How To "Make It Real"
Interview with Derek Elley of Ponoko

April 6, 2008 11:05 pm

Tags: 3D, manufacturing, marketplace, ponoko

Are you a designer, an artisan, or just have a really great idea you would like to see take shape? Are you worried your ideas would be too time consuming, or cost you way too much to manufacture? Well then, imagine this: You find yourself kicking an idea around in your head. You design your idea on your computer, transfer the design to a free pre-designed template and save it as an .eps file. You choose your material and send off your file. In a short time, you are presented with your idea in physical form.

Now what? Can you sell your product? Can you sell your design? In short, the answer is 'Yes, you can do both'! This is what Ponoko is all about. It's the big idea of personal manufacturing right from the comfort of your own home! The process is simple, and the possibilities...endless.

Ponoko provides an abundance of materials and uses a precision laser-cutting process. They also provide a place to showcase your designs and products, and plenty of help to get you started in making and selling your work.

It's free to open an account and upload your files. All you have to do to start is download the Making guide (PDF) and the template for whichever vector program you work with. The templates available are for: Adobe Illustrator CS, Macromedia Freehand MX, Inkscape, or CorelDraw X3.

To find out a little bit more about this service, we interviewed Ponoko co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Derek Elley. Thanks to Barbara Din for her input as a designer and artisan.

Nick C. Sorbin: The big questions. How did it all start? What was it that sparked the idea behind ponoko?

Derek Elley: Started 2 ways:

Dave ten Have [co-founder and CEO] is a master of his information / data – point, click, result. Why is it not that easy to create a real product? Well, we found out it is!

We started, and hence asked “what happens when the cost of carbon is factored into every product”? The answer is: transporting products as digital design files / product plans (not physical products) for distributed manufacturing as close to the point of consumption as possible.


NS: How long has ponoko been in operation?

DE: Got serious Jan 2007.

NS: How quick, in general, is the turnaround from designer to you, and back?

DE: Once we have the designer’s order then it takes 5 - 15 days for the following:

  • we order materials on demand
  • we make on-demand
  • we then package and ship

NS: The materials catalogue is quite extensive as it is now, though I read that new materials will be introduced. Any hints on what may be being considered?

DE: For laser cutting - many more plastics and timbers, then metals. Then we move into CNC routing and 3D printing.

NS: Why are metals not already available?

DE: We opened our doors with a laser cutter capable of cutting timbers and plastics. Metal laser cutter coming online soon.

NS: What other formats besides .eps are you looking into that may be available in the future to submit designs?

DE: Everything. Again, we have just kicked open the doors with this single file type because it is nice and stable for us to make from. 

Barbara Din: What are designers mainly using Ponoko for? (meaning: to test prototypes, to sell designs to their clients, etc. I know one can do all of this, but is there a trend slowly developing in the Ponoko community?)

DE: Yes, they do both. First to prototype their ideas, then launch a final product for sale, then make sales and make products on demand to supply to customers.

BD: Are designers finding new ways to explore their ideas by using your services, or is it just a matter of having covered a market niche that wasn't there?

DE: Yes, designers are finding new ways to explore their ideas, product designers are getting an outlet they never had before, so too are makers. Then there are those people who have mastered the online world and wonder what is next – they have complete control over their data and we give them control over their atoms – they can now control the look of their physical space just as they can currently control the look of their digital space. And they can share and sell it to others.

BD: What is the trend with buyers? Do they buy more .eps files, or finished products?

DE: Evidence suggests real products are the key. But it's too early to make a call on the trends developing.

BD: How do you see the future regarding designers and the possibility to turn their ideas and digital designs into "real" stuff?

DE: We believe this is the next thing. There are so many experts in digital design. What is the next challenge? It’s learning how to master our physical space in the same way we have mastered our digital space.

BD: The materials are varied, but not infinite, and the laser-cutting process is very specific (meaning one can only cut flat surfaces). Are you noticing new designing trends related to the manufacturing possibilities?

DE: It’s amazing what designers come up with. Its all personal and often unexpected. Its like the computer / digital revolution all over again – we’re starting with a very limited scope but the possibilities are endless. As we expand the range of materials and manufacturing techniques, and as these mature, almost anything is possible.

BD: How do you see the creativity of designers when given the chance of using this service? Do you see a lot of repitition, or do they surprise you with growth in their skills?

DE: The product range keeps getting wider and wider. There will always be repetition anywhere. But just like learning anything, the more proficient we become, the deeper we go to exploring the boundaries.

Nick C. Sorbin: Now to you, Barbara. As a designer and artisan, do you see Ponoko as a service you might make use of?

Barbara Din:
Absolutely. Having the ability to turn one's design into "real stuff" is the dream of every non-rich designer out there. Prototyping is possible now. It really is a dream come true.

NS: Do you see any areas that Ponoko could improve on, besides what Derek has said is in the works?

I’d like to browse by category. Searching by tag is great, but sometimes uploaders don’t include the keywords you search for, even if they are obvious. I’d like to see categories for furniture, lighting fixtures, jewelry, and stationery, for instance. This, combined with the ability to search by tag, would make browsing designs and products a breeze.

NS: What do you feel are the strongest points of Ponoko?

 Not only the fact that you can turn your digital design into atoms, but the fact that you can share and sell your designs so others can manufacture them in the material of their choice. All of this built around a community. I think it is a lot more clever than just a cold corporate site. Listening to designers and buyers and giving them a place to interact is the key to fast improvement.

For more information:

Ponoko Web Site
Making guide (PDF)
How to Make
How to Sell

Special thanks to Derek Elley, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.

All supporting images are copyright, and cannot be
copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission.

Nick C. Sorbin is a digital artist, sculptor, writer, and Managing Editor for Renderosity's Front Page News.
Renderosity Homepage


Barbara Din was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (and NO, that’s NOT Brazil) and currently lives there. Graphic artist, interior designer, artisan, compulsive photographer, eventual writer and ex-musician, Barbara is always after unseen stuff and mixing old things in new ways. She has a blog, Delightful Arts, dedicated to showing unique fine arts and crafts she finds around the web. Be sure to also visit her Renderosity Store.

April 21, 2008

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