those of traditional mass production techniques such as injection molding.

Nevertheless, in the last few years the capabilities of digital fabrication tools have been increasing as their cost decreases. While in 2001 the cheapest 3D printer available in the market was priced at $45,000, personal 3D printers now cost between $1000 and $10,000, making them accessible to individuals and small organizations. Similarly, laser cutters and CNC mills have also become more affordable as manufacturers started commercializing smaller models at prices that are within the reach of schools, small businesses and local production shops.

There are now significant indicators that digital fabrication can and will likely play an important role on the emergence of lightweight factories and the expansion of micro production and mass customization (a combination of mass production processes with individual customization) [10] [11] [16]. This has already given rise to an array of new businesses producing on-demand, customizable products ranging from iPhone stands, jewelry and toys to machine parts and prosthetic limb cases [23]. But another profound transformation will occur if and when these technologies start to infiltrate individual practices on a large scale. In order to consider this possibility let us start by noting that a widespread adoption of personal digital fabrication will depend on tools, designs and motivation. Whereas access to tools and designs for production are the essential material conditions, motivation to use them is the elusive last link without which the previous two could be rendered meaningless.

The New Factories
If until 2007 it was extremely difficult for an individual to turn an idea into a material product, nowadays the panorama has radically changed with the introduction and expansion of online fabrication services, distributed manufacturing networks, local production shops, and personal 3D printers. Taken together these ventures are providing a wider distribution of digital fabrication technologies and giving a growing number of creators the possibility to produce and circulate goods outside of the centralized manufacturing model.

Online Fabrication Services
Online fabrication services cater to the consumer looking for a custom product, the independent designer or artist seeking small scale production and distribution of her designs, and the hobbyist in need of prototypes or parts.

Services such as Shapeways, Ponoko, i.materialize and Sculpteo provide on-demand 3D printing and laser cutting services to individuals. In addition to upload-to-make (customers upload a digital design and receive the corresponding physical object in the mail a few days later), Shapeways and Ponoko also offer community marketplaces where creators can sell their designs and fabricated objects directly to the public, web-based platforms for product customization, databases of Creative Commons2 (CC) licensed designs and, in the case of Ponoko, a request-to-make area where buyers can crowdsource3 a custom product by asking the community of creators to design and make it (buyer posts a request with a description and creators submit bids to design/make it).

Even though they’re barely three years old, online fabrication services have grown substantially not only in terms of the number of bureaus, but also in what concerns the variety of their offering. Ponoko, for example, started by providing only laser cutting services to its customers, but in the second half of 2010 added 3D printing, new materials, and also electronics through a partnership with Sparkfun, thus getting one step closer to becoming a multifunctional public factory.

Distributed Manufacturing Networks
Distributed manufacturing networks such as 100kGarages, CloudFab and MakerFactory connect designers with manufacturing tools, allowing creators to get their concepts produced locally and providing tool owners with a new stream of revenue. Users of these online services can find local shops and equipment operators through maps and lists or by posting a request for a specific job and then selecting from the bids submitted by equipment owners.

Other types of infrastructures are starting to emerge in the form of grid manufacturing structures. MakerBot Industries, a manufacturer of open source personal fabricators, is currently setting up its first BotFarm, a cluster of networked 3D printers. Even though still embryonic, such a structure suggests the possibility of fully distributed grid manufacturing systems which would make use of 3D printers located in several points of the globe.

Local Production Shops
Local production shops are still taking their first steps, but there are already a few meaningful examples in place:

TechShops, self described as “a Kinko’s for makers, or a Xerox PARC for the rest of us,” are membership-based workshops that provide members with access to an enormous array of fabrication tools as well as instructions to make whatever they wish, regardless of skill level. There are currently six TechShops across the US, with several more in the planning stage.

Fab Labs, a program of the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, are workshops equipped with essential fabrication tools with the goal of providing communities around them with the means to create smart devices for themselves. There are currently over 50 Fab Labs in 16 countries, with many more on the planning stage.

