HomeDenmark-StartupsDigitizing the global supply chain | Interview with Christina Rebel, Co-founder, Wikifactory

Digitizing the global supply chain | Interview with Christina Rebel, Co-founder, Wikifactory

How quick is it to transform an idea into a design, then into a prototype, and then into an actual manufactured physical thing? How fast and how efficiently can one get their physical products into the hands of customers?

Speed to market is one significant predictor of manufacturing success and things like cost, sustainability and many others are also important considerations. 

Wikifactory, an online platform for collaboratively creating physical products, addresses these issues by enabling developers, designers, engineers and startups from across the globe to collaborate, prototype and produce hardware solutions in real time. Since its inception in 2015, the Copenhagen-based company now has 140,000 users in 190 countries who have designed over 9,000 products across a variety of industries. The platform is a global community consisting of designers, engineers, makers, academics, hardware startups, and enterprise teams who are making various products – from robotics and agritech to smart furniture and medical devices.

We caught up with Christina Rebel, Wikifactory’s Co-founder about the development of Wikifactory, her views and the trends she has observed in collaborative manufacturing, the so-called “Internet of Production” (IoP), democratising access to technology and physical manufacturing through digital transformation, Wikifactory’s move from China to Denmark as well as what is next for them.

The Wikifactory story. 

It was during an event in London that I first came to meet and work with the rest of the Wikifactory co-founder’s Tom Salfield and Max Kampik on WikiHouse, which was the first project of its kind to develop affordable and sustainable houses as a global architecture community that could be digitally fabricated locally. During this project we discovered a distinct lack of collaboration infrastructure which we had seen used by software developers who wanted to work together on coding, and it was clear that the manufacturing industry was yet to have its ‘big web moment’. 

During that time, we were connected with our fourth co-founder Nicolai Peitersen following his recently published book, ‘The Ethical Economy’. Nicolai shared the same vision for social and economic change through democratising access to design and manufacturing as we did, so it was the perfect partnership and we really valued having his expertise and insight. Our shared vision led us to research and develop our ideas around the Internet of Production (IoP), and in 2017 the idea for Wikifactory grew from there.

Wikifactory’s aim is to digitise the global supply chain so that anyone, anywhere can make anything with just a laptop and an internet connection. We are really proud to say that we have a fast-growing community of nearly 140,000 users in 190 countries who have designed over 9,000 products across a variety of industries. This global community consists of designers, engineers, makers, academics, hardware startups, and enterprise teams who are making thousands of valuable products that solve real-world problems – from robotics and agritech to smart furniture and medical devices.

Walk us through the Wikifactory platform, from a user’s perspective – say from uploading a design until manufacturing? 

Inspired by the workflows of agile and open-source software development, Wikifactory is the world’s first online collaborative manufacturing platform to design, prototype and manufacture physical things in virtual spaces.

Wikifactory offers users access to the Collaborative CAD Tool that allows product developers, startups, SMEs and corporates of all skill levels in virtually any industry to explore, review and discuss 3D models in over 30 file formats in real-time, whether at work, at home, or on-the-go. The tool really simplifies the design process and makes it easier to share progress updates, critical to speeding up the prototyping and production phase. Once the design is finalised, the user can access the marketplace which offers the capability for rapid prototyping and serial manufacturing of parts using CNC machining, sheet metal, 3D printing, and injection moulding – all with online quotes from local manufacturers provided within 24 hours. They will then have their product delivered to their door, all without leaving the platform.

Speed to market is a significant contributor to manufacturing success. How is Wikifactory contributing to this?

Wikifactory enables people to work in real-time, communicate and innovate from anywhere in the world and then have that part manufactured locally and delivered to their door. This is not only far quicker than traditional methods of manufacturing, but better for the environment and enables greater innovation – delivering manufacturing success on all levels. An example of how we have helped bring products to market faster is that during the pandemic, Wikifactory saw a 700% surge in new product innovation on the platform which also addressed at least one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, for example the Trash Robot tackling SDG 5 Clean Water or Dronecoria as a reforestation drone tackling SDG 15 Life on Land.

We also launched a dedicated microsite and webinar series called Viral Response, inviting experts, makers, organisations, and businesses to discuss how to accelerate the supply of products that were in short supply. More than 55 million items of PPE have been made by a distributed global community of designers and engineers.

What is collaborative manufacturing and “Internet of Production” (IoP)? How is Wikifactory enabling them?

Collaborative manufacturing allows multiple groups to work together throughout the process, as they set plans and policy, agree to actions, and execute operations. It boosts agility and fosters cost-effective methods to design, source, make, deliver, and service stand, mass-customised or to-order products.

Similarly, the IoP enables greater participation and accessibility, but it also opens the door for better innovation in design thanks to its ability to bring people together to collaborate on products. By giving everyone the tools to design, iterate and prototype their ideas, we can attract a new wave of diverse and unique engineers into the sector. This increased accessibility means that the products being created are best suited to our society and provide fresh talent with skills and knowledge about technology and new tools that will appeal to companies large and small.

As companies embrace the opportunities available through the IoP by taking an integrated, collaborative approach, we can change the old way of doing things and create a futureproof global manufacturing ecosystem. 

