I have a particular interest in the manufacturing of physical goods. For close to 25 years, I have been involved with a boutique, New Zealand-based manufacturer of backpacks and workwear. Cactus Equipment has been designing and making its own products for years.
As opposed to the regular model of spec'ing a product from Far Eastern design and manufacturing houses, Cactus designs in house and then manufacturers in its own New Zealand factory, as well as a number of outsourced but still New Zealand-based facilities. So, the realities of trying to get a product designed and prototyped is something I'm well aware of. The design and sourcing combined with the difficulty in accessing resources makes product engineering a difficult task.
That is why I've been interested to watch companies that try and make this process more efficient. One company, Ponoko, got its start in New Zealand around 10 years ago with a vision of connecting designers, customers and manufacturers. The idea was that any one of those stakeholder groups could use the Ponoko platform to connect with the other groups. Have a smart design for some new widget? You could find a manufacturer and a customer base on Ponoko. Ponoko leveraged a global listing of production facilities using different processes (CNC machining, laser cutting, different material specialties etc) to achieve good economics.
Whether they were too early or their execution wasn't optimal, Ponoko never really seemed to hit escape velocity. It still exists, but the world of design and manufacturing is pretty much the same as it was a decade or two ago.
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Given that history, it was interesting to hear from Fictiv, a company founded by a couple of brothers in 2013 as an idea to bring agile methodologies and access to production resources together.
Fictiv is at its essence a manufacturing platform powered by a distributed network of vendors that offer prototyping, development and manufacturing skills. Users leverage an online interface to get quotes, review manufacturing feedback and manage orders—all through a single service.
Fictiv has a network of third-party 3D printing and CNC machining facilities to enable prototyping of hardware as close to the customer as possible. The idea being that the traditional hardware development cycle can be greatly reduced. Fictiv promises to provide 3D printed prototypes in 24 hours and deliver CNC machined parts in three days. And they have some high-profile and legendary support from Mercedes-Benz.
“Access to a variety of high-quality prototype parts early in the development process enabled us to test our hardware designs to create intelligent and great performing features,” said Rasheq Zarif, senior manager of business innovation at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, Inc. “Fictiv gave us the insight and quality we expected and need to prototype new parts quickly.”
The local economy story
Part of Fictiv's marketing push rests in the fact that it is leveraging local manufacturing wherever possible to get prototypes to customers as fast as possible. Once customers upload their design files, the platform intelligently identifies available machine capacity and sends the parts to pre-vetted fabricators in Fictiv’s network.
This distributed approach supports local manufacturing ecosystems by helping quality vendors fill excess capacity. There is a strong message in all of this, especially for countries that have lost much of their manufacturing base to low-cost offshore facilities. Fictiv's "keeping it local" message will appeal to many in the once-huge manufacturing sector in these locations.
“The U.S. was once the center of manufacturing in the world,” says Nate Evans, co-founder of Fictiv. “Today, the country is still filled with some of the best manufacturing minds and expertise globally. However, many of these shops have been left behind without the needed technology and tools to compete against larger, centralized manufacturers. Fictiv is building a technology infrastructure to allow engineers and designers to have better access to these experts, while catalyzing local economies to spur growth.”
The best part about these sort of distributed network plays is their ability to support edge use cases wherever they may be. Of course, the flip side is that the first time an edge case can't be supported, the platform loses its credibility.
News today that Fictiv is adding CNC machining to the 3D printing it already supports will help with this, as will the variety of materials Fictiv is able to work with (various plastics, as well as aluminum and stainless steel). Of course, as soon as someone wants to CNC an item from, say, titanium, that story falls down and Fictiv becomes a "nice try, but you didn't quite nail it" platform.
The other limitation is the geographical spread of Fictiv's network. If I am in some obscure region of the country (or world, for that matter), I still want Fictiv to deliver me my prototype as quickly as someone sitting in San Francisco or Chicago. It comes down to something of a chicken and egg story. Fictiv needs the scale to grow, but it needs to grow to add scale.
I'd love to see Fictiv succeed where other initiatives haven't. I understand first hand how hard prototyping physical goods is and anything that makes it easier is a positive step. But I wouldn't bet that anything has fundamentally changed to enable Fictiv to fix this problem. Too many barriers, too many dis-economies and too much market resistance exists, in my view.
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