Hackerspaces are community-operated physical spaces where people of diverse backgrounds—usually with common interests in science, technology, and digital art, but not necessarily with formal training in these areas—meet to work, collaborate, and socialize. Even though physical infrastructure and material resources are important aspects of these community laboratories, hackerspaces are above all centers for peer learning, collaborative problem solving, and community building. Unlike TechShops and Fab Labs, hackerspaces emerge directly out of local communities and are all completely independent from each other—even though there is loose network of hackerspaces. This means that the tools available vary greatly from one collective to the other but, due to the drop in cost of digital fabrication technologies, the number of spaces equipped with laser cutters and/or 3D printers is growing. The world map on currently registers around 500 hackerspaces worldwide.

Personal 3D Printers
At the same time as professional 3D printers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, a new type of tool is emerging and taking its place in the digital fabrication techno-system: the personal 3D printer, a device small enough to fit in the home or office, low-cost enough to be within the reach of the average individual consumer, and simple enough to be operated by someone with no technical skills.

In February 2004, Adrian Bowyer, professor at the University of Bath in the UK, and his graduate student Ed Sells, announced the RepRap, a research effort dedicated to creating a self-replicating 4, highly affordable, personal 3D printer. RepRap was from the start developed as open source—a method of production in which all of the product’s source materials and blueprints are made publicly available, allowing anyone to contribute to its development—and was immediately joined by several engineers and programers, both amateur and professionals, around the world.

To achieve its goals and allow distributed development, RepRap’s 3D printers have since been designed as a combination of rapid manufactured parts and inexpensive and readily available hardware. Seven years after the project’s launch, and even though sourcing the materials and assembling the machine is still far from being a trivial task, RepRap 3D printers have improved radically in terms of overall reliability, volume, and precision, resulting in plastic objects that now closely approximate end-use products.

Given the open source nature of the project, all that is necessary to become a RepRap operator and developer is being able to source and acquire the materials and then assemble them into a functional machine. According to a 2010 survey conducted by Erik De Bruijn [4], “most people who become involved in the RepRap project and adopt the technology have done so fairly recently. The adoption rate increases so fast that new adopters outnumber all those who joined more than 6 months ago. (…) Regression-fitting this growth curve yields a duplication of the community every 6 months and a 10 fold growth every 20 months.”5

In late 2008, the difficulty in sourcing the materials required to build a RepRap 3D printer led some developers to the idea of creating kits. It also became apparent that several improvements could be made to the technology by temporarily putting aside the goal of self-replication and dedicating more resources to the project. New RepRap-derived 3D printers and the kits to build them were not only an important step towards expanding the adopter and developer community but also created a business opportunity. From this emerged Bits from Bytes and MakerBot Industries, two startups dedicated to developing and commercializing RepRap-derived open source kits and machines at consumer prices—ranging between $950 (MakerBot) and $3,900 (Bits from Bytes). In July 2010, the Chinese company PP3DP l launched the proprietary, fully assembled, desktop 3D printer UP! retailing for $2,990. And in March 2011, Ultimaker entered the market with its reprap-based personal 3D printer selling for approximately $1,700.

While RepRap 3D printers use thermoplastics as stock material, two other open source projects appeared in subsequent years that allow 3D printing of objects from pastes and edibles. That’s the case of the syringe-based [email protected] which 3D prints with anything that can be squirted (eg. silicone, epoxy, cheese, chocolate, frosting, clay, playdoh, plaster, etc.) and also of CandyFab, a machine that creates edible three-dimensional objects from sugar. Other open source projects dedicated to creating laser cutters and CNC mills have also arisen in recent years and include BuildLog, DIYLilCNC, and Bluumax CNC.

From left to right, top to bottom: MakerBot Industries’ Thing-O-Matic , RepRap’s Mendel,
Bits from Bytes BFB-3000, PP3DP Up!, Lumenlab’s m3, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories’ CandyFab 6000, [email protected]

During 2009 and 2010, some of the more prominent and established additive manufacturing companies, such as Stratasys, 3D Systems and Solido, also launched smaller and lower priced tools, capable of working with plastics and resins, marketed as personal 3D printers and costing between $10,000 and $17,000.

Access to 3D printing tools is thus following along a path similar to that of document printers. On the one hand the large, professional machines are now accessible to the public mostly through online fabrication services. On the other hand, we’re seeing the emergence of personal 3D printers which, just like their small 2D counterparts, are geared towards the home and office. Naturally, there are noticeable differences between the capabilities of professional and personal 3D printers. While the professional machines can produce complex objects out of a wide range of materials, the personal versions are constrained by size and cost, i.e the need to be small and affordable enough. This translates into smaller prints, but also influences speed, resolution, overall quality, and the variety and types of materials (while multiple types of plastics are a given, printing with metals and glass is still not possible with the desktop-sized 3D printers).

