Case Studies

Posted on November 27, 2012


Architects Anne Filson and Gary Rohrbacher are advocating a new approach to manufacturing.  Their new venture – AtFAB – offers a platform for distributed manufacturing.  Perhaps more importantly, it invites and encourages designers to take advantage of a more dynamic approach to how we blueprint and build new things.


The Big Plate: What’s on your plate?

Anne Filson: We are getting AtFab geared up. We have our first set of cut files online. All of the furniture pieces are designed, prototyped, and tested. The next task is developing a distributed manufacturing system that enables people to not just download the files and make it themselves – which is what is currently available – but we want to enable people to actually purchase furniture made in a distributed manufacturing method. You could choose a piece of furniture that you find online, purchase, and have it made in your region somewhat locally. Perhaps regionally, then evolving to locally.

TBP: Tell us a little about AtFAB and how it came to be.

AF: AtFab emerged from our interest in designing for a distributed manufacturing platform. We wanted to design furniture. As architects, furniture is great small version of a building. It has all the functional criteria, but it’s not as complex as a building. It is used by people, it is structural, it needs materials that are durable, it has a lot of the same problems that architecture has. In a system of furniture where you are looking at tables, chairs, storage units, it has the elements of systemic attributes that making a building has. We thought it was a good way to create sort of a controlled study for architecture. To be able to study furniture designed for a distributed manufacturing platform would allow the knowledge gained to be translated into something larger than just furniture. It started out as an experiment, and it grew and grew. It started out of a curiosity. We went to our first Maker Faire last year in New York.  We got such a great response from people attending the faire, other vendors, and event sponsors. People were very excited and supportive of what we were doing. It just started to grow into a business at that point.


TBP: Do you see an ecosystem of designers and small-scale manufactures growing in numbers as well as connections?

AF: We would like to see that happen. There is a lot of enthusiasm from consumers and people who want to buy things this way. The technology is there to create local manufacturing. What are missing is designers. The design community is slow to embrace this type of production. Most designers seem to be focused on making superlative designs, something that is the “greenest, best, cheapest, most expensive, or exotic.” It is hard to find examples of good design that work within this type of platform.  We are always looking for people like ourselves that are doing something like what we are. We are quite surprised that it is not out there in a more prevalent way.

I think it is only a matter of time. We, as designers, would like to lead the way. If other designers are not embracing, we would like to show that it is possible. And that you can be an excellent designer, design beautiful objects that work well, perform in ecologically and functionally ways without designing for manufacture in centralized factories, with specialized equipment to mass produce products that are distributed  worldwide.

TBP: Have you seen this model working in other industries, e.g. agriculture or fashion?

AF: Definitely. A farmer’s market might be a good example. I think the motivation that consumers have to eat locally feeds into this model. As far as other manufacturing, that is a little tougher. There are examples like 100kGarages that are trying to do that. It would be great to see this happen with durables, things that are energy intensive. 3D printing will lend itself to this effort in the next few years.


TBP: Does this model have inherent design limitations? Do you see the design evolving/maturing? 

AF: Definitely. Our goal with AtFab was to be as simple as possible with the design. To bring all the intelligence up front, so you could get maximum performance out of a sheet of material. The next step will be a hybrid of multiple materials. That is a lot more of a challenge. It requires you to coordinate between multiple materials, multiple machines, multiple systems, different digital files. This will be a big challenge to overcome in the near future. We are starting to explore that through a chair for MakerBot‘s new headquarters in Brooklyn. There was a bit of a challenge trying to put the chair together. It didn’t go together smoothly. We discovered that if we designed a three-dimensional part that could be printed on a MakerBot, we simplified the whole process of assembling the chair. It took a lot of coordination to ensure that the part would fit perfectly, and was a lot harder than we thought it would be.

TBP: What is your favorite AtFAB piece?

AF:  I think it would be the 90 Minute lounge chair. You can sit there for 90 minutes and not need to get up.

AtFAB Maker Faire

TBP: Any advice for designers who want to get into this space?

AF: My partner Gary Rohrbacher and I feel strongly that design doesn’t have to be just about designing the object, which is what designers typically do. We tend to spend all our time on a fixed single object.

If a designer wants to get into this field, into distributed manufacturing and mass customization and customizable goods, they need to learn to design the system around the “thing.” It is going to be designed with well-differentiated outcomes, meaning not a change in color or material, but in magnitude or significant qualities.  My advice to designers who want to look at opportunities in this field – which is vast – is to look at all the relationships around the object you are designing, not just the object.