From Bits to Atoms, an Interview with David ten Have, CEO of Ponoko

David ten Have is co-founder and CEO of Ponoko (blog), a company from New Zealand exploring a new approach to manufacturing. Dave’s goal is to provide a customized manufacturing process so easy that almost anybody can use it. Send Ponoko a 3D digital model and they will take care of transforming it into a physical object.  They will even help you sell your creation on the market. The entire system currently works for relatively simple objects but in the future could be extended to handle complex projects. After reading about Ponoko and finding out about David’s involvement with Celsias, I couldn’t resist asking David a few questions about his company and his vision. Here is the interview.

Dave, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company?

Derek Elley and I set up Ponoko to change the world we live in

I am a software developer by trade but I have a passion for design and systems that allow people to express themselves through design. I am the son of an aeronautical engineer who built aircraft from composite materials (at the time a radical approach to manufacturing) and a mother who was a seamstress. Since I was a child my family has made things – from electric cars to the clothes on my back. Over the past 10 years people like William McDonoughBruce SterlingBurt Rutan and Neil Gershenfeld have influenced the way in which I look at the world and how people relate to products. More recently I have spent a lot of time investigating the tools that combine software and atoms – from software like SolidWorks through to tools like 3D printers.
Derek Elley and I set up Ponoko to change the world we live in. We foresee a time where technology gives us all the power to create and make any product we need on-demand. How this will happen is the exciting thing – the end result is unknown at this point, but there are very real and tantalizing first steps that can be used right now. The future is one where the financial and environmental costs of today’s product making and distribution model are radically altered for the better.

Innovation could be a risky business for entrepreneurs. What’s your strategy with such an innovative idea as Ponoko?
The core strategy is to create something that does not cost a lot to run with zero customers and let the Internet connected global marketplace dictate the direction and success of the business. This is the eBay model – very little setup cost and/or overhead without customers. At the end of the day creators want to create unique stuff and consumers love to buy unique things – we give everyone the ability to get the most unique products ever at increasing lower prices over time.

You are actively involved in several projects for the environment. Do you consider your company and your approach to manufacturing “green”?

we’ve been able to design a system that has a goal of being more sustainable

Absolutely. While Ponoko was partially inspired by my playing around with tools that combine software and atoms – the catalyst was the involvement Derek and I had in those environmental projects. The environmental work, especially around carbon credits (a very big issue here in New Zealand because it is now being used as a pseudo trade barrier in some of our export markets) exposed the problems in the dominant models of creating products. Free to take a completely radical approach to the idea of manufacturing we’ve been able to design a system that has, at it’s core, a goal of being more sustainable. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re seeing the start of a manufacturing model whereby consumers have much more control and choice but also less negative effect on the environment.

Your online gallery has relatively simple models. Once you move beyond the phase of early adopters, what kind of object do you expect people will start asking you to manufacture?
This is one of the questions that is asked most often about what we are doing. In fact it was one of the questions we asked ourselves for quite a long period of time. In all honesty, it is not possible to answer the question in specific terms at present. The answer at the end of the day is “whatever the community comes up with”.  The products that are created are those that meet the needs of our users – be they professional or amateur product designers, crafters, artists, makers, inventors, engineers, children, DIYers, farmers, mechanics, etc.

Which kind of manufacturing technology are you currently using and which one might you consider acquiring in the future?
We are focused on using the laser cutter to start with. The key reason being that it can output a wider range of commercially acceptable products today with the least relative fuss and cost. Things are changing rapidly and the technology in this space is rapidly evolving, so watch this space – our goal is to offer real digital manufacturing tools to our users.

One recent post on your company blog connected some of the ideas of the Open‑Source movement with your “personal workshop” approach. Is it really possible to transfer ideas and experiences from the software realm into the world of physical manufacturing?
We think so yes. We’re big fans of Neil Gershenfeld and the thinking he has done in this area. I do not think anyone can say it any better than he already has. [For more information about Neil Gershenfeld and his ideas, check out his popular reference book: “FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop, From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication“.]

New Zealand is a beautiful country located far from the economic and business centers of the  world. In the era of globalization and Internet, do you consider doing business from there a disadvantage?
No. In many ways we see it as being an advantage. When you sit way out on the edge of a system your perspective is completely different from that of of someone at the center. In very real terms being so far out from our key markets has meant that we feel the real effects of big issues long before many others – it’s like comparing the handle of a whip to the cracker – one travels at a few meters per second and the other travels faster than the speed of sound. Those pressures educate the way we look at problems and shape our solutions accordingly.
As you point out we do live in an era of globalization and the internet. These trends bring with them tools that allow us to reach directly into our target markets. In terms of commerce there is no doubt that having people on the ground in our major markets is a must. But this is no different from any company in the world.

I would like to thank David ten Have for taking the time to speak with me today and to Steven Kempton for helping me to coordinate the interview. If you have any questions for David or for Novedge, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.

Franco Folini

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