Thursday, April 26, 2007

Techshop brings manufacturing within personal reach

Wired has a great snippet about a place in Menlo Park called Techshop. It's a well-equipped fabrication workshop, and makes expensive and sophisticated tools, from laser cutters to arc welders to CNC lathes and 3D printers, available to the public! To use! And touch!

And for a very reasonable $30 day pass, anyone can get their mitts on some top-notch fabrication equipment. Check out the list of toys here.

This is exciting news for me, because I live in the Bay Area. I plan to go to the Techshop, and to write about the experience. This is a great opportunity to get trained on high-tech fabrication equipment as a hobbyist, to use tools otherwise relegated to industrial clients, but as a hobbyist. I wonder whether there's a market yet for such businesses elsewhere in the world.

Accessibility is the biggest obstacle in achieving any kind of personal fabrication 'revolution'. I've written about how lowering the price of the tools will improve accessibility, but Techshop shows us that there's another way -- sharing the cost among users. This time-rental business model resembles ZipCar or CityCarShare, because it allows the cost and overhead of large expensive equipment to be absorbed and distributed by a large number of users. Like cars, fabrication equipment can be useful to many people, but would be left dormant for extended periods of time if every user owned their own. In the case of Techshop, sharing the costs could democratize the tools of innovation.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Homemade superstars

Kate Walsh, bedroom musician.

An interesting bit of news from the UK here about a homemade album hitting Number 3 album on the UK iTunes Store charts. Good-quality recording technology is making it into bedrooms and garages, and Apple itself has made it easier for committed amateurs to produce and distribute a good product, with software like GarageBand. There's a corollary here to the personal fabrication movement, and the similar democratization of physical production technologies.

So on that note, I'm tempted to proclaim this as another example of personally-tailored consumer products gaining influence, and as an example of the democratization of the means of production. Tempted...but I'm suspicious. With more and more producers of content, the odds of any one of those producers gaining great widespread appeal get worse and worse.

After all, any student of Chris Anderson knows that as you increase the number of producers, and add to the Long Tail of consumer offerings, the popularity of individual titles drops off significantly, further fragmenting public tastes, increasing demand for the tail to go longer and further causing the 'head' to shrink. In other words, hits don't happen anymore when the tail gets lengthened.

Of course, rumors are afoot that this is a PR stunt, and this could indeed be another Lonelygirl15 phenomenon, where a corporate presence is creating something appearing to be amateur-produced, but if it's legit, it's an exciting precedent. I haven't had a chance to listen to this myself, but I have a gift certificate for the UK iTunes Store at home that's about to go to good use...