It's Fabulous in the Cloud!



Today we’ve managed to score an exclusive interview with Nick Pinkston, one of the principals behind a new distributed fabrication service: CloudFab, a new way to link makers with those who need things made. CloudFab is about to launch a private beta very soon, so let’s find out what it’s all about.

Fabbaloo: Tell us about CloudFab’s founders and their backgrounds. How were you involved in digital fabrication?

Nick Pinkston: I've been around manufacturing most of my life. Growing up, my uncle owned a tool and die company where I saw how CNC machines worked first hand, and my dad would bring me along to plant visits so I could see how things were made. I was always making something - from rockets to electronics kits. Later on, I developed a passion for suping up cars that showed me the challenge of finding special equipment first hand.

I first encounted 3D printers in engineering school - they blew my mind coming from a machining background. I was really inspired by Gershenfeld's "Fab" showing the way we all can access the equipment to make what we wanted. I knew then that I wanted to try to help bring about this future.

Steve Klabnik: I've been programming for almost my entire life. I've spent years programming all kinds of different projects, but I have very little background in the actual, physical world. However, I've always thought that robotics was pretty interesting, and so building things has always been in the back of my mind. When I found out about the hackerspace movement, I got pretty excited. HackPittsburgh has given me the chance to meet with people who actually know how things are put together and made, and I've been able to show them a thing or two on the software side.

Fabbaloo: Describe the events that led to the conception of CloudFab.

Nick Pinkston: At first, I wanted to start something like TechShop, but the numbers didn't add up. I ended up splitting the idea in two: along with some friends, we founded a hackerspace called HackPittsburgh to solve the local problem, and CloudFab to solve the broader problem.

Fabbaloo: What is the problem you’re trying to solve for everyone?

Nick Pinkston: There are many barriers to making your ideas. Getting the fabrication is a big one. The shops are reluctant to take small jobs, they're often hard to find, and they often speak a different jargon than designers / makers. We're dedicated to smoothing the process so that more and more people have the ability make their ideas or buy custom products from designers.

Fabbaloo: So how is it going to work? Who would use CloudFab and why?

Nick Pinkston: CloudFab is an exchange system for buyers and sellers. A buyer can be anyone from engineers at a design firm to hobbyists in their garage. Sellers can range from large job shops to anyone with a MakerBot.

Sellers like us because they want to have their machines working around the clock to make back their investment. Buyers like us because we vastly increase the accessiblity to fabrication while reducing the hassles faced with directly dealing with the shops.

All you need to get started is to upload your STL file and select the process and material. After confirming your order, it's sent to every applicable seller for a quote. You can search for a quote by price, turnaround time, feedback, etc. Once a quote is accepted, your payment is put into escrow and the seller starts to make your parts. When you get your parts, you give feedback to the seller, and the seller receives their payment.

Fabbaloo: How large do you estimate the market to be? How many makers do you believe exist?

Nick Pinkston: That's a great question, and it's a hard one to answer. It's like trying to predict PC sales when the Altair came out. There are two ways: supply & demand. There's a massive amount of supply: over 25,000 3D printers alone have been shipped and nearly all are underutilized. If you extrapolate into laser cutting, CNC, etc. the amount of spare capacity is amazing.

Demand is the hardest to quantify. On a broad scale, I think it's helpful to treat mass customization as a long tail market rather than a niche market of just makers / designers. Chris Anderson's figures show 25 to 40% of the mass market is contained in the long tail - the longest part of this tail is where digital fabrication is the only answer. If you just look at consumer durables (a ridiculously large market), you'll see that even a few percent represents billions of dollars of market potential.

Fabbaloo: What is your business model? How will CloudFab make money?

Nick Pinkston: Initially, we're only taking a small commission on each sale a seller makes, however we won't charge anything for parts under $100. We want to encourage lower prices to help makers, and we want to see the MakerBot / RepRap community on our network as sellers. As we release more features though, you'll begin to see another model take shape.

Fabbaloo: We suspect you might not be the only venture attempting to link buyers and makers. What makes your service unique?

Nick Pinkston: Yea the space is really heating up, and that's a great sign. We're seeing the mainstream starting to talk about the coming fab revolution. The other offerings are a good step in the right direction. It's good to see the MakerBot model of distributed fabrication by sourcing printed pulleys from their customers.

I think our advantage is a really good mixture of features and user experience. Our service offers a wide variety of processes and materials, a feedback system to keep everyone honest, a safe payment system, and most importantly a clean and helpful interface to tie it all together. Also, we're committed to being very open. We're not trying to lock in anyone with certain equipment. We want to see both the fabrication and design distributed because of the wide array of unique needs we all have.

Fabbaloo: What is your launch schedule? Are you on the pad yet?

Nick Pinkston: The site is currently in private beta, and your readers can check it out by going here and using the code "fabbaloo" to sign up. We're really excited to get feedback on the system. Once it's looking pretty robust, we'll open it up. We hope to do this within two months. I don't want to give away too much of our future plans, but you'll see some very useful features coming out in the next few weeks and a new service entirely in a few months.

Fabbaloo: The CloudFab Manifesto is a dramatic read. You guys are pretty excited about this, aren’t you?

CloudFab: Yea, it's looking like the digital fab revolution is bringing the means of production to the people and creating a domino effect of innovation. We're definitely ready to get out there and make it happen.

Fabbaloo: Thank you very much for participating, and good luck with the launch!

Nick Pinkston: Thanks a lot, we enjoyed the discussion

General Fabb

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has been writing Fabbaloo posts since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!

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