Despite the progress of the last years, there are still a few technical barriers to overcome before a widespread adoption of personal digital fabrication can become possible, namely:

Most personal 3D printers produce objects from a variety of plastics, but even a quick glance around tells us that the majority of products in homes and offices are made out of a combination of different materials. There are already many useful things that can be created from plastics and progress is being made towards introducing additional materials. But in order for these technologies to become so practical that a large number of homes and offices will consider it worthwhile having one, they will need to not only be able to manufacture with diverse materials but also to combine them in one single print. Meanwhile, syringe-based extruders, which work with any paste-like material, offer a still not fully explored flexibility and are already being used for food preparation and decoration [17].

Fumes and dust
Small CNC mills cut a wider variety of stock materials, but are not as clean as 3D printers, i.e. they produce dust and shards, making them excellent garage tools but inappropriate for homes. Laser cutters also require fume extraction devices and air compressors which are often loud and bulky. For these reasons, laser cutters are not commonly used at home and are usually kept in a separate room in the workplace. It should also be noted that, while smaller laser cutters are already priced within the reach of schools, small shops and hackerspaces, they are not yet affordable enough for individuals.

Interface and speed
All the digital fabrication tools described above still require some technical knowledge to operate and are very far from the fictional Star Trek replicator which was capable of materializing objects and edibles at a voice command. Also, 3D printers, while highly flexible in terms of what they can make, are still not very fast. Printing an object takes time and while a plastic whistle can be printed in as little as 10 minutes, a mount for an iPhone may take one or two hours to produce. Naturally, as the technology becomes more reliable and with additions such as MakerBot’s automated build platform (which allows the manufacturing of series of different or similar items with no human intervention in between prints), operators can leave the machine unattended as it prints, but they will still have to wait for the finished objects to be finalized and ejected.

The current state of personal 3D printers has often been compared with the early days of personal computers [9] with its relatively small community of developers working in hackerspaces and garages around the world. But, despite the technology’s current limitations, this is clearly starting to change. As described above, between 2009 and 2011 new developers and manufacturers of low cost personal 3D printers appeared in the market, resulting not only in more research and development, but also in an increasing number of digital fabrication tools in the hands of individuals. As De Bruijn [5] points out, since each adopter of an open source 3D printer is also a potential developer, the growth in the number of adopters also translates into improvements in the technology. In turn, cheaper, better and easier to operate 3D printers tend to draw new adopters and developers. Because of this, in the same two years, these machines went from producing mostly mangled plastic objects vaguely resembling shot glasses to being able to generate prints as complex as a Gothic Cathedral model or a Sarrus Linkage 3D printer.

Gothic Cathedral Playset by Michael Curry and Sarrus Linkage Mark III by Frank Davies

Just as with computers 40 years ago, it might now be difficult to imagine these digital fabrication tools being operated by anyone other than engineers or technically inclined hobbyists. But, following in the footsteps of PCs, personal 3D printers are now taking the leap from a technology requiring specialized skills to something the average individual can operate. This shift is illustrated by the fact that between early 2009 and late 2010 the under $4000 personal 3D printers available in the market went from being just a combination of bill of materials plus plans (the user sources the materials and assembles the machine), to kits plus instructions (the user assembles the machine but all the materials are provided), to fully assembled machines (user just needs to know how to operate and maintain it). With important improvements, additions and new models being introduced at a fast rate, personal 3D printers are rapidly transitioning from a tech hobby to a functional technology accessible to all.

From Bits to Atoms and Back
Professional CAD software is extremely complex. Even though the best of these applications are very powerful, the time and effort required to become a skilled CAD user is non-trivial. Nevertheless, just as it happened with digital imaging applications which were once too complex for the average user, simple and free modeling applications are now available and even include versions for portable devices.

