Crowdsourced product development company Quirky invited journalists to tour its new Manhattan offices this morning. Normally vendor facility tours have an overly promotional feel to them, but in Quirky's case, we saw it as a chance to check out how a company that makes real consumer products uses 3D printing.
Quirky is built on a democratic, partly crowdsourced business model. Anyone can submit a product idea to Quirky's Web site. Quirky's online community then refines the idea by making suggestions. As products rise in popularity on the site via a voting system, Quirky's own team of professional designers and engineers also votes twice a week to select the most popular ideas to turn into real consumer products. The original inventor, the relevant commenters, and Quirky itself all share in the profits once each product comes to market.
Prototyping hardware on display at Quirky's new studio
Quirky lured us to the tour with the opportunity to check out its 3D-printing hardware. The orange device on the left is actually a laser cutter Quirky uses to prototype packaging material. The black box on the right (behind Gaz Brown, Quirky's head designer), is a Connex 350 3D printer from Israeli firm Objet. Quirky has nicknamed it "Bertha."
Quirky uses the Connex 350 to print out design prototypes of products in development. The company says its overall in-house production process can come pretty close to replicating the final, fully manufactured product. Brown told us that in addition to the 3D printer, he expects that one day Quirky will add a laser-sintering machine that can print 3D objects in different kinds of metal.
This machine is the $55,000 Universal Laser Systems PLS6MW laser cutter. You can read more about it, or perhaps even order one, here. Depending on the lasers installed, the PLS6MW can cut through metal, plastic, wood, and textiles. Quirky used it today to cut a sample product packaging sheet (the white form in the upper-right corner).
The second stage of our tour brought us through Quirky's design workshop. Here Kaufman opens the door to the spray room where Quirky's designers apply a finish to each product prototype to replicate its final appearance.
As a high school student in a pre-college program at the Rhode Island School of Design, Jake came up with his first concept for a more efficient power strip. After reading about Quirky in an in-flight magazine, and consulting with an intellectual property lawyer, he posted his initial design on the company's Web site.
After Jake's idea made it through the feedback and approval process, Quirky eventually sent the Pivot Power to a large-scale manufacturing facility in Asia. Pivot Power went on sale in the U.S. in June 2010 (our colleagues at ZDNet wrote about it here), and it's currently available for purchase from Amazon.com, Target, and other major retailers. Sales so far have netted Jake more than $100,000.
Quirky's storage room shows a number of products in different stages of development, along with an assortment of reference and other objects. On the top of this shelf sits a pair of MakerBot 3D printers. Kaufman said that while Quirky and MakerBot don't have any business relationship, the two companies have a few investors in common.