All of this, Semmelhack says, gives individuals the power to create specialized devices, while also allowing small businesses to get to market much faster and at less expense. “What makes mass customization possible is a platform,” he says. The platform allows mass production to the greatest extent possible. Bug Labs’ hardware modules are an effort to balance flexibility with quality and polish. Designers can use these modules in combination with open-source software to create their own products while benefiting from the sort of large-scale effort that goes into products manufactured in the hundreds of thousands. Semmelhack says, “That’s an important part of the equation, because it’s the only way to get costs down.”
Ponoko, a company based in Wellington, New Zealand, uses digital fabrication techniques such as 3-D printing and laser cutting to allow individuals to produce jewelry and household items. One key, says cofounder and CEO David ten Have, is the Personal Factory platform that Ponoko has created. That system automates many processes that used to be done by hand, he says, streamlining individual submissions so they can be produced in a way that lends itself to mass production. When a user uploads a design, for example, the software can assess to some degree how viable it is, and it can calculate the cost of materials and manufacturing. Ponoko also offers an application programming interface that makes customization easier. So, for example, a small business could use Ponoko to design a chair and then let customers specify the pattern on the chair back.
The most significant thing about these companies’ products, says Semmelhack, is that they “take a lot of the risk out” of designing and building something new. Now, he says, “people can capitalize on what we’ve done because they can build a market-ready product in one day.”