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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Maker Movement Gives Rise To The Indie Manufacturer

Aaron Hagstrom |
June 13, 2014 | 12:47 p.m. PDT


Brandon Fischer, pictured above, in his Newport Beach garage. (Aaron Hagstrom/Neon Tommy)
Brandon Fischer, pictured above, in his Newport Beach garage. (Aaron Hagstrom/Neon Tommy)

38-year-old Brandon Fischer runs a small company called Improbable Constructs, which makes surfboard wall hooks, mash paddles, and wind sculptures from his 400 square-foot Newport Beach garage. These are unique products, which don’t have a large market.

It would be an impossible hobby without the aid of a Chicago-based supply company called Inventables, which sees the future of innovation in manufacturers who work from the quiet of their garages.

“The real innovation is happening through individuals in their garages and hacker-spaces, just trying things out and experimenting,” Inventables marketer Michael Una said. “Big companies are not set up to explore totally uncharted new territories.

Inventables, known as the “hardware store for designers,” seeks to help designers bring their ideas to fruition, by offering cheap digital machine tools and materials. Designers can then make small production runs and raise capital through crowd-funding courses like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Designers share and collaborate on designs online, through open-source software and hardware.

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“We are moving from a world of 2,000 manufacturers to two million,” said Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan. “People can make products that hit a particular niche and that is where these [digital machines tools] have the potential to really drive the economy and entrepreneurship.”

A parallel development was seen in the music industry, which was once dominated by just a few record companies and big bands, but is now open to any musician with an internet following, Kaplan said.

Inventables faces an industry that only services full-scale manufacturers and its modus operandi leaves out people like Brandon Fischer, Kaplan said.

“I have one of our biggest competitors saying we are messing around like children and saying, ‘who would buy neon-green acrylics on the Internet,’” Kaplan said. “If you have a multi-million dollar business, and then some kid who just graduated from college puts up a website and starts selling the same products, you think it is ridiculous.”

Fischer might be light on space, but he's full of ambition. (Aaron Hagstrom/Neon Tommy)
Fischer might be light on space, but he's full of ambition. (Aaron Hagstrom/Neon Tommy)

Through Inventables, Fischer, a professional stage rigger, who builds $45 surfboard wall hooks, $55 custom-text mash paddles, and $495 wind sculptures, can also contribute to the design world.

Since he opened his store in January 2012, he has sold 345 items.

“It isn’t a lot, but it is one or two things every couple of days,” Fischer said.

The nexus of Fischer’s design space is his garage, where he keeps three milling machines and a laser cutter, which are operated by a Compaq computer he bought at a garage sale.

One of the biggest draws of Inventables is the ability to order in small quantities, something more difficult to fulfill at some local places, where small order quantities can be a hassle.

“I don’t keep one of everything in stock,” Fischer said. “So I need supplies in two days, not two weeks.”

“A lot of places you just feel like it is such a hassle for them. You feel like they are used to customers buying fifty sheets to build a house. So you just feel bad buying ones and twos.”

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Fischer can choose from exotic materials such as magnetic fluid for plastics, heat-resistant shell that can resist heat up to 3000 degrees, suction-cup tape, and aluminum foam. But most importantly for Fischer, Inventables sells the cheapest CNC milling machine in the world, the Shapeoko, for $685. CNC milling machines are held in the hand of a computer that carves blocks of material in three of four dimensions with a rotating cutting tool like a dremel.

Fischer bought number 53, when he decided to set up an Etsy store, and sell his designs online.

Before he discovered the Shapeoko, Fischer fashioned his surfboard hooks with a simple jigsaw. Now he can make up to 200 per day.

"The surfboard hooks used to take about three days to cut out and get them all smooth and nice,” Fischer said. “Now I can just lay them all out on the wood. An hour later I am done.”

The Shapeoko does have its limitations, he says, because of its fragile construction of plastic and metal assembled from a kit and its unintuitive software. But Fischer makes it work. What matters is that it is cheap.

“It is a little flimsy to be honest. You have to go shallow and slow,” Fischer said. “But you can assemble it in an afternoon and be cutting stuff by the weekend.”

Fischer made his machine bigger and stronger, using steel wheels, and a larger motor and work area. After five rebuilds, Fischer estimates it’s worth at $1,000, still cheaper than an average digital milling machine. His MakerSlide, which the cutting tool slides along, still bends a bit after he extended it to more than three times its length.

“The Shapeoko beats everyone hands down in price by a lot,” Fischer said. “You can get six or seven hundred bucks for a working Shapeoko and another hundred bucks will make it bigger or whatever.”

