What if you could custom order furniture for your home while paying Ikea prices for it? That’s the goal of Fabsie, a U.K. startup that wants to take the promise of custom manufacturing enabled by 3D printing, laser cutters and CNC routers and match that with the needs of everyday consumers.
James McBennett, the founder of Fabsie, is hoping to act as an essential bridge between designers of CNC (computer numerical control) manufactured furniture that can be found on sites like Instructables and the average consumer who may want custom furniture but has no means to get it manufactured. CNC furniture is made of plywood on a CNC router, that allows a router to cut computer-designed shapes. The results can be surprisingly high end.
Currently Fabsie has a Kickstarter project that features a plywood rocking stool that can be made with a lot of rock, less rock, and no rock. Eventually, the company wants to do all kinds of furniture and maybe even branch out into household goods.
But McBennett’s hopes are bigger than one stool. He thinks the time is ripe for a company to act as a broker and quality assurance agent of sorts between the maker movement and people who have custom wants, but no desire to make. Fabsie, as he envisions it, would take designs from people and maybe even sites like Instructables, manufacture them, test the resulting physical product, and adapt the design if needed for a mass audience.
At the same time it will also develop a network of manufacturing sites around the world. Today these sites are usually university towns with hacker spaces or labs that have the machines to fabricate and cut plywood, but it’s possible that independent companies might step up to fulfill this niche if ideas like Fabsie and custom manufacturing take off. Currently, many of the facilities with CNC routers only use them a quarter of the time, McBennett said. His business could help put those machines to work full time, and help the maker spaces make money.
The trend toward custom products and the rise of cheaper manufacturing equipment such as home 3D printers and laser cutting machines, as well as the availability of more and more designs are creating new business models for companies like Fabsie, or Nervous Systems, which makes custom 3D printed jewelry that’s sold in the MoMA store.
Similar to how the digitization of content undercut the physical distribution systems of newspapers and print magazines — one of the primary advantages that print newspapers had — the digitization of product design holds similar promise if we can figure out how to package and consume those designs closer to the consumer on an on-demand basis.
But even with digital designs, physical objects have to at some point convert from digital over to the analog world. Pushing that point out closer to the end consumer of the product via fabrication plants closer to the home helps reduce costs associated with shipping and also delays in getting the item. And newer manufacturing makes doing a custom run a bit more economical. McBennett estimates he can produce stools at a cost of £20 (almost $30) apiece, but that prices drops to £10 if a manufacturer is making 10.
Clearly, those economies of scale vanish at the totally custom level, but that design is still stored and could be made again for other customers. With a material like plywood, which has a standard scale that measures the quality of the wood, it’s easy to control the end result. I might pay more for higher-quality plywood, but I will also know exactly what I am going to get.
As we embrace customization in our products, digitization of our designs and the new manufacturing technologies coming online, the distribution of physical goods will change. Fabsie may be one model for how that change will happen while still delivering quality products for consumers.