A “personal factory” that lets you make almost anything

Oct. 3, 2012
The Ponoko web site is a “personal factory” that offers users manufacturing services such as laser cutting, 3D printing, and CNC routing.

Authored by:
David McGahan
Industrial designer
Twitter @dizymac
Edited by Leslie Gordon
[email protected],
Twitter @LeslieGordon


New Zealand-based Ponoko is reenvisioning the way consumer products are created. The Ponoko Web site is a “personal factory” that offers users manufacturing services such as laser cutting, 3D printing, and CNC routing. Because many of today’s consumer products incorporate hardware and electronics, the company has partnered with Sparkfun in Boulder, Colo., which provides electronic kits and components — such as motors, LCDs, and various sensors — through the Ponoko materials catalog.

This “antler” chair was created using Ponoko.The Ponoko site offers free training Webinars every week that teach people how to use designsoftware tools like Illustrator and SketchUp. An active forum hosts tips and tutorials ranging from ways to optimize design files for lower fabrication costs to stepby- step instructions on using 3D plug-ins. Additionally, Ponoko runs one of the most popular blogs on digital fabrication and the maker movement, featuring product designs, sponsored giveaways, and a biweekly Maker Story.

One of my favorite aspects of Ponoko, and perhaps the reason for its success, is the company’s goal of creating a distributedmanufacturing network. The approach involves decreasing carbon emissions by reducing the distance goods travel from producer to consumer. This is the opposite of the world’s manufacturing infrastructure as it stands today, where countries with cheap labor monopolize manufacturing and goods are produced far from the points of sale and consumption. In contrast, Ponoko has a growing network of fabrication hubs around the world. Ponoko owns two of these hubs, one in the U.‰S. and one in New Zealand. Three others are independently owned and operated in Germany (Formulor), Italy (Vecotrealism), and the U.‰K. (RazorLAB).

In addition, Ponoko makes it easy for anyone to make things. Its 2D and 3D starter kits contain template files with design guidelines to help ensure that your design is compatible with their system. Ponoko supports a range of file formats such as EPS for laser cutting and STL for 3D printing.

A Ponoko account is free. When users sign up, they choose which fabrication hub to use. Once a user uploads a design file, he or she is prompted to select the material. Materials for laser cutting include cardboard, wood, acrylic, felt, paper, leather, metal, and polarizing film. 3D printing is available in a variety of plastics and plasters, as well as metal composites and glazed ceramics.

After material selection, the software checks files for mistakes, calculates manufacturing time and materials cost, and provides a quote.

Users are updated via e-mail on the status of their order at various stages in the process. It’s exciting to see the package at your door with the red Yippee! sticker on the front.

Ponoko is making its manufacturing platform available for others to build on. The Personal Factory API lets app developers use Ponoko’s file checking, fabrication time frame, and customer quote with their own product creation apps.

A handful of apps have been built using the Personal Factory API so far, including Autodesk 123D, which lets users create laser-cut sliceforms, MadeSolid, which lets scientists turn molecular data into 3D printed models of molecules, and the FabShop from Local Motors, where users create custom car parts with waterjet cutting.

So far, users have created over 75,000 products — everything from laser-cut clocks to CNCrouted chairs and 3D-printed jewelry.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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