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 / Autumn 2011 / Issue 64(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Fabrication

• Counter reverse engineering with open innovation. Digital fabrication will inevitably enable amateur enthusiasts to knock off and alter commercial products in their garages. Although it’s unlikely that any one individual will replicate complex goods such as laptops, cameras, or cars in large quantities, the Internet is already flooded with blueprints for customizing consumer goods, repurposing game controllers, and replacing broken parts. Just like the music and movie industries, manufacturers now face a choice between engaging in eternal court battles with their own customers and assimilating this new culture of sharing and remixing into their design and production processes.

Deploy the new tools to help consumers adapt and personalize their products, and use this to learn about their unspoken wants and needs. There are already several examples to emulate., a site where inventors can propose their ideas for fabrication, invites the 35,000-plus members of its community to vote on whether a product should be made. The result is imaginative devices and housewares as varied as precision plungers, cord organizers, and new types of Swiss Army–style knives. Customers whose ideas are manufactured get a cut of the profits.

The Microsoft Corporation has learned from customer innovation on its Kinect sensor, a popular accessory for its Xbox 360 game console that allows games to track and respond to people’s body motions. Just after the Kinect’s North American introduction, Adafruit announced a competition for an alternative open source driver for the device. This started a frenzy of “Kinect hacking,” generating numerous novel applications for the device — including 3-D mapping for robotic devices, 3-D holographic images, and many other applications. The Kinect, which was originally marketed as just a sophisticated video game controller, could thus be made into a motion-detection device with endless applications, appealing to a much broader customer base. Although Microsoft initially threatened legal action, it ultimately chose to capitalize on the excitement. (It later turned out that Johnny Chung Lee, a member of the Kinect design team, had financed the original Adafruit competition without asking permission from the company.) Microsoft now provides a software development kit to cultivate its “unofficial” Kinect developers.

Texas Instruments Inc. (TI) also combines proprietary and open source products in its portfolio. Its open source products include the Beagle Board, a low-cost computer-processing device with the computational capabilities of a typical smartphone or tablet computer. Jason Kridner of, a developer community that includes several TI employees, told Make magazine editor Phil Torrone, “The revenues on board sales are in excess of $1 million annually and continue to rise, but the business model here is one of enabling the technology partners, not making money off the board sales. That said, all parties in the value chain are making money off the board sales — and this helps to keep the ecosystem alive where people can participate at almost any level.”

Are there enough interested customers to justify such efforts? One 2010 research study of United Kingdom consumers, conducted by Eric von Hippel, Jeroen De Jong, and Steven Flowers, found that 2.9 million people, or 6.2 percent of the nation’s adult population, have taken part in some form of consumer product innovation since 2006. “In aggregate,” they wrote, “consumers’ annual product development expenditures are 2.3 times larger than the annual consumer product R&D expenditures of all firms in the UK combined.”

Help in the development of new and better materials for fabrication. Independent fabricators are eager for materials, and they are experimenting fervently. Forward-thinking manufacturers can form powerful partnerships by making their scrap materials available for experimentation.

Advanced materials emerging today include conductive thermopolymers and inks (useful for printing electronic circuits), organic semiconductors, metal filaments with low melting points, and paper pulp that can feed into 3-D printers for additive packaging. The list grows daily, and materials information is ever-more-readily available on open access blogs such as and

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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:
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