David ten Have: Co-Founder and CEO of Ponoko

Interview by Don Fujiwara


With its pioneering distributed and on-demand manufacturing model, online "making" service Ponoko has brought digital fabrication into the Information Age. Ever since its public debut at TechCrunch 40 in 2007, co-founders David ten Have and Derek Elley have pushed 3D printing forward, toward what once seemed a far-flung future. One thing is for sure. When the 3D printing revolution has come and gone, and all the dust has settled, ten Have and Elley will be recognized as the thought leaders and founding fathers of that revolution. 3D Printer Hub held a candid Q&A with David ten Have, in which he spoke out on the good, the bad and the ugly of 3D printing, and shared his thoughts on how, when and why the aforementioned revolution will take place.

1. How do you see yourself standing out from the likes of Eric Carreel (of Sculpteo), Wilfried Vancraen (Materialise) or Peter Weijmarshausen (Shapeways)?

David ten Have: I can't speak for those guys… But, Ponoko is driven by ecosystems of digital fabrication, rather than just 3D printing. I see this space as being made up of many different technologies. I am also driven by the concept of a product and not just a design file.

2. How did you come to name the service "Ponoko," and what is the significance behind the word?

It is inspired by the name of our local region Poneke [in New Zealand].

3. Describe for us the exact moment when it all became clear to you that 3D printing and, by extension, Ponoko was "where it’s at" for you.

Derek Elley, my co-founder, and I were working on a lot of climate change related projects in 2006. The realization came on the back of understanding that our world was in for a big change, and we needed new systems to adapt to that change. We dug back to work I had done in 2005 and built from there.

4. What technology outside of 3D printing has you (a technologist, yourself) really excited right about now? If it somehow ties in with or enhances 3D printing, explain how.

I am really enjoying what people are doing with the ARM and Arduino platforms. This hooks into 3D printing because it will be the vehicle for making much smarter 3D printed products. CAD as an area excites me a lot—we're starting to see some very cool things emerge.

5. This September, Ponoko will have been around for five years. What have you done right in that time, and what could you have, maybe, done better?

Like any start up we've done many, many things right and many, many things wrong. Net result is that we're here, still. I work with the most amazing people. We have awe-inspiring customers. One thing I would've done earlier is tell the big picture story sooner.

6. We’re now about 6 months into your prediction that 3D printers will soon be able to print circuit boards. Can you update us on that front?

I can. In two weeks I will have an example in my hands :-)

7. Earlier, we reported how researchers at the University of Glasgow are developing a system to turn 3D printers into DIY drug labs. Can you talk a little about how DIY manufacturing can be used for ill, as in the cases of homebrewed drugs and even weapons? What are the legal and social ramifications?

Let's take the DIY drugs thing as an example. The undeniable good in this case is that people are able to fabricate their own medical drugs tailored to their own biochemistry. The bad is that they are able to fabricate recreational drugs tailored to their own biochemistry. A bunch of people I know would take the "bad" case as a great opportunity—a new avenue for businesses.

But, hang on a sec. Let's revisit that concept of undeniable good. What if there was a way of restricting the access, thus driving dependency? What if this model of drug production was so profitable, that old methods disappeared, removing treatment for conditions that aren't valuable to the 90 reporting cycle of corporates? This already happens; Big Pharma is not interested in addressing non-profitable medical issues.

I think we're well versed in the "tech can be used for good and bad" discussion, but I think the net utility has long since passed. It's the intellectual version of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. I can say, "Hey! Here's how it can be used for good," and someone from a different moral standpoint can say, "Nooooo, that's bad."

The sort of discussion I'd like to see is "how do we get better at talking about how our tools change us?" How do we get better at talking about how we shape the world with our tools? How do we think about the tech/social/legal systems we're now embedded in? Why do I think this is important? Because the cat is already out of the bag, and it's increasingly unlikely that we're going to see tech that we can regulate in the same way we regulated nuclear tech. Our tech advances are now mostly distributed in nature and accessible to a kid in their basement. The future is here and, increasingly, it is evenly distributed. As a society we need to grow up and become articulate in the larger conversation. We need to remove the asymmetries in the knowledge base and we need to weave a social contract into this discussion.

8. 3D Printing: Manufacturing revolution or evolution? How and when do you see that playing out?

I'll cheat and say, "Evolution that moves so fast that it looks like revolution at certain levels."

I was talking to friends about this over lunch today. The key aspect of the changes aren’t around the manufacturing technologies themselves (which are amazing), but more around the business models they enable. If you're a small business who can produce inventory instantly, how do you run? We're finding that these sorts of businesses run in new and exciting ways. There is a sequential demystification of making products that is occurring—people have the tools to solve problems themselves.

This business is about unleashing creativity. Anytime you allow people to honestly express themselves, you create much, much more value than you can throw your arms around.

It's a bit of a hackneyed trope… But, I think we're seeing a Cambrian type explosion in the types of businesses that are emerging. I never cease to be amazed by what our customers are doing. That is the revolution.

9. In a nutshell, what does 3D printing mean for society as a whole?

It will force us to face facts… Nothing we deal with is a solved problem. My ideal is that it puts a bullet in a lot of neo-liberal economic policy and enables us to build vertically integrated economies that respect the social contract.

10. If there was one thought you’d want the reader of this interview to walk away with, what would it be?

Don't be scared… Give it a go.

As always, 3D Printer Hub welcomes your comments. If you’ve got a hot tip from the world of 3D printing, or you want to let us know who you’d like interviewed, feel free to drop me a line at dfujiwara@3dprinterhub.com. Until next time…

Ponoko 3d-printing

David ten Have

CEO, Ponoko