So I’m looking for a new desk. I want this one. And then I notice that small, ominous (for Hawaii residents) gray print saying, “shipping restrictions apply.”

Of course they do. And of course that means that they don’t ship to Hawaii, nor does any other merchant who carries the desk in question.

Sure, I could use a service like Ship to Hawaii, whose tagline is, “We’ve got you covered when you shop online and options say ‘*except Alaska & Hawaii.’” But then I’m paying to ship a desk to their California offices and then to Hawaii.

I know I’m not alone here, but everytime this happens, all I think is that there has to be a better way. Well, first I think, “Hawaii is part of the United States, people!” But then I think that there has to be a better way.

Opendesk creates digital furniture designs that it then serves up to a global network of woodworkers. Courtesy of Opendesk

It’s 2016. I remember learning about 3D printers in the early ’90s (the first one popped up in the early ’80s). CNC machines, which stands for “computer numerical control,” have been machining tools and parts based on computer-based designs since World War II. So when I stumbled across this article about a startup called Opendesk, I thought all my shipping prayers had been answered.

In today’s economy, many things are happening. Generic, mass market products and services are on their way out. The idea of “mass customization” has been around for more than 15 years. Mattel just launched a $300 3D printer for children. And Amazon not only offers free same-day delivery, it offers free two-hour delivery in a few cities.

Basically, if you want it, you seem be able to get it. Almost immediately. Unless you live in Hawaii.

So back to my desk, and back to Opendesk. Why can’t my desk be 3D printed in my garage? Well, lucky for us, it kinda can.

It’s like the replicator on “Star Trek,” where Captain Kirk just says “Romulan ale” and it appears. And it just might help Hawaii residents get near-instant and near-free delivery on everything from desks to car parts to whatever.

Opendesk, based in London, creates digital furniture designs which it then serves up to a global network of woodworkers. Those woodworkers, with little more than a CNC mill and some sheets of plywood, can fabricate scores of products anywhere. The only shipping required is the digital design file and the raw materials. Since email is basically free and plywood is virtually everywhere, problem solved.

In an email exchange with Jonathan Steiner, creative director and co-founder of Opendesk, he explains its mission:

“It’s about connecting you to independent manufacturing workshops around the world, to produce furniture as close as possible to where it’s needed. Our furniture — digital designs hosted on behalf of a growing group of designers — is available to be downloaded freely under creative commons licenses to make yourself, if you have the tools.”

So I press for more details about Opendesk’s commitment to our particular, admittedly First World, predicament here in remote Hawaii, what with our high shipping costs. Steiner responds, “I can’t say that we specifically thought about Opendesk as a solution to reaching people in remote locations — but that’s a nice consequence of the distributed manufacturing model!”

Indeed it is. And lucky for me (OK, us), Opendesk lists Wailuku-based Maui Millwerx as a partner. So I select the Opendesk Studio Desk, typed in my zip code, and wait for Maui Millwerx to call to tell me that my desk is on its way. Unfortunately, when I call them the next day, they say that they hadn’t received my order.

“We signed up on Opendesk a few years ago and have yet to get an order,” says Jeremy Georgelos, owner of Maui Millwerx.

Hmph. So much for technology.

But even with this slight hiccup, you have to think that this model — where the intellectual property is traded digitally and the raw materials are sourced locally — will become widespread. It’s like the replicator on “Star Trek,” where Captain Kirk just says “Romulan ale” and it appears. And it just might help Hawaii residents get near-instant and near-free delivery on everything from desks to car parts to whatever.

Georgelos, who also builds and sells the CNC and other wood- and metalworking machines that will fabricate these products, does think that it will eventually catch on.

“Something like Opendesk is great, but it’s a tough market here. People either want inexpensive or expensive furniture. There’s not much in that middle market. But part of the problem probably is that not many people know about things like Opendesk. Once it does catch on, we’re here and we’d be happy to build people whatever they want.”

Opendesk hopes to be at the center of this eventual on-demand product revolution.

“We believe the 21st century — through the enabling technologies at our disposal — is about more local, human and social transactions,” says Steiner. “No more ‘one size fits all’ but rather a personal, customized level of service that benefits everyone in the supply chain, from the local economy of the local maker to the designer and, ultimately of course, to the customer.”

As long as I can get the desk I want, I’m behind it 100 percent.

About the Author

  • Jason Rushin
    Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.