Most online platforms for physical product design are just repositories to upload or download 3D files. However, on Wikifactory, not only can someone collaborate on product design but also on product development, prototype and manufacture with other designers, engineers and makers virtually. The IoP will allow us to gather unparalleled amounts of manufacturing data, which can be used as ‘training sets’ for multiple high-value applications of AI and ML.

Why is it so important to democratise access for everybody to technology and manufacturing and how is digital transformation achieving this? 

Democratising access to manufacturing and embracing digital transformation opens up wider participation, enables companies to attract the best talent from all over the world and ultimately drives greater innovation and better products that suit a wider range of people. It cultivates ideas and creativity as well as helping manufacturers to diversify their teams and the abilities of their workforce.

From the inception of Wikifactory until now, what significant changes in manufacturing have you seen? How have they influenced Wikifactory? 

When the pandemic hit, cracks really began to show in our supply chains and there was an urgent need for new ideas and for companies and individuals in the industry to adapt and evolve. With unprecedented challenges in the availability of human and material resources, suddenly five to ten years of progressive change needed to happen in a matter of weeks. Remote working became the norm and manufacturers adapted to ensure that production continued and staff were kept safe, but other changes also became apparent at this time.

The focus on more sustainable production grew significantly, and our approach to the IoP became even more relevant in that context. The IoP is a future-fit fix for the infrastructure, protocols and standards that can connect in a digital thread the creative ingenuity of product companies with the on-demand manufacturing capabilities in the network through the internet. It is a single online infrastructure which every element of the supply chain is plugged into. It allows Big Industry, factories, individual engineers, and product designers to collaborate, design, prototype, and manufacture on-demand, at scale, and exactly where the products are needed – helping businesses achieve a new level of digital collaboration with data, models, and knowledge in production.

The ability to do everything in one place dramatically improves efficiency and productivity, significantly increases speed to market, and supports sustainability by promoting local production. Considering the importance of materials in life cycle assessment, this would pave the way for more circular, regenerative production as well. 

The other important growth area we have seen is in additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing – an industry which is projected to grow from $18.33 billion in 2022 to $83.90 billion by 2029. This emergent technology could revolutionise small batch production by decentralising manufacturing and reducing global energy use from anywhere between 5 and 27 per cent by 2050. Wikifactory aims to facilitate that global transformation by making it possible for anyone, anywhere to leverage smart manufacturing for more agile, distributed production. 

Wikifactory had its base in Shenzhen in China then moved its HQ to Europe in Denmark in 2021, why this change in location? How do you compare collaborative manufacturing in China and Europe?

As the Silicon Valley of hardware, Shenzhen was an exciting place to grow and develop the business in our early years. But, in February 2021, Wikifactory announced Copenhagen would be the home of its new headquarters. We made this decision because Denmark is fast becoming a hotspot for sustainability and a world-leader in digitisation and sustainable supply chain logistics. It’s a great place to be for Wikifactory and allows us to continue developing the IoP. The country is also relatively neutral toward the US-China trade war and its history of incubating some of the world’s most admired design and technology enterprises also gives the country a unique, competitive edge in the current climate.

We still have offices in Shenzhen and in Madrid, though our team mostly work remotely from different parts of the world. 

When it comes to collaborative manufacturing in China, we found that a lot of businesses and suppliers are used to collaborating on social platforms such as WeChat. The willingness of suppliers to work more transparently and agilely with our team and clients has assisted our integration of our global client network with quality-assured manufacturers in China. Enabling real-time chat and CAD viewing as well as the ability to request quotations. Being able to use collaborative platforms has given the Chinese community the opportunity to make business quicker.

What is next for Wikifactory? 

When we launched our Manufacturing Marketplace earlier this year, we completed the digital thread for design to production that enabled our community of designers, engineers to connect with quality assured manufacturers from around the world to get their products to market. As such, an online Design to Manufacturing Platform that builds upon our Cloud PDM and CAD collaboration features to directly interface with a Request for Quotation (RFQ) service for a range of manufacturing capabilities and materials, as a first step in making it possible for anyone, anywhere to start and scale a hardware or product design company. 

We will continue to improve the platform to help product companies iterate faster and easier on our platform. Further expanding our marketplace network with a greater penetration in Europe in terms of manufacturing capabilities and for materials to offer our European clients greater supply chain resilience. Beyond being able to be more agile when facing the supply chain crises with regionalised production, we also see an opportunity for greater sustainability and circularity as well. 

Beyond nurturing our two-sided marketplace, we are building towards becoming a vibrant ecosystem where all players in the design-to-manufacturing arena can create value. Whether design services at the prototyping stage, or third-party quality control services when preparing for scaling larger batch production – we have started to integrate the additional services from our community of 140,000 professionals and plug in their capabilities that comprehensively help aspiring product developers advance at all stages from prototype to market. 

Maricel Sanchez
Maricel Sanchez
Maricel Sanchez has over 10 years of experience in various fields including trading, supply chain management, logistics and manufacturing. As well as helping startups to raise funds, she is an award-winning public speaker and the current President of Toastmasters Nice, a bilingual club that promotes public speaking and leadership.
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