Open making is a new model of product design and manufacture that is based on digital fabrication and has been inspired by open source thinking. The essential feature of the new model is that it de-couples design and manufacture so that products can be made reliably and repeatably, independently of their designer.

A new model of product design and manufacture

Until recently, it was rare to find a product company where designs weren’t developed behind closed doors and manufacturing techniques weren’t closely guarded secrets. Open making is a new way of approaching product design and manufacture that turns this on its head, so that designs and manufacturing techniques are neither siloed nor proprietary.

It’s important to emphasise that open making is a process, and that any particular process can be more or less open in multiple ways:

  1. designs are created, modelled and distributed using specific file formats
  2. products are made using specific making technology and hardware platforms
  3. licenses and processes can restrict or enable use and evolution of designs

As a process, open making is analogous with the concept of collaborative software development: some projects are more or less open or collaborative, rather than being exclusively open or closed. A project like WikiHouse aims to be fully open at all points. A project like OpenDesk introduces legal restrictions on use of designs, whilst taking pains to make them universally makable. A project like WikiSpeed takes great pains to open and democratise the design process and iterate in response to feedback whilst producing cars that are necessarily specialised to manufacture.

Based on digital fabrication technology

Digital fabrication is a type of manufacturing process where the machine used is controlled by a computer. The most common forms of digital fabrication are:

  • CNC Machining: where, typically, shapes are cut out of wooden sheets
  • 3D Printing: where objects are built up out of layers of metal or plastic
  • Laser Cutting: where materials like metal are burnt or melted by a laser beam

The two important aspects that unify these techniques are that the machines:

  1. can reliably make consistent products from digital designs
  2. are flexible enough to make a wide range of products

Open making doesn’t have to be based on digital fabrication. However, computers are so good at following instructions that digital fabrication technologies take repeatability to a new level. Because the technology is so flexible, it becomes a standard that designers and makers can cohere around. A maker who owns a CNC machine or a 3D printer can make all products that are designer for that process. A designer who designs a product to be made using digital fabrication immediately gains a manufacturing base.

The paradigm shift is reminiscent of the printing press. Before printing was invented, manuscripts could be copied, often with reasonable accuracy. However, afterwards, the ease, speed and accuracy of printing took replication – and literacy – to a new level.

Inspired by open source thinking

  • what we’ve seen since the printing press is computers and the Internet
  • replication went from cheap to free
  • spawned geek and open-source culture

  • key tenets have been flattened hierarchies and collaborative development – no more bosses and the serendipity of the pull request
  • repeatability and automation: from the re-use of scripts and functions as modules and libraries and from the automation of tasks to services to deployments: exponential payback of painstaking mastering for automation

  • unique opportunity to experiment with culture yielded new ways of doing things that, as mainstreamed, have then transforming other domains and industries
  • no surprise that product design and manufacture are one of these domains
  • products are turtles as much as computers
  • products exist in an ecosystem just as computer programmes
  • fertile ground for exploration: a generation of hackers figuring out how to take products and manufacturing out of its siloes

That de-couples design and manufacturing

  • see a fraction of this from the products and videos on this site
  • wide variety in approaches: pure open source hardware, through to social product design and personalisation
  • the key element that’s consistent across all projects is the de-coupling of design and manufacture
  • contrast with siloed and proprietary manufacturing is that designs are widely available (not gatekept) and products are explicitly designed so that they can be made by someone else – ideally as many people as possible
  • just as software is packaged to be build and made on many machines, products

  • so this definition of open making is that of a model, inspired by digital fab and open source, that allows designs to be made reliably and repeatably “outside of the building”, without involvement of the original brand or designer