Something which has fascinated me for a long time are digital manufacturing businesses.
In the world of mass manufacturing, objects were only made in large quantities to a standard design. Digital design tools have been used by engineers for decades (e.g. CAD software), and so has computer controlled manufacturing equipment (e.g. CNC machines). But the internet has brought those capabilities within the reach of anyone with an internet connection.
The virtual workshop
A mind boggling amount of stuff can be made over the internet. The internet is not only the greatest communication network the world has ever seen, but also the greatest virtual workshop.
If I have an idea for a product, I can design the circuit board on the computer and send it off to get made. In a few days a manufactured circuit board arrives through the post.
The same is true of an electronics enclosure, which can be 3D printed and shipped to your door. For me personally, the excitement of receiving something through the post which I’ve designed myself is beyond that of any other product.
Machines coupled with great UI
The challenge for entrepreneurs has been to create excellent user interfaces on the web, which allow people to create their own custom products, and then to ship that product as fast as any off-the-shelf item.
Sometimes the design tools provided by these websites are so easy to use that they can be used for things which previously required hiring a professional - for example designing business cards, which might previously have required a graphic designer is now being done routinely online by anyone who requires them.
An example of another great product is lostmy.name. They make custom children’s books. All the buyer needs to do is enter the name of their child, and a custom book will be created, containing a story with the child’s name in it. How difficult would it have been to create a custom children’s book in the past? I imagine it was pretty hard, and now it’s trivial.
Another example is a company called Battlefoam. They have an online tool which allows people to design foam sections to hold their miniatures collections.
And of course, there are many other companies out there which let you create custom birthday cards, print out photos, and do countless other things.
This has been a tremendous growth opportunity for manufacturers, and I expect it will continue for some time. The challenge for entrepreneurs is identifying the next custom product to revolutionise with the web.