While I was Sleeping (Oxford) - a tale of modern “manufacturing” / Sep 5th 2012

tl;dr I quite like making models of trains. Here’s a short story about how I seem to have become a manufacturer where I did almost none of the work especially as I slept for most of the time due to contracting Chickenpox. 

Matt Webb’s 100 hours project things have long fascinated me. I started one recently, about making and marketing small niche products, the sort that 3D printing has suddenly made possible. This is a kind of an early-mid-term report. I’m not sure how many hours I am through it, very few I’m guessing, I should probably count. Full disclosure, it’s about making very precise models of very obscure pieces of railway equipment.

One of the questions after Matt’s talk at Activate puzzled me and I think him as well. It was about how all he was talking about related to “digital” which is one of the core themes of Activate. In my opinion and in my project it has everything to do with digital. Digital makes things faster and makes more complicated things happen more quickly or be possible at all. The findability that digital brings to both information and possibilities is the true agent of transformation at work here.

Firstly the majority of the research has been online. I downloaded a copy of a 3D modelling package and decided that learning how to use it would take pretty much all of my 100 hours. I then researched the forums on Shapeways and found the very excellent Vijay Paul who runs dotSan. I did some research of his earlier work on Flickr and felt he was the person for us and then emailed him and then engaged him to make the kit. Vijay and I have never met. I realise as I write this we have never even spoken on the phone, all of our communication has been by email. It’s been a joy and I have exactly what I asked for and hoped for, and probably better.

Secondly, I researched our test prototype almost entirely online. Looking for photographs that would help Vijay to produce a model. I also referred to a few books and plans (all ordered through eBay or Amazon).

It was at this point that I contracted Chickenpox and slept for almost entire days. The asymmetry of email became instantly utterly wonderful and essential. I would wake up every now and then and find an email from Vijay with a question or with a render of work in progress and be able to provide a very quick and concise response and then go back to sleep. It’s obvious, we use email all the time, but in our rush into the new and shiny of real time communications we forget what is magical about email; that it can wait, that we don’t miss it if we don’t see it straight away. 

Thirdly I sent the file off to a manufacturer (now both Shapeways and Sculpteo) digitally. I have no idea where it’s made, I can guess Amsterdam and somewhere in the Pyrenees but I’m not sure and it doesn’t matter. Actually it goes further, I just don’t care. It’s similar to the feeling I have not knowing where the server is where this blog is. Someday I’ll see some piece of marketing spam about cloud manufacture.

Through a few rough iterations we have ended up with a wonderful prototype model kit. Some people are currently beta testing kits. More are about to go out in the post soon. I took the first one that I made up to the Welsh Slate Museum to meet it’s full size brother where I took more measurements which will make version 2 better. The experience of making other prints of the kits, and feedback from Shapeways and Sculpteo when kits broke in transit or where there were defects in printing will improve it further. 

From here on it’s all about user experience, working out how to sell them and improving the kits. In well under 100 hours, and between sleeps, there is now a very loosely shaped entity that has researched, commissioned and created an object that didn’t exist before. Onwards.

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