Public databases of blueprints also play an important role in providing both designers and non-designers with blueprints for fabrication. is today the most prominent example of such a database. This online ‘universe of things’ consists in a repository of mostly open and free digital designs for physical objects, i.e, models that can be downloaded and then materialized using fabrication tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC mills. As of mid 2011, Thingiverse contained over 8000 models (contributed both by highly skilled designers and beginners, some of which are children and adolescents) and included a little bit of everything from kitchenware, toys and jewelry to machine parts, electronics, architectural models, and eye glass frames. The open licenses under which most of these designs are published allow the website’s users to not only download and fabricate the objects but also to alter and combine them. Currently, Thingiverse is expanding rapidly not just with new models but also with an increasing number of derivatives and mashups (the mix of different designs and content to create a new derivative work).

While Thingiverse was created specifically for open and free sharing of designs, Shapeways Shops and Ponoko’s Showroom are examples of also user-populated databases with commercial purposes, where artists and designers can sell their creations while giving buyers the opportunity to customize the models using simple software. Thus we have now platforms for free sharing of designs which users must then fabricate by their own means and also online marketplaces where customizable objects and designs are available for purchase.

At the same time as digital fabrication technologies are getting better and cheaper, thus becoming accessible to a wider number and range of individuals and businesses, so is 3D scanning technology advancing. In parallel with developments in professional 3D scanners, a few new open source and/or inexpensive versions—some of which run on smart phones—were made available in 2010. Also noteworthy is the case of Microsoft’s Kinect. Initially launched by Microsoft in late 2010 as a hands-free game controller, the Kinect was soon adapted by users for several other applications, including 3D scanning. Once again, these developments seem to indicate a progression of the technology towards becoming efficient and affordable enough for anyone to own and operate. Therefore, in addition to designing and acquiring 3D models for fabrication, we are now also able to turn physical objects and the human body [8] into digital data.

Signals pointing towards a democratization of manufacturing begin to cluster around 2007 [18]. Why was it so? The technology had already been mature enough for some time and dreams of personal factories had been around for many years. What then made several people throughout the world realize the time was ripe for online fabrication services and personal 3D printers? The answer lies mostly in a cultural trend: a renaissance of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement with a hi-tech facet.

DIY is commonly used to describe the act of creating, producing, modifying or repairing something that lies outside of one’s professional expertise. It’s based on a notion of self-reliance and self-improvement through the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. The term is used across many fields of activity from home improvement and repair to all areas of creative endeavor.

The DIY stance can be traced back to the 1900s Arts and Crafts Movement and in the U.S. it evolved from cost saving home improvement activities of 1940s and 1950s into a creative act of rebellion against mass production, consumerism, planned obsolescence and waste. Even though many different cultures, motivations and goals intersect within this practice, Amy Spencer [22], author of DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture, points out the core aspect common to all of them:

The DIY movement is about using anything you can get your hands on to shape your own cultural entity: your own version of whatever you think is missing in mainstream culture. You can produce your own zine, record an album, publish your own book – the enduring appeal of this movement is that anyone can be an artist or creator. The point is to get involved.

The 21st century DIY movement has now extended its practices to include both on and off line technologies. In Rise of the Expert Amateur, a large-scale study of DIY communities, Kuznetsov and Paulos [12] point out that in the last decades, the combination of social computing, online sharing tools, and other collaboration technologies has led to a renewed interest and wider adoption of DIY cultures and practices, namely through facilitated access to and affordability of tools, as well as the emergence of new sharing mechanisms. Further on in the study the authors [12] elaborate:

Recent breakthroughs in technology afford sharing such that anyone can quickly document and showcase their DIY projects to a large audience. An emerging body of tools allows enthusiasts to collaboratively critique, brainstorm and troubleshoot their work, often in real-time (…). This accessibility and decentralization has enabled large communities to form around the transfer of DIY information, attracting individuals who are curious, passionate and/or heavily involved in DIY work.

A subset of the DIY community, namely those involved in creating/modifying hardware and/or technologically enhanced arts and crafts, has become know as the maker community. The word maker refers here to Make magazine, a combination of website and quarterly book that celebrates “your right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your own will” [1] by showcasing DIY projects and tutorials to build or modify technologies ranging from personal gadgets to cars. On its first issue, Dale Doherty [6], editor of the magazine, writes:

More than consumers of technology, we are makers, adapting technology to our needs and integrating it into our lives. (…) Think of how many devices each of us interacts with on a regular basis today. And that’s only the beginning. Neil Gershenfeld (…) writes in his book When Things Start to Think that ‘personal computing has not gone far enough; it lets us shape our digital environment but not our physical environment.’ In other words, technology that allows us to create complex things will soon become as affordable as the technology we used to create and manage data. We are just beginning to see the impact of technology in our personal lives.

