“It feels like the right time for the global manufacturing industry to have its web moment”: Interview with Wikifactory’s co-founder Tom Salfield

Wikifactory is the one of world’s first social platforms for collaborative product development. You can think of Wikifactory as a Github for physical products where users can collaborate, prototype, and manufacture all in one online space. They currently have a team spread across offices in China, Denmark, Spain, and the UK. In mid-2019, they launched their beta and by December 2020, they have raised nearly €5 million in seed funding.

From just 13,000 users back in January last year, they now have an active community of users in 190 countries, with over 90,000 engineers, product designers, and makers using their system for hardware development. Wikifactory is now hosting a library of over 4,500 products across every industry segment. With Wikifactory, you could effectively build a complex drone or even an electric vehicle on Wikifactory from the comfort of your living room. And that’s exactly what some of the community on Wikifactory are doing already.

We caught up with one of Wikifactory’s co-founders, Tom Salfield, to learn more about Wikifactory, how he led Wikifactory as the business scaled, and also his vision for the ‘Internet of Production’. Tom is a social technology entrepreneur with 15 years of experience leading startups and a background in economics and computer science. In the past, he has worked with cutting-edge web technologies that were precursors to much larger trends including co-creating Opencoin.org, a cryptocurrency that was ahead of Bitcoin. He has also been part of Impact Hub, a network of co-working spaces for social entrepreneurs, building entrepreneurial communities at scale which was ahead of the co-working trend.

Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us. To start off with, how did you go about launching Wikifactory? What sparked your desire to start Wikifactory?

The idea of Wikifactory was seeded back in 2012 when I met two of the four co-founders Christina Rebel and Max Kampik. At the time I was involved in a project called Wikihouse, the first of its kind, low-cost digitally fabricated homes, and Christina and Max had just joined the company. We started wondering, why stop at houses? What if everyone everywhere could make anything online, actually make physical products just like software, with just a laptop and an internet connection?

Digital fabrication at the time was becoming a fast growing trend. 3D printing, often known as additive manufacturing, is now on the rise and has registered a compound annual growth rate of 37.4% in emerging economies alone. This new technology has the potential to revolutionise small batch production. As no one was building it, we decided to build it ourselves and call it Wikifactory.

We were also encouraged by the scope of the opportunity. Additive manufacturing could help cut global energy usage by 25%. And Wikifactory could facilitate this change by building the Internet of Production, an online infrastructure, and an alternative supply chain model, which could completely decentralise manufacturing – the world’s oldest industry segment worth $35 trillion.

We then met Nicolai Peitersen, our fourth co-founder, who shared our vision and had written an economics book, called The Ethical Economy, predicting the impact of these emerging trends. He has also co-founded a number of startups, and we hit it off immediately when we met.

Being one of the “first of its kind” products, what was the process of finding product-market fit? What was the point when you realised that you were picking up traction?

It’s been a challenging process. We’ve been iterating the platform for a while because we’re determined to create the best product that works for all types of people, and all sizes of projects as part of our mission to open up access to product development to everyone and build the Internet of Production. Having said that, we only really started marketing the Wikifactory platform to attract a community about a year and a half ago. The ‘aha’ moment happened when we saw an acceleration in our month-on-month user growth. Meanwhile, digital fabrication is becoming mainstream, it’s starting to move from just prototyping to an actual solution for production at scale. There are 25 million product developers that are already working in distributed teams across the world, but in many cases, they are still using emails to share files.

When I saw last year that the global open hardware community alone was responsible for producing over 50 million items of PPE, I think that’s when it clicked that, yes, people get it, they need a system like Wikifactory, and we’re onto something big. On Wikifactory, the huge advantage is our key CAD tool feature you can collaborate with your team without needing to resort to emails or leave the Wikifactory Workspace at all. There’s nothing else like this on the market.

You currently have a team of 26 people internationally, and a global community of engineers, designers, and makers that has grown to almost 100,000 users. Can you tell us more about how you went about growing the company? What are some of the biggest challenges?

