A year ago, I wrote about a little New Zealand company called Ponoko that allows product designers (and even regular people) to become manufacturers by giving them access to the sorts of tools, like laser cutters, that have traditionally been available only to large companies:
Customers use the site to make things they can't find in stores, like extra-narrow hangers to fit in an extra-narrow closet or business cards made out of wood. I paid $10 to etch my cats' names and my phone number on a couple of custom-made bamboo pet tags. Ponoko has also become a destination for undiscovered designers and inventors who use it to make and market their stuff.
Extra-narrow coat hangers are cool--and my cats looked quite dashing in their custom tags--but the real promise of services like Ponoko is the ability for designers and inventors to make the sorts of products that might be sold in a regular store. Like consumer electronics.
Yesterday Ponoko started giving designers the ability to ship their stuff with electronics components from SparkFun, a company that sells to products to the sort of people who want to make their own breathalyzers. This means that product designers will now be able to offer more complex products than the cute lamps and bird feeders that currently populate Ponoko's site. It could also serve as a back door for inventors to get noticed by mainstream manufacturers and retailers.
Will we see indie cell phones and MP3 players any time soon? I doubt it. It's still very early, but I do think we're at the beginning of a manufacturing revolution--led by companies like Ponoko, TechShop, Buglabs, and Etsy--in which entrepreneurs have unprecedented access to the means to manufacture products and to get them in the hands of customers anywhere in the world. It will be fun to watch.