Ponoko, the New Zealand based purveyor of laser cutting services has been rolling out additional services this year under the name Personal Factory. In the past, they’ve added services such as 3D printing and have provided access to a huge catalog of electronics components. Now, they’re announced one more way to butcher that beautiful, flat-packed wood. Now, they are bringing us CNC routing with the new launch of Personal Factory 5. But that’s not all. They’re also launching maker apps – through the Ponoko App Gateway. What does this mean for you? It opens up larger-scale production to everyone and provides tools to make designing products easier than ever. Designers are going to have to rely on their abilities to make things prettier and more materials efficient than the average Joe. Or, if you’re like me, just learn to use those tools well and be lazier with your designs.
Ponoko is creating a single access point for third party software, called the App Gateway. This includes small, recently newsworthy projects like Sketchchair and Tinkercad as well as some software packages with names like Autodesk and Gehry Technologies behind them. At this point, Autodesk’s 123D Beta is the only software that is available for download; the other projects are listed as “coming soon.” Ponoko doesn’t seem to be making their own creation software, but with so many excellent projects being developed, they can spend their energies figuring out the logistics on the fabrication side of things. Interested in developing your own software? They are looking for more developer partners and have made their APIs available. Still in its infancy, the App Gateway is something to keep an eye on. I have been playing with a preliminary copy of Sketchchair and while it needs some polish, I predict that it will be a game-changer. I can only imagine what the others apps will bring to the table.
While Ponoko’s laser cutting service has always been top notch, as a flat pack furniture designer—it says so on my business card, at least—it wasn’t a good match for me. The limited material thicknesses—they were all too thin—and small cutting areas brought challenges to producing full-size furniture for adults that meant developing a new design language, and, frankly, with local access to a CNC machine, I wasn’t super interested. But now, with materials up to 18mm (~.71″) plywood and a cutting area as big as 47″x47″, I will be taking a serious look at outsourcing the headache of production and shipping to Ponoko’s services. After reading through their information, materials, and design guidelines, these are the things I have come up with as noteworthy:
- It is simple 3-axis cutting
- Cuts are made using a straight profile .25″ bit–limiting the options for those of you who like multiple bit profiles in your designs
- Designs must be either in EPS or SVG file formats. My intended work flow will be to design in DraftSight and make line/color corrections in Inkscape
- Cutting areas are 23″x47″ (584mmx1193mm) or 47″x47″ (1193mmx1193mm) but…
- Shipping requires that all pieces must fit within 23″x47″ or 34″x34″
- The cuts are made ON the line–no outside or inside cut designation is available
- If you are removing an area of wood (pocket), you will need to create all of the tool path lines, spaced .2″ apart–ugh
- Partial cuts will be based on percentage (25, 50, or 75) of material thickness and indicated by color
- Materials are Baltic birch plywood, “plain” plywood, unfinished MDF and white vinyl, one sided MDF. Thicknesses range from 6mm to 18mm depending on the wood
- It seems that the CNC production is US-based
Creating a standard for CNC files is not a fun job, and while it seems that adapting Ponoko’s laser cutting guidelines to CNC routing has left things a little different from the few conventions that do exist, I think most experienced CNC designers will adapt without too much difficulty. While this isn’t the first service that I have seen bring CNC service to the online, on-demand world, it has the advantage of already having a large user base and strong publicity. I’m a little disappointed in no mention of combining laser engraving with CNC cutting, but hopefully that is something they can tackle down the road.
These two new offerings from Ponoko further push it as a leader in custom production and bring new tool sets to people who didn’t know they had a product/furniture designer lurking somewhere in their sub-conscious. I will attempt to find the time to redraw one of my existing designs and try out their service. In the mean time, I had better go figure out how to keep my skill set relevant.