Economy, continued … [Part 2]

Getting More Specific for Us at ShopBot

The specific problem that confronts both ShopBot and ShopBotters is that it’s not possible to know exactly what form the new opportunities I’ve vaguely described will take — or the exact directions we should move or the projects we should undertake. But the issue has our attention. Here at ShopBot we have seen no growth in our own sales over the last 9 months. This comes after 14 years of double digit sales growth just about every year. In particular, the part of our sales derived from customers involved in residential construction and cabinetmaking has been stagnant (compared to ~25% annual growth in 2004-2007).

At ShopBot we have primarily benefited from a regular flow of relatively expensive tools (in ShopBot terms) sold to medium and large operations. These have tended to be companies that previously would have been purchasing higher-priced CNC machines — in the current economy these companies are now looking for equipment that will accomplish the job at a better price; or, they are companies that use the configurability of small robotic tools (i.e. our Buddies) for operations in cell-based production lines, sometimes for operations other than cutting. In addition, we’ve sold tools to a number of small operations making a range of unusual and specialty items. These purchasers see adapting digital fabrication to their operations as a way to put more detailed machining into their products and to increase production. I confess these new kinds or applications are my favorites because they help us push our own visions of what our tools can and should be doing and show us some of those new directions.

Indeed, our primary strategy at ShopBot is to make sure we are simply open and attending to emerging possibilities. Based on ongoing interactions with our customers like those above, we are beginning to invest in new directions and emerging niches that should be representative of our opportunities in affordable robotics and digital fabrication.

More specifically, we are working on several specialty robotic woodworking machines (hopefully you’ll see a few at IWF) as well as placing more emphasis on niches in plastics and aluminum work. Also, you may have already heard about our Tyro Project that recognizes the high level of interest we have received for a small, portable, less expensive ShopBot for crafts, engraving, hobbies, and education. I’ve had a personal reluctance to get involved with a smaller and less powerful tool myself– after all, you can’t use them for boatbuilding — but “attending” in this case means listening to some of the strong signals we’ve received and acting on them. We have become particularly enthusiastic about the potential of a smaller tool in providing education about digital fabrication: what you can do with it; how it works, how to get involved. (The target Tyro unveiling date is 4/2/2010.)

More broadly, the educational need is one we believe important in communicating the capabilities of CNC. For example, lots of people have heard about 3D printing but think of it as expensive and impractical. Very few people appreciate that one can subtractively 3D-print real stuff today, out of real materials and at large scales with CNC tools. In fact, we are enhancing our own training programs this year (including new West Coast training), as well supporting Camp ShopBots and a big Jamboree in Durham this Spring that will focus on exploring new opportunities for digital fabrication.

While tools, support, and training remain our primary focus, we’ve had increased interest from developers and integrators interested in using ShopBot Control Systems for various types of robotic devices. So you will see an enhancement to our information and offerings for developers of controls, motors, drives and software. These ShopBot Control System components are also getting interest from those retrofitting older CNC machines that still have good mechanicals but need new controls, drives, or motors. We can often offer a very affordable rejuvenation for such tools as well as performance improvements to newer tools that are poorly performing or no longer being supported. The economy has been hard on CNC manufacturers, a number of which have shut down, or switched to only selling imported tools and no longer supporting earlier tools.

As a general strategy, it’s also worth mentioning that a rough economy is a good time to explore new opportunities for synergies with vendors, partners, and even competitors. For example, with respect to the latter, we’ve had a really positive experience over our eCabinet collaboration with Thermwood — an alliance that surprised a lot of people. While neither of our companies is happy with the state of the cabinetmaking market in the economy, our interactions with Thermwood have been interesting and stimulating. eCabinets is working great for several dozen ShopBotters who are using it, and we look for other opportunities to work together — useful new relationships can be formed by simply being open in challenging times. [FYI, Thermwood has just released a new version of the eCabinet System.]

Specifically for ShopBotters

So what about ShopBotters? I don’t mean to make searching for new opportunities sound easy. Like us, your resources are probably limited and you can’t try everything or spread yourself too thin. There’s not much help out there for investing in new markets either. Banks are making less money available for loans and leases, and credit card interest is high. The effect of financial de-leveraging has been severe in drawing off the dollars that would otherwise be available for borrowing by solid, small companies. Government is encouraging banks to loan to small businesses and making resources available on the one hand, but on the other is imposing new regulations with respect to loan criteria. This last is probably a good thing in the long run, but in the short run has the effect of choking the flow of loans for small business projects. So, while I can suggest that you should keep your eyes open for new niches and directions, new ways of doing things and offering products and services, I know all this is easier said than done.

Map of US Fabbers to date.

Map of US Fabbers to date.