Thus, starting in 2005 and with Make magazine at its center, a community of tech DIYers began to gather around an emerging identity, that of the maker. In addition to using web platforms to share tutorials (instructions for humans) in websites such as, makers are also sharing, remixing and mashingup ready-to-make files (instructions for machines) in web communities like Thingiverse. As Lipson and Kurman [13] note:

Personal manufacturing technologies are accelerated by the online communities of people who create electronic blueprints, those who build and fix machines, and consumers. Similar to the already well-known online community of open source software enthusiasts, communities are a critical part of the personal manufacturing revolution since little formal training and tech support exists. Online colleagues offer one another help, teamwork and encouragement.

Among these makers are the users of online fabrication services and Fab Labs, the members of TechShops and Hackerspaces, the adopters and developers of personal 3D printers, the creators, sharers and mashupers of digital designs for physical objects, the sellers and buyers of the new fabricated-on-demand customizable goods. While these pioneers are still a minority of the population, they may be what Eric Von Hippel [25] terms lead users: early adopters of products and practices that will eventually become widespread and customary.

Factories at Home
If the market is just one person, then the prototype is the product.
—N. Gershenfeld in FAB (2005)

From the trends and signals described above we can thus infer that, even if not yet fully matured, the digital and physical tools are in place and available to the public. We also know that a fringe of the population is already acquiring and/or using these technologies for personal and micro production. In addition, recent articles in mainstream U.S. publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Economist have not only contributed to a growth in the number of adopters, but also drawn attention to this confluence of trends and the promise it carries to revolutionize the creation, production and distribution of material goods. Amongst the many difficult questions this potential disruption raises, there is one that is pivotal for a mass adoption of personal fabrication: what will we want to fabricate ourselves?

In [email protected], a report commissioned by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, Lipson and Kurman [13] write:

A number of converging forces will promote personal manufacturing from a fringe technology used by pioneers and hobbyists, to an everyday tool for mainstream consumers and businesses. Within a few years, personal manufacturing technologies will be commonplace in small businesses and schools. Within a decade or two, every household and office will own their own machine. Within a generation, you will have a hard time explaining to your grandchildren how you were able to live without your own fabber, when you actually had to buy ready made things online, and wait a long 24 hours before they showed up in your mailbox.

For now, adopters of personal digital fabrication fall into two, often overlapping, categories: the technical hobbyists, excited about the technology itself and eager to push it forward, and the artists, designers and makers who are mostly interested in what they can create with them (sculptures, consumer products, parts for DIY projects). These are the technology’s lead users. But what applications will make a large number of others want to own and/or use a digital fabricator just as they now own and use laptops? What will compel them to get home, turn on their computer, check their email and set their 3D printer or laser cutter to fabricate something? What’s that something that no one else can offer or that costs too much to acquire?

The motivation for personal fabrication that has been most often put forward is a growing desire for personalized products [10] [13]. According to a survey conducted by the Institute For The Future [10], “a self-motivating, self-educating, and self-organizing sector of society is emerging that may define an alternative economy. This sector tends to seek out customized or alternative goods, services, and entertainment—preferring to have a more active hand in shaping their own goods, environments, and experiences in conjunction with relatively small groups of like-minded people.”

The production of affordable objects tailored to fit perfectly one’s specific needs is certainly a powerful trend that is changing the manufacturing world. This has already given rise to a series of small manufacturing businesses, often times one-person factories, offering made to order and customized products. Large and medium manufacturers should follow shortly. For commercial manufacturers, whatever their size, the world is indeed about to change. [11] [16]

But, when it comes to personal fabrication, i.e. making something oneself, we must ask: in what circumstances will it be more advantageous for a large number of people to use their own personal fabricator, or a digital fabrication service, instead of ordering something from a designer/manufacturer who will customize it to the client’s specifications at an affordable price? Even when personal fabricators become capable of making something as complex as a cell phone, they will still need to supplied with stock materials. How many different materials and components, and in what quantities, will homes and offices need to acquire and store in order to be able to manufacture a variety of goods that justifies having the digital fabricator in the first place?

