The Distributed
Making System

Peter Troxler

Ponoko first saw the limelight of success on 17 September 2007 at TechCrunch40, a conference held in San Francisco to showcase ‘forty of the hottest new start-ups from around the world’ to a 600+ strong audience. The event unfolded under the auspices of an expert panel which included Chris Anderson, Ron Conway, Esther Dyson and Caterina Fake. Ponoko was one of those forty, together with the likes of App2You, Docstoc, Kaltura, Tripit, Trutap, and Viewdle.

Ponoko was the odd one out. Instead of keeping safely to the digital information realm, its promise was to link the digital to the physical world. Users upload designs to the Ponoko website and select the materials; Ponoko then makes and delivers the product or product parts – and users can post designs in the Ponoko showroom for people to view and buy. Lauded as ‘the world’s easiest making system’, Ponoko combines digital designing with internet technology for distribution, relying on local manufacturing for production of the designs.

Ponoko’s first designer community in Wellington, New Zealand  COMMUNITY consisted of 19 hand-selected designers. At a family gathering on 19 July 2007, the 27 designs available ranged from bike lights, lampshades and jewellery, to tables, room dividers, a chess set, CD rack, artwork and an architectural model of well-known Wellington neighbourhood Brooklyn.

In the 24 hours after the TechCrunch40 talk, Ponoko’s website got over one million hits; their name was all over the media outlets and tech blogs. ‘I believe that everyone wants to be a designer. Ponoko is going to make that possible,’ someone commented on Ponoko’s company profile at Crunchbase.com. ‘Currently, Ponoko has no decentralized manufacturing competitors,’ the directory entry said. Indeed, the 3D-printing service Shapeways  PRINTING registered their domain on Monday, 18 February 2008.

After TechCrunch40, Ponoko quickly moved into the US market. Their user base continues to be mainly in the United States; its hotspots are the usual suspects: the Bay Area, New York, Austin, Philadelphia. ‘We have a good strong user base here in New Zealand, but the vast majority are in the United States,’ Ponoko founder Dave ten Have admitted in a recent interview. 1

In its early days, Ponoko’s manufacturing capabilities were limited to laser cutting. In 2009, they partnered with CNC-router manufacturer ShopBot to create the 100k-Garages initiative, a network of 180 machine shops ready to professionally cut  AESTHETICS: 2D any 2D design. In September 2010, they teamed up with SparkFun to be able to add electronics to designs, and as of November they offer 3D printing in collaboration with CloudFab.

Ponoko employs five full-time staff in Wellington and three in Oakland. They have arrangements with local design studios Formulor in Berlin, RazorLAB in London, and Vectorealism in Milan. Ponoko’s user community counts a few thousand designers; some products have even made it to reasonable success. Still, Dan ten Have declines to comment on the profitability of Ponoko, saying only, ‘the lights are still on’. For Ponoko, the challenge remains to ‘kick the scale side of things’, and Dan is hinting at some ‘very deliberate rinse and repeat’.


  1. MacManus, R, ‘From Ideation To Creation: Ponoko’s Sci-Fi “Making System”’, in ReadWriteWeb, 28 September 2010. Available online at: www.readwriteweb.com/archives/from_science_fiction_concept_to_real_product.php , accessed 4 October 2010.
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