Interview: The Next Generation of Architectural Design: Daniel Smithwick from Physical Design Co on a great way to build the garden house of your dream … and much more

Daniel Smithwick
Daniel Smithwick
is the co-founder and CEO of Physical Design Co., a Cambridge, MA, startup that wants to start a revolution in building structures. His vision: To empower every consumer to transform nearly any custom design into easily assembled physical structures delivered to your backyard! This could be your next garden house project. Before, you either had to purchase an expensive standard house at Home Depot that was not only labor intensive to assemble, but often ugly and not fitting exactly your requirements. Or you could get your hands dirty and start a complicated DIY project, constructing it with 2x4s and nails. As a last alternative, you could hire a contractor to build you your dream house … but this comes with a heavy price tag and often delays of the construction crew.

Daniel wants to offer another alternative: You design your dream in SketchUp, the free CAD software by Google, and his company will translate your uploaded design in a custom kit of interlocking CNC-cut parts that you can then easily assemble after delivery. His promise: "With Physical Design Co Web Platform anyone can design, remotely manage production, and assemble their own full-scale inhabitable creations!"

In an interview, Daniel shared more information about his project and company and what he regards as the future of mass customization.

Daniel Smithwick is an architectural designer by training and he is currently a graduate researcher at MIT where he is a member of the Smart Customization Group and the Digital Design and Fabrication Group.  Daniel co-lead the latest research project by the Digital Design and Fabrication Group called, “Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans,” a project commissioned by and exhibited at the MoMA in New York for their 2008 show, Home Delivery, Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.  Before coming to MIT, Daniel worked professionally as a designer for leading architecture and design firms including: Pompei Architectural Design in NYC, Loom Architects in Minneapolis, MN, and Howeler + Yoon Architecture in Boston.

FTP: Daniel, what is the idea behind your startup, Physical Design Co?

1 PHYSICAL DESIGN CO_Get Physical Process
DS: The central idea behind Physical Design Co. is to provide consumers with easy-to-use online tools that engage them in the design and manufacturing process and enables them to become the producers of their own architectural-scale designs.  Our web platform also allows consumers to utilize local manufacturing via our distributed fabrication network which not only reduces carbon emissions, but it also strengthens local economies.  Essentially, we’re re-thinking how our built environment is designed and constructed – with the Physical Design Co, online users, whether they live in rural China, or they are busy professionals interested in design, they can now play an active and participatory role in the built world around them.  

Through our web platform, anyone can upload and transform their digital design – any inhabitable accessory structure, from doghouses to backyard art studios – into a customized kit of interlocking parts that are locally manufactured and that can be easily assembled.  Consumers no longer need to rely on the traditional labor-intensive and wasteful construction process: with the Physical Design Co all you need is a rubber mallet to assemble your creation.

FTP: How is this different to existing companies in the field like Ponoko, Replicator or Shapeways?

DS: The Physical Design Co distinguishes itself in two ways. First, we provide consumers with the ability to custom design, and have fabricated, life-size and inhabitable scale structures, as opposed to only hand-held items like fashion accessories and table-top objects.  We’re interested in offering consumers more than just personalization; our web platform engages the consumer in the design, manufacturing and delivery process – giving them the tools to make smarter decisions about how they impact the built and natural environment.

Second, we have developed a patent-pending technology which automatically translates the user’s design into a unique kit of interlocking, easy-to-assemble parts.  For example, let’s say you wanted to design a backyard shed.  Instead of having to digitally model all of the individual parts, consider how they all attached together, worry about the structural integrity and verify that it is indeed possible to put it all together, with the Physical Design Co., all you have to do is model the shape of your design.  Our technology automatically and digitally translates the design shape into a kit-of-parts that can then be CNC fabricated and subsequently interlock together without the need for nails, screws or any additional hardware.  

PHYSICAL DESIGN CO at the Maker Faire 2008
FTP: Dan, you recently presented your company and some creations at the Maker Faire of MAKE magazine, a large gathering of hardware hackers and DIY enthusiasts in Austin, TX. Can tell us some more about this exhibition and the feedback you received?

DS: In October of 2008 the Physical Design Co., in collaboration with ShopBot Tools (an innovative manufacturer of user-friendly CNC machines) designed, fabricated and exhibited the ‘Austin Shed’ for the Maker Faire in Austin, TX.  This is the world’s first digitally fabricated shed.

The feedback we received from the Maker Faire attendees was incredible.  Most were simply amazed at how structurally strong the shed was without any nails, screws or hardware holding it together.  However, the most rewarding feedback we received was from children.  At the faire, we pulled a few of the ‘skin’ panels off to reveal the grid structure of the interlocking ribs so that visitors could understand how it was assembled.  What surprised us was that 10 year-old kids would pick up the removed parts and correctly replace them back on the shed without any knowledge of how the system worked.  We were delighted to find that our assembly process is intuitive enough that children could put it together!

FTP: How do you master the manufacturing process; who are your cooperation partners?

DS: The great thing about the Physical Design Co and our manufacturing process is that we don’t need to build any new large and energy-inefficient factories to produce our users’ designs.  In fact, the manufacturing infrastructure already exists worldwide – it’s the tens of thousands of individual CNC owners around the world whose machines are online.  These are our cooperation partners.

Through our web platform, these CNC owners become members of our distributed manufacturing network through which they can promote their existing and on-going services.  This is how we enable the users and designers on our web platform to have their structures locally manufactured – which greatly reduces delivery costs both in terms of money and energy use. 

FTP: What are the next steps for your company, and how do you expect to grow it in the coming months?

DS: This summer, in collaboration with ShopBot Tools, Make Magazine and Google SketchUp we’re hosting a competition called the Get Physical! Design Competition which will take place at the Maker Faire in San Mateo, CA.  The top 3 winners will have their designs digitally fabricated using our web platform, assembled and showcased at the upcoming Maker Faire.  Keep an eye on our blog for more details over the next couple of months.

FTP: What are other trends you see with regard to mass customization?

DS: When answering this question I like to quote Eric von Hippel from his book, Democratizing Innovation:

“When the cost of high-quality resources for design and prototyping becomes very low, these resources can be diffused widely, and the allocation problem diminishes in significance.  The net result is and will be to democratize the opportunity to create.”

I think we’ll continue to see an increase in user-engagement not only in the design process but also in the production process of our built environment as the availability of digital fabrication equipment exponentially grows.  In addition I think we’re just beginning to understand the power of online user communities and crowd-sourcing.  Rather than just offering product mass customization to isolated individual users, we are starting to see that by enabling them to interact with each other through a web platform, their collective intelligence is boundless.

For more information, contact Daniel at

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.