Disruptive technologies, once put in the hands of enough users, tend to take a life of their own and very few would say, as Ken Olsen did in 1977 about computers, ‘there is no reason anyone would want a digital fabricator in their home’ (in fact, the author of this paper does have a personal 3D printer on her desk, printing away as she writes this). But, just as in the late 1970s, it’s now extremely difficult to predict which technologies will be massively adopted and what they will be used for. For now, here are some factors that might influence a widespread adoption of personal fabricators:

Creative remixes and mashups
While it might be easier for many to simply order a gadget accessory from a professional manufacturer, it is very likely that some will want a version that combines different models they’ve seen on their friends or on shop windows 6. Remixing and mashingup are already common practices when it comes to photos, videos and music and there are now indicators that this cultural practice is spilling over into the production of some material goods, as illustrated by a rising object mashup trend on Thingiverse. When the acts of remixing and mashingup are of a creative and playful nature, they are usually undertaken by oneself. Once the design is finished, it can be manufactured on a personal fabricator, in the color of its creator’s choice, or at a local fabrication shop.

Problem Fixers
It has happened to everyone. Suddenly a small plastic part of a dish washer breaks. The rest of the machine still works perfectly, but the manufacturer can’t provide that one part that is necessary to repair it. Or one of the legs on a kitchen table is too short and none of wedges available in the market fit it properly. Or a dish drying rack needs to be raised just a few millimeters so the water can drain properly. While the number of businesses allowing buyers to customize what they acquire will very likely grow, these types of things are still too small and specific for any one manufacturer to address. Access to simple CAD software and a personal digital fabricator allow someone to design, mashup or remix a model tailored to their unique needs and manufacture these little problem fixers that can’t be acquired from stores.

Kits are cheaper than assembled goods
For the same reason that furniture manufacturer and retailed IKEA is able to sell cheaper goods by making them available unassembled, it might also be less expensive to obtain the blueprints, raw materials and components, probably in the form of a kit, and have one’s own fabricator produce the various parts for a product which we would then assemble ourselves. That is, until personal fabricators become capable of printing a complex object already fully assembled.

Turnaround time
Even if it takes a 3D printer one hour or two to fabricate an iPhone stand, that is still significantly less than waiting one or more days for it to arrive in the mail. As personal digital fabrication tools grow faster and more efficient this might become an increasingly important motivation to have a fabricator at home or in the office. One example shared by a Thingiverse user illustrates this perfectly. Marty McGuire [15] had just moved into a new town. Even though he was able to buy a shower curtain at the local drugstore, they were all out of rings. While pondering the possibility of taking a bath instead, McGuire remembered that he owns a personal 3D printer. He quickly designed and printed some shower curtain rings and had his shower. But it doesn’t end there, McGuire made his ring model parametric, so that it can be adapted to fit other curtain rods, and posted the model on Thingiverse for anyone to download and modify for free.

The Future?
The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.
—William Gibson in The Economist, December 4, 2003

As beautifully illustrated by the Nueve Ojos’ Full Printed animation [20], the scenario now being debated in numerous blogs and conversations but also on the mass media is that, in a not so distant future, we will all be manufacturing exactly what we want, when and where we want it. Naturally, this vision has such profound implications that are just as difficult to foresee as the future of the personal computer was in the 1970s. What we have at the moment is a series of questions posed by this scenario:

What happens to safety, environmental and quality regulations?
While the manufacturing industry is currently subject to regulations concerning the safety, quality and environmental impact of the goods they produce, how can these be applied to the objects individuals fabricate themselves? Who is liable if someone gets injured by one of these home-made objects? It is very likely that these regulations, and mostly the burden of ensuring safety, will still lie on the providers of digital fabricators, materials and blueprints—while alterations or misuses on the part of the users will be their own responsibility—just as it now happens with home appliances and other such devices. Nevertheless, depending on the uses we make of these technologies, it is very likely that the current legislation may quickly be made obsolete by the new practices.

