Going Glocal: Building a Business on Distributed Manufacturing

Woodworking Workshop
Going Glocal: Building a Business on Distributed Manufacturing

Wife/husband partners Anne Filson and Gary Rohrbacher are forward-looking. They run an architecture firm, are both professors at the University of Kentucky, and co-founded AtFAB, a studio that designs simple, modern goods to be made in a whole new way — with networked, independent, digital fabrication workshops.

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“Ship Information, Not Stuff”

Gary Rohrbacher: We really believe that there is such a thing as digital craft. A CNC router actually brings you as close to the material as any conventional working tool. You can admire the precision of a piece, the puzzle aspect of it.
Anne Filson: So many things in our households have been around the world several times. The raw materials are from one continent, they are processed in another place, the screws and hinges are sourced from somewhere else, and the labor is from China. That’s a massive carbon footprint. But there are milling machines and plywood everywhere, why don’t we make more products close by?
GR: We’ve heard that called “glocal.” That’s a tagline for distributed manufacturing, which we think is the wave of the future.

A Shrinking World

AF: The distance between the designer and finished project has collapsed. With digital fabrication, you can model a product on your computer, and others can make a finished project from your design with machines that are almost everywhere.
GR: High-quality CNC machines are now available for a relatively low price. Software has focused on direct fabrication.

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The Honesty of Plywood

AF: Centuries-old joinery techniques, and the turning functions of a lathe have produced furniture that looks a certain way. We’re interested in making something that looks like it was cut from a CNC router and has had as little processing as possible.
GR: We’re not beholden to plywood exclusively but it’s available everywhere in the world, it’s renewable, and it has a great strength-to-weight ratio.
GR: It’s not trying to hide the fact that the furniture is all from a flat sheet of stock material. It’s puzzle pieces. The assembly is clear, explicit, right out in front of you. Nothing is hidden. There’s no artifice, no ornaments, no secrets. The ornament is the tool paths.
AF: Embedded in that artifact is a different story, but it’s still a rich and compelling story, and you participated in it.

Create Your Own

GR: Products like SketchUp are giving people the power that once only big design firms had.
GR: Try Opendesk in London. They’ve built an API that connects the consumer, designer, and local manufacturer. Go to the Opendesk website, choose a design, and their interface will find the closest local manufacturer near you.
AF: The barrier to entry is pretty low, and you can start with smaller, cheaper machines and keep upgrading as your business upgrades. If you’re working with an inexpensive CNC machine like a ShopBot, the cost of machine is around $15,000, plus a few thousand more to set up.
AF: As more people in society recognize their agency as Makers, Makerspaces are going to have more functions than just an introductory one. They can become manufacturing hubs.

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DC Denison is the co-editor of The Maker Pro Newsletter, which covers the intersection of makers and business. That means hardware startups, new products, and market trends.

DC manages customer stories at Acquia, the digital experience company.

View more articles by DC Denison


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