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strategy and business
Published: August 23, 2011
 / Autumn 2011 / Issue 64


A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Fabrication

The makers who start and run these enterprises don’t work alone. Nor do they rely on university or company labs, as innovators did in the past. Instead, they are forming open source collaboratives and workshops that take advantage of the dropping costs of digital fabrication and the connectivity of social media. In the past few years, many informal workshop collaboratives have sprung up around the world. These spaces are not centrally owned or organized, but they share information collectively and help one another advance. One such operation, TechShop, has six locations in the United States and markets itself with the slogan “Build your dreams here.” Another group, the community fabrication spaces called Fab Labs, is affiliated with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms; there are 50 Fab Labs in 16 countries. Even more numerous are “hackerspaces”: community-organized workshops that share an ethic of collaboration and information sharing on tools and processes. The world map on registers about 500 of these collectives. Centers for bio-fabrication also exist; the New York–based Genspace offers the tools to perform synthetic biology experiments, DNA analysis, and more.

Within the maker culture, people are expected to publish their plans and specifications, typically under an open source license, which allows others to copy, adapt, and learn from the designs, always with credit and mutual access to ideas. Makers tend to design their business models accordingly. They make short runs of each product and make frequent changes based on customer feedback; two makers might work together easily while creating competing products that draw on each other’s specifications.

Many successful manufacturing startups are emerging from this community, with strong ties to its open source ethic. SparkFun Electronics Inc., founded in 2003 in Boulder, Colo., makes electronic component modules and devices. Its revenues reached $18 million in 2010. Makerbot and Arduino (based in Chiasso, Switzerland, and making microcontroller modules) had revenues of more than $1 million each, and Adafruit Industries (New York, electronics kits and sensors) reported sales of well over $2 million. The Arduino microcontroller board, an open source microcontroller platform, sold almost 300,000 units in its first seven years, and has spawned dozens of derivative products because its design is freely available for copying and innovation. Open source software is already a billion-dollar business, and Adafruit partner Phillip Torrone estimates that open source hardware will reach that threshold by 2015. (Torrone is also an editor of Make magazine, which is devoted to the maker culture.)

A noteworthy parallel to, and inspiration for, the Western maker community is the shan zhai movement in China. These fast-moving “knockoff” manufacturers are genuinely innovative in their own right. They respond to local needs and tastes, they make continual improvements in their products, and they repeatedly invest in future developments. (See “Knockoffs Come of Age,” by Edward Tse, Kevin Ma, and Yu Huang, s+b, Autumn 2009.) Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, vice president of engineering for Chumby, an Internet browsing/receiving device whose plans are published under open source licenses, adds that many shan zhai companies share information about materials and other design elements, and credit one another with improvements. As do other maker groups, the shan zhai community enforces this policy itself and ostracizes those who violate it.

Already, digitally enabled open source manufacturing is changing the way people think about the production and use of goods. As Eric von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, put it in his book Democratizing Innovation (MIT Press, 2005): “User-centered innovation processes offer great advantages over the that have been the mainstay of commerce for hundreds of years. Users that innovate can develop exactly what they want, rather than relying on manufacturers to act as their (often very imperfect) agents. Moreover, individual users do not have to develop everything they need on their own: they can benefit from innovations developed and freely shared by others.”

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  1. Limor Fried and Phillip Torrone, “Million Dollar Baby,” 2010 (PDF): Overview presentation of open source hardware companies by Adafruit.
  2. Phillip Torrone, “Open Source Hardware 2009,” 2009, : List and overview of open source hardware projects in existence in 2009.
  3. Edward Tse, Kevin Ma, and Yu Huang, “Knockoffs Come of Age,” s+b, Autumn 2009: Introduction to China’s shan zhai companies and their transition from piracy to competitive innovation.
  4. Eric von Hippel, Jeroen De Jong, and Steven Flowers, “2010: Comparing Business and Household Sector Innovation in Consumer Products: Findings from a Representative Study in the UK,” 2010: Survey of the development and modification of consumer products by product users in a representative sample of 1,173 U.K. consumers age 18-plus.
  5. Wohlers Associates, “Wohlers Report 2011,” 2011: Yearly in-depth analysis of the additive manufacturing industry worldwide.
  6. For more on this topic, see the s+b website at: