Design is currently at its most accessible. We are currently witness to a changes in design processes and manufacturing that are opening up arenas that were previously inaccessible to non-designers. While 3D printing has lent a hand in recent developments, companies such as OpenDesk, have a different approach that activates individuals to become part of the manufacturing process. OpenDesk provides digital designs and the customer decides, based on their own access to materials and machinery, if they want to build the desk themselves, purchase it as a flatpack and assemble it themselves, or receive their piece whole from a professional maker.

Icsid interviewed Nick Ierodiaconou, Director & Lead Designer at Open Desk to discuss the foundations of OpenDesk, the influence on micro-manufacturing and the future of open designs. Let us know what you think using #accessible on Facebook and Twitter.

Q: How did this idea for a company come about?

OpenDesk is a part of 00, a London based strategic design consultancy with a multi-disciplinary team of architects, designers, researchers, geographers and software developers. Over the past few years we’ve worked on a range of projects looking at the interface between digital fabrication and the web. OpenDesk began at the very start of this journey when we designed a computer numerical control (CNC) milled workdesk for the digital agency Mint Digital in 2011. We saw this as a repeatable way to design products for local just-in-time production and were intrigued by the idea from John Maynard Keynes, that ‘…it is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits’. We decided to open source our design and the idea of OpenDesk was born.

We spent the next two years researching the emerging digital maker space, and in 2012 launched FabHub, a directory and map of digital fabrication service providers around the world. With FabHub, digital makers can list their services and show off their work and process; designers and other businesses in turn can find good local fabbers for prototyping or production, searching by location, technology, or materials. We saw the potential for a distributed marketplace for designers to share designs, customers to order products, and makers to quote on fabrication, without some of the traditional locking of big intermediaries and supply chains. The current OpenDesk website was launched in August 2013 to begin to address these issues.

Unlocking the potential for this distributed making marketplace whilst solving the related technological and social challenges now lies at the heart of our mission with OpenDesk.

Q: Has there been any feedback from the design community? Or the public? What has it been like?

We have had a huge amount of feedback since our launch with over 80,000 people visiting our website within the first 48 hours. Thousands of people have downloaded design files and hundreds of quote requests have been placed for products to be made locally all over the world, from Thailand to Argentina. The primary interest geographically has come from the Unites States, Brazil, and France, although the coverage generally has been spread all across the globe. This has shown us that there is substantial demand for products made in a new way everywhere (digitally, locally, and on demand). Our challenge has been that we were not primed to manage the spike we got at launch, and as such have only been able to physically deliver a small number of orders so far as we grow our maker base and team, with a large backlog still in the pipeline. However in parallel we have also had a growing interest from makers signing up on FabHub to offer their services and make OpenDesks, so our capacity is increasing all the time.

Whilst we have had some feedback from designers directly (with people suggesting designs), we have not had the infrastructure in place to date to support open submissions on our site. In order to address this we are now working on the next version of the website, which will include the ability for people to recommend designs for inclusion. We are currently on the lookout for our next group of designers to work closely together, and keen to hear from anyone interested.

Much of the feedback we have received has included enthusiastic support for our mission, but furthermore we have received a large number of requests for specific types of products not currently offered on our site. This has helped to steer our next design direction and will largely inform upcoming developments to our website as we open out to new designers.

Q: Do you feel like Open Desk is a key component to a movement in micro-manufacturing?

Our mission is very much to provide infrastructure to enable micro-manufacturing, and particularly distributed manufacturing for a range of products designed for process. We are interested in digital fabrication as a general trend, with its potential to lower the threshold for accessible precision making in different locations, and lower the cost of customisation. 3D printing has received much of the press coverage recently, and there is a huge amount of hype about its potential. But the truth is that 3D additive manufacturing is only one type of digital making, alongside some much older technologies such as CNC milling for example. As we see it, the broader trend is towards the dissemination of digital tools geographically decoupling design and manufacturing via the sharing of digital media. This suggests the possibility of a far more geographically widespread manufacturing base of small agile fabricators, and points to a future of independent digital designers and makers connected over the Internet and operating their own micro-businesses.

We know there are now a growing number of small makers emerging all around the world, but in our experience much of their work still relies on quite traditional B2B and supply chain relationships. We believe there is potential for micro-manufacturers to come into more direct contact with independent designers and end-users of their products, to offer them a new source of revenue and interesting new opportunities for diversification and developing new skills. On the other hand, designers might benefit from access to early adopter consumers of their products, and the freedom to choose their own maker base, royalties, and geographies. From a customer point of view, digital fabrication offers some benefits around customisation and local production, but more broadly we believe there is huge value in being more connected to the designers and makers of the products we use in our daily lives.

Q: What was the original goal when Open Desk was founded?

The original goal with OpenDesk was to build a platform for disseminating digital files to a network of makers with digital fabrication capacity and allowing customers to place orders directly via that network. We wanted to see how open source hardware designs might spread and what they would look like once made in different places, but ultimately we were also interested in whether one could sell such products locally. We began with our own designs because we had tested these and knew about their fabrication and assembly (regarding materials, tolerance, etc). However as soon as we launched, we were contacted by AtFAB in the United States (themselves designers of open CNC machined furniture), and we immediately saw they shared a very similar vision regarding designs for distributed making. We worked with them to onboard some of their designs on our website as a first step towards growing into a wider platform for other designers.

Q: Was your target audience designers or non-designers?

Our target is a multi-audience base of customers interested in socially-made products and local production; industrial, product and furniture designers working with digital technologies; and SME fabricators around the world. We firmly believe that good independent designers and skilled manufacturers have the potential to compete with some of the largest producers, whilst operating in a leaner model and choosing their own price points, royalties, and design freedoms. We also feel there is an opportunity to build a transparent marketplace for making, where every single product is made up just in time and just for you.

Q: Do you think open source furniture is the future of design?

We are very interested in open design generally in that it helps get around many of the problems associated with closed product development cycles in terms of up front capital investment, prototyping expense, evidence of demand in the market, and so on. In particular, we believe the open source model can yield huge benefits in terms of rapid social development and learning, for example resulting in better contextual design and exposing limits or flaws in designs – ‘bugs’ which can be quickly addressed. Moreover, with open source design it is possible to imagine that design and development are not done in closed silos, but rather are a continuous process of iteration, small batch manufacturing, improvement, and even divisions of designs in response to contextual demand and customisation.

However we are increasingly of the opinion that open source is only a means to an end rather than the end itself. Rather, we believe in a broader definition of ‘open’, encompassing more open access (lower barriers to entry), more open transparency (social accountability and feedback), and open markets (customer choice and transparent pricing to stimulate competition). These are all things the web can provide and it is at this level that many industries have been disrupted by the profusion of the Internet. More than open source code, simply providing the right infrastructure to an underserved or emerging market often does enough to unlock new potential, and in some cases preserving some ‘closed source’ whilst such a market grows to a resilient scale may be a suitable strategy.

In our future developments on OpenDesk we do not intend to enforce open source on designers unless they wish it case by case, but rather offer a range of options according to each designer’s preference and the nuances of their design… we will shift from ‘open source’ to a more general ‘open making’, which reflects our wider mission to enable an open marketplace.

For my part, I hope the internet will bring new opportunities for designers and makers in the middle of the long tail – professionals with a genuine and vested interest in delivering quality products to a socially awakened market. Whether such a future comes to bear, and in what form, we will have to wait and see.

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