To turn an idea into a product, a Ponoko customer uses one of four different programs–Adobe Illustrator CS, Macromedia Freehand MX, CorelDraw X3, or Inkscape–to create a design and store it in an .eps file template. (Ponoko is working on a program that will allow users to scan and upload hand-drawn sketches.) After the customer uploads the file, she selects the raw materials from which her product will be constructed. Currently, Ponoko offers acrylic, styrene, hardboard, plywood, whiteboard, and a few others. With some materials, users can choose from a variety of colors, too.
At that moment, the user is given a price quote, which will depend on the sophistication of her design and the materials requested. If everything is to her liking, she pays with a credit card, and Ponoko sends off a raw-material order to its supplier. Materials are always purchased on demand; there is no stock carried.
When the raw materials come in the door, Ponoko opens the laser cutting machine, which is like an oversized photocopier, and puts them inside. (The laser cutter is made by Universal Laser Systems, based in Scottsdale, AZ.) Then someone taps two buttons on a computer and one on the laser cutting machine, and presto: it starts cutting the design out.
Ponoko also offers its customers a couple of other services. During the process of uploading a template file, users can choose a “sell” option, which lets them sell the blueprints of their products on the website. (If the user adds a creative-commons license to the blueprint, she can even allow people to riff off, embellish, or improve upon her .eps file.) A user who wishes to sell a physical product she has already ordered and received can also keep a listing on Ponoko’s site.
Phillip Torrone, senior editor at Make, a magazine devoted to design and do-it-yourself technology, has a laser cutter in his home and uses it to etch and customize laptop shells. But when Ponoko launched at TechCrunch40, Torrone thought he’d give its service a try by designing an iPhone stand.
“They did everything that was required for me to get my product,” Torrone says. “Their tutorials are fine; the templates were good examples. Pretty much, they did everything right. Now the question is, is there a demand? How much money does a company like this need to make to stay afloat?”
Ellery’s answer is that, eventually, Ponoko’s revenue will come entirely from digital services, not from manufacturing fees. The company intends to develop six revenue streams, including ad sales and commissions on design purchases. But at the moment, its only source of income is the one it would like to decrease: selling people manufacturing time and materials.