You may already be aware of a major effort we are making to help put in place the new web resource, www.100kGarages.com, as a system to assist ShopBotters in exploring and identifying new opportunities. It’s a place where people wanting to get digital fabrication work done can make connection with ShopBotters interested in doing the work. At the most superficial level, it’s a meeting place for subcontracting jobs. However, our goal is for 100kGarages to serve a much broader purpose in producing a public awareness of the kind of work that can be done skillfully, efficiently, and locally by workshops with digital fabrication tools. We hope to spread the word in way that helps the public (and government) realize there is an easy way to find people to help them get things made, whether they need a piece of trim for a renovation project, 100 storage boxes at a new school, or 1000 prototypes of a new energy-saving product. The world needs to appreciate that the nature of the technology allows for efficient and cost effective access to high-fidelity parts and components that can be communicated and specified in digital models. Too often it is assumed that CNC is only about mass production in big factories — that couldn’t be further from the truth.

We want 100kGarages to provide resources that make it easy for those coming into the system (we call them “Makers) to specify what is it that they want to get made and to be able to easily connect with the digital fabricators (ShopBotters or “Fabbers”) who will do the work. And, we want to provide support structures for these “Fabbers” to make it possible to easily participate in this type of business. To accomplish these things we are working hard at developing content and resources and we have partnered with internet digital fabrication mavens, Ponoko, to create new resources for both Makers and Fabbers. (You may find the Inc Magazine article on Ponoko of interest.)

100kGarages.com is a work in progress and will continue to be, as we experiment and learn what works and what does not work. We’ve posted a report covering where we’ve gotten so far, what’s going to be happening over the next few months, how we expect 100kGararges to evolve, and about efforts to drive business to the site. But it is important to note that 100kGarages is not so much about ShopBot or ShopBots as it is about creating new networks and ways of doing business with digital technology tools. 100kGarages will flourish to the degree that participants make it work and that it is successful in helping to popularize digital fabrication as a way to get things made. It will be more about the growing success of Fabbers and their projects than about us. 100kGarages was recently featured by Springwise as one of the Top 10 Business Ideas of 2010.

Springwise selects 100kGarages (#8).

Springwise selects 100kGarages (#8).

Refining the Details

As our report indicates, and as several forum commentators have noted about the concept, most people probably won’t want to get just a single part cut out, and will probably not want to design something themselves; they will want an entire and completed product. The idea of 100kGarages is to address both types of needs. For the Maker who just wants a plywood shape cut out, they should be able to come to 100kGarages and easily find a Fabber nearby ready to receive their dxf file and do a quick cut out. But 100kGarages should also function in a process where the Maker uses an intermediate “Designer” who creates complete projects ready for cutting by a Fabber. The “Designer” may be an individual who offers a catalog of designs or who customizes designs purchased by a Maker. The final design can then be transmitted to a Fabber for production. Our hope is to develop a community of Designers associated with 100kGarages as an extension of the websites resources. By way of example, have a look at the designer area on the Ponoko site. Ponoko started out as a cutting service for people with a design. Now it has a featured community of designers, developers, and galleries that fulfill their production needs through Ponoko cutting services.

You might also think of the “Designer” as a software resource. For example, it could be a parametric design system in which the Maker enters their specific measurements, then out comes a toolpath of a complete project such as coffee table, a sign, or a stair stringer ready for cutting by a Fabber. We hope to develop/encourage extensive parametric offerings as 100kGarage resources. You can probably imagine parametric offerings for a number of market segments such as signage, furniture, construction and renovation (a rudimentary sampling is available in the project section of 100kGarages today. We have considered popularizing the concept of parametric applications with a few creative iPhone/Android apps that get Makers hooked up with 100kGarage Fabbers — feel free to jump in with ideas and effort on this one.

For many ShopBotters, it may be important to appreciate that a Fabber may also be a Designer. This already happens to a degree at the moment because many of the jobs going through 100kGarages require design work from the ShopBotter as well as the actual fabbing of the parts. But ShopBotters will also soon be able to formally present themselves as having a “Designer” entry point into the systems as well as a Fabber role.  More generally, as we move forward with educating the Maker public we hope to be able to help clarify for them how the design and production process works, and provide resources for participation at any level of the 100kGarage system.springwise_logo

To summarize, what we’re working on for ShopBotters are tools, software, support, and business initiatives through 100kGarages. I hope that this description of how 100kGarages is developing also illustrates the kind of flexibility we believe needs to be expressed in adjusting to our new economic landscapes and exploring how to create new opportunities for ourselves. That is, 100kGarages is intentionally open-ended because we just can’t know yet what will work and what won’t. We do see 100kGarages offering opportunities for establishing all sorts of different types of working relationships with customers/makers, deisgners, and fabbers. It won’t be for everyone, and it may be that it only works to help establish a single new activity for your own shop or even just an idea for something you might do on your own. But it’s a model for digging in. As you are investing in new directions and markets, keep in mind that none of us can know what’s really going to work for growing our businesses in current conditions. If 1 or 2 ideas in ten actually pay off, we believe we are doing well. We’re hoping that there will be a few aspects of 100kGarages that resonate with the new economic realities and help boot ShopBotters into new agendas.

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