Probably the greatest challenge has been how to transition from leading a small, exciting startup and a close-knit team to leading a growing company that’s scaling fast. Adapting my leadership style to a growing team and the growing demands of the business and shareholders has not been an easy ride. Not because of long hours, or detailed focus – I love that. But rather because as the co-founder of a growing company you have to constantly pull yourself away to review the longer term goals and strategy. Like a driver on a long motorway you have to balance continually looking far ahead in the distance, and flicking back to the short distance between you and the car in front, so you don’t crash! But, like driving, if you keep practising this controlled vision-setting, it eventually becomes instinctive – or so I’m told! When you’re worrying about whether you’ll take off as a company, it’s hard, but worrying about how to lead a successful operation, attract and retain talent and meet targets is actually even harder.

What do you think are some of the most interesting products that have been developed on Wikifactory? It would also be interesting to hear some of the most surprising or unique products that have been developed on Wikifactory.

Innovation by our global community spans robotics, drones, electric vehicles, biotech lab equipment, agri-tech, biomaterials for fashion, smart furniture, and more. No industry is left untouched. So far 55% of the products developed on Wikifactory align with more than one United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). Wikifactory saw a 700% increase in products made using sustainable materials or processes in April 2020 soon after Covid-19 spread to Europe and the US.

  • We saw a massive surge development of vital medical products from PPE to ventilators back in March 2020 when the pandemic first spread to Europe and the US. Projects like the low-cost ventilator by a Thailand-based team called ProgressTH is really impressive. The ventilator costs just 1% of the market price of the same machine and they’ve developed it under an open-source license for anyone to download from Wikifactory and reproduce where needed.
  • Sono Motors, the world’s first Solar-Powered Electric Car has used Wikifactory to launch an Open Call for new designs for its Sion car.
  • Dronecoria is building a range of low-cost drones for reforestation. One single drone can reseed 8 hectares of land in just a few hours.
  • Fashion and bio-materials experts have developed Orange Peel Leather, reusing orange waste to create a biomaterial for clothing and upholstery, as well as Kombucha gowns, as an alternative material that also has healing properties for skin conditions like eczema.

You have a fascinating background as a multi-time founder with founding Opencoin and Impacthub. Reflecting back, what did you wish you had known before launching your previous businesses?

Keep going. If you feel like your business is solving a problem that no one else has solved yet, then you might be onto something. Work towards building your business iteratively and be prepared or it to take time. Communicate your full value proposition from the start so that you can attract investment in the vision. Monitor competition, but don’t lose heart. If more competitors start cropping up, it’s a sign there is a market for your venture and a new ecosystem is emerging. Don’t give up, keep going and keep refining your unique selling point so you can stay ahead.

You have previously been involved at the beginning of some of the biggest trends and transformations including cryptocurrency and co-working spaces. What advice could you offer for people who are currently working at the beginning of some of the next biggest trends?

Get in touch with Wikifactory! We’re partnering with small businesses and large at the moment to transform the industry. Maybe we can work together and help promote your agenda. Collaboration is our core value at Wikifactory. We believe open collaboration, even between brands that are competitors, can lead to the best innovation.

Looking forward into the future, what’s next for Wikifactory?

We’ve spent the last decade talking about the Internet of Things, but most IoT products tend to satisfy a want rather than a need. There is also hype about Industry 4.0, but that is focused on digitising manufacturing processes in factories. What Wikifactory is building is the Internet of Production. By opening up access to advanced manufacturing to everyone, Wikifactory’s end-to-end design and production software system offers a more agile, democratic and effective alternative to our current global supply chain model.

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of our global supply chain and demonstrated the importance of rethinking how we make products so that they are not just delivered, but actually produced where they are most needed, and in a timely way with local materials in the exact quantities actually needed. Wikifactory’s system and community of product designers, engineers and digital fabricators completely does away with the need for costly inventories and unnecessary shipping, enabling high quality global innovation to be brought to market faster.

It feels like the right time for the global manufacturing industry to have its web moment. Analysts at Deloitte report that digital fabrication will have a greater impact in the next 20 years than all the previous industrial revolutions combined. With a system like Wikifactory, which is plugging every element of the global supply chain into a single online system, we can all work together more easily and much faster, no matter where we are based.

Our next step is to build a full scale quality-assured manufacturing marketplace so that the production part of the lifecycle is completely automated and secure. We’ve already built the infrastructure for this and are beta testing with manufacturers, and we’ll have an open API which means we’re also geared up to build a software services marketplace. Watch this space because we’re announcing a lot of new feature releases this month alone, and have a lot more being developed behind the scenes for the benefit of all stakeholders in the value chain.