3-D printers may one day turn custom furniture into something for the masses, but for now, James McBennett is more concerned with an older, perhaps less sexy, machine, that essentially does to wood what 3-D printing does to concrete or plastic. It’s called a computer numerical control (CNC) router, and “It’s 60 years old,” McBennett tells me on the phone from London.
So why is that machine, which has been used to make prototypes for decades, suddenly a viable option for mass producing furniture? “They have been very, very expensive up until the last 10 years,” he says. Now, with the price down to $20,000 or so, McBennett is finding that there’s tons of latent capacity opening up on CNCs in workshops around the world, which means it’s cheaper than ever for furniture designers like him to “3-D cut” custom furniture using the same sort of digital file you’d feed to a 3-D printer.
Now he’s in the process of building a digital marketplace called Fabsie around CNC-routers to let furniture designers upload 3-D files of unique pieces and earn a bit of money each time a customer orders one. As he writes on his website, “Mass production is the innovation of the 20th century; mass personalization is the innovation of the 21st century."
Fabsie’s first product is a rocking stool he designed himself and is promoting on Kickstarter. The stool allows for a touch of personalization: consumers select whether they want a hard, soft, or easy rock, and can have it engraved with their name or logo. Once purchased, the files will be emailed to makers with CNC routers in the city closest to the future owner, where she’ll pick up her stool when it’s ready (or have it mailed).
For McBennett, the stool is just the first step toward creating a digital library of designs that will give furniture designers a new way to connect with clients, and consumers access to “niche furniture types that just don’t exist anymore.” For example, “a desk-slash-doghouse for the guy that works at home with his dog."
McBennett says he expects some furniture makers will allow their designs to be used and reused by others under a Creative Commons license, while others will maintain ownership of the intellectual property. Despite the huge rise in the use of computer-aided design programs, “designers haven’t been very used to sharing their files,” McBennett says, unlike in film, music, or photography. “That’s a shift that’s going to come in now.”