More sustainable or a new source of waste?
Digital fabrication tools can turn out to be either a much more sustainable form of production or the generators of an enormous amount of additional refuse. On the one hand, additive fabrication technologies waste almost no stock material and don’t require molds. Also, if we can have exactly the products we want, tailored to our needs, and the ability to easily repair and repurpose most of these objects, chances are that most products’ life cycles will be greatly extended. The ability to have something manufactured only when and where it’s needed would also considerably decrease fuel consumption, pollution and surplus waste. On the other hand, precisely the fact that products can be made at the push of a button may lead us to regard them as disposable and easily replaceable, thus decreasing the product’s life cycle and greatly increasing the amount of waste.

What about intellectual property?
What happens when everyone has access to fabricators and 3D scanners and parametrized models for nearly everything circulate freely on the web? In November 2010, Michael Weinberg [26], from Public Knowledge, published an article, titled It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up: 3D printing, intellectual property and the fight over the next great disruptive technology, in which he describes the complex legal implications of these trends and technologies.

While copyright court battles over music, movie and book file sharing still rage, and the advocates of open source and free culture continue their fight for increased openness and less restrictive intellectual property laws, practice is simply outdating the law. Everywhere individuals and groups are choosing to give away their creations for free, to build on each others’ work, to open, adapt and repurpose the goods they acquire, and to share all this knowledge and accompanying blueprints through the internet. This has been poignantly expressed by Allan Ecker [7], blogger for Thingiverse, on a post dated May 13, 2009:

The Creative Commons, when applied to machinery, to parts and equipment and tools and toys, will serve as an alternate understanding, and a ‘made law’ that will let designers leverage the power of personal fabrication to improve the world, by improving the way things are made.

In this hi-tech revival of the pre-industrial era of artisan production—but now enabled and exponentiated by the most powerful many-to-many network the world has ever known—we are able to not only manufacture products at home but also instantly share our creations with everyone else. A whistle designed in Germany can be held in the hands of someone else in New York City in as little as 15 minutes [19]; we can be 3D scanned in under five minutes and our likeness published and 3D printed a few hours later [8]; a replacement part can be fabricated for a few cents, avoiding a repair which would otherwise cost hundreds of dollars [14].

In addition to the profound repercussions these technologies will likely have on the manufacturing industry [11] [16], the democratization they enable promises to unleash creativity and innovation at a level comparable to those brought about by the personal computer and the internet. As Von Hippel [25] points out:

User-centered innovation processes offer great advantages over the manufacturer-centric innovation development systems that have been the mainstay of commerce for hundreds of years. Users that innovate7 can develop exactly what they want, rather than relying on manufacturers to act as their (often very imperfect) agents. Moreover, individual users do not have to develop everything they need on their own: they can benefit from innovations developed and freely shared by others.

Access to tools capable of turning digital designs into physical objects, coupled with the ease with which digital files can and are being modified and circulated, is bringing a third dimension to the practices of sharing, mashup and remix, and giving everyone the opportunity to not only reinvent and shape the world of bits, but also the world of atoms. The next decade will tell if indeed, as Doherty [6] suggests, more than consumers, we are makers.

(1) Unlike mass manufacturing machines, digital fabrication technologies require no tooling, i.e. the changing of accessories and cutting tools of a machine each time something different needs to be made.
(2) A non-profit organization dedicated to developing and supporting a legal infrastructure for the sharing of knowledge and content.
(3) A distributed problem-solving and production method.
(4) It should be noted that its latest model, Mendel, is currently capable of producing only its plastic parts, i.e. the brackets that hold the machine’s structure together.
(5) De Bruijn’s survey encompasses operators and developers of all open source 3D printers, including those directly associated with the RepRap project but also RepRap-derived 3D printers such as the ones developed by MakerBot Industries and Bits from Bytes.
(6) Which raises complex intellectual property issues that will not be address here.
(7) In a 2010 study comparing businesses and household sector innovation in consumer products, Von Hippel, De Jong and Flowers [24] found that “6.2% of UK consumers – 2.9 million individuals – have engaged in consumer product innovation during the prior 3 years. In aggregate, consumers’ annual product development expenditures are 2.3 times larger than the annual consumer product R&D expenditures of all firms in the UK combined.”


Thanks to Tom Igoe and Art Kleiner, professors at ITP-NYU, for the wisdom with which they helped me think through this complex and rapidly evolving landscape.


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Note: This article was initially written in November 2010 and revised in July 2011.

Democratization of Manufacturing Timeline