Fischer first caught the bug to buy a CNC machine at the theatre, after admiring how machinists cut out his designs on a high-end milling machine.

“They cut out anything you could draw,” Fischer said. “It made building sets a lot easier especially for all the fiddly set decorations. But it was a $20,000 machine.”

Laser cutter found in Fischer's hub of manufacturing—his garage. (Aaron Hagstrom/Neon Tommy)
Laser cutter found in Fischer's hub of manufacturing—his garage. (Aaron Hagstrom/Neon Tommy)

When Kaplan began Inventables from his apartment in 2002, after graduating from the University of Illinois with a BS in Mechanical Engineering, he emphasized a tight working relationship with his customers, believing this was key to serving their needs.

“It took a few years and a lot of hard work,” Kaplan said. “The biggest thing we did was talk with the customers and to explain that we care.”

Not Just Cakes by Annie, a cake design company in Orange County, buys most of their acrylic plastics through Inventables. Husband and wife team Jonas and Shabina Dalyidd work with the epononymous Annie out of Aliso Viejo, California. Making cake toppers and cookie cutters is what they do to make a little extra money on the side.

Jonas, an aerospace engineer by trade, was struck by Kaplan’s willingness to help their small business.

“It was very surprising to talk to CEO of a fairly large company like that for so long,” Jonas Dalyidd said. “He was wiling to stay on the phone with me for twenty or so minutes and I even gave suggestions of how he could make the store better for me.”

Dalyidd requested Kaplan to offer material in cut sizes appropriate for his digital laser cutter. Kaplan promised to oblige. Inventables keeps a large variety of cut sizes for digital devices in inventory, which is highly unusual for distribution companies.

But Kaplan’s company used to cater to a different kind of clientele — specializing in supplying inspirational materials to big companies like Nike and Black N’ Decker.

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Independent designers like Brandon Fischer first caught Kaplan’s eye in 2009, when they began approaching him for materials. A two-man startup called Joystickers used Kaplan’s suction cup tape to attach their removable arcade buttons to mobile phones. Kaplan was so impressed by the company’s passion for their unique product that he let them buy with a credit card.

“The energy these guys were feeding off was incredible,” Kaplan said. “Big companies are often just punching the clock. For these guys, it (manufacturing) was an adventure, a passion.”

Kaplan says he tries to hire people with a passion for design and for customers. To that end, his 20-person staff consists entirely of designers and customer support staff.

Inventables designer Edward Ford made the Shapeoko possible. Ford started a project a Kickstarter to fund cheap milling machines for his friends. When he ended up selling a greater number than he thought, he asked Kaplan to sell the machine through Inventables. In return, Kaplan took him on as an employee.

Inventables has tripled in revenue every year, says Kaplan, and just recently received $3 million in venture funding. Inventables reported that it will use part of this investment to move to a new 25,000-square foot facility in Chicago, where product development, engineering, and distribution will be co-located.

It is too risky for Inventables to supply the full-scale independent manufacturer, Kaplan said. So he makes it affordable to buy in small quantities, but not in bulk. He believes that discounts on bulk would couple the company too much to a limited number of customers. The risk is currently spread among 20,000 rather than 100.

“When that much business is coming from a customer they will demand deep discounts and if they ever moved the business it would negatively impact our business,” Kaplan said. 

Laseriffic, a Chicago-based company that makes arcade toppers finds it cheapest to buy plastics from a local Johnson’s Plastics. CEO Joe Kace said he can get up to 25 percent discounts on his orders. So he goes to Inventables only for the rare materials it offers, such as ivory, or material he only needs in small quantities.

“I am a full-blown manufacturer,” Kace said. “So, when I order sheets, I am ordering like 800 sheets a month of like nine different colors. And discounts save me thousands of dollars.”

Fischer himself doesn’t source all his materials from Inventables. He orders much of his metal from Online Metals. He also sources locally through Industrial Metal Supply because he likes to feel the material and they also sell in small sizes.

“You can touch it, grab it out of a bin,” Fischer said. “Normally, you go to a steel yard and it is dirty and in full-size pieces. At this place, they have scraps, cut-offs, and they sell by the pound.”

Fischer sees Inventables as great for prototyping, for testing lots of different materials to see what works best, but not as useful for large-scale projects.

“They are almost like a samples site. If you only need a square foot of it great,” Fischer said. “When you need 400 feet of it, they will send you off to where they buy it from.”

Kaplan is trying to spread the word to designer. He plans to donate his machines to libraries and maker labs in all fifty states.

“We are growing, and we are young and probably the most exciting industry in the world,” Kaplan said. “We are trying to change the world, put our own dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs used to say.”

You can reach contributor Aaron Hagstrom here.



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