Kickstart My Art: Carvey Takes Personal Manufacturing to a New Level for Makers

by Patrick Sisson
- Jan 14 2015 - 4 min read
micke tong

There are few seals of approval for the maker community stronger than gear lust from Make magazine. So when Inventables, the Chicago-based company behind the personal CNC-milling machine Carvey, sent its new Kickstarted machine for the masses to the influential magazine for a review, they couldn’t have asked for a better headline: “We Spent a Week with Carvey…and We Don’t Want to Give It Back.”

The suggestion that this new tool—which shapes and sculpts wood, metal, and plastic—was addictive sounds like something straight out of the mouth of Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan, who calls his company’s new product, “the carving machine for the maker in all of us.”

“We wanted to break down the steps between conception and creation to make something that could literally run on your desk while you’re on the phone,” Kaplan says. “If you build a machine that allows people to create something in five minutes, they’ll gain confidence, and next time, try something different and more complicated.”

Instructables Carvey CNC machine
Courtesy Instructables

From the cost ($1,999 and up on Kickstarter) to the intuitive design inspired in part by high-end audio components, Carvey will arrive this year with a mission to inspire creativity. It’s also a play by Inventables—a company Kaplan founded in 2002 to provide materials and software for digital manufacturing—to take advantage of the new long tail in physical products.

As this long-gestating technology improves and more people engage in low-cost, personal manufacturing, be it 3D printing or CNC milling, machines that simplify creation could help the industry grow even more exponentially. Revenue from 3D printing alone is forecast to grow from $2.2 billion in 2013 to $16.2 billion in 2018, according to Canalys, a tech research firm. 3D-printing industry consultant Terry Wohlers says recent investment in this sector is unprecedented.

“We’re seeing national governments launch programs, and the biggest brands in the world—such as Siemens, Microsoft, and GE—are making massive investments in the technology,” he says. “It’s an interesting time to be part of this industry.”

Carvey’s designers want its unique value proposition for small-scale manufacturers—clean and quiet CNC milling at consumer friendly prices—to be apparent out of the box. Dave Seal of MNML, the Chicago industrial design firm that came up with the machine’s sleek exterior, says the stripped-down, rectilinear form reduces visual noise, and the door provides a bird’s-eye view of the 12-by-8-inch carving platform. It all serves as reinforcement that this completely enclosed system doesn’t require programming wizardry to operate.

Instructables Carvey CNC machine
Courtesy Instructables

The built-in design program, Easel, which Inventables released earlier last year to refine before the launch, reduces barriers between ideas and physical objects. The Smart Clamp system immediately zeros in on the material in the Carvey and simplifies setup, and the bits for drilling different materials are even color-coded. Other startups have created machines for this audience, such as the FABtotum and Handibot, but Carvey’s designers hope a more robust feature set at a competitive price sets it apart.

This kind of small-scale manufacturing is making waves in fields and markets such as medical technology, custom circuit boards, and mobile phone accessories, according to Carla Diana, a hybrid designer and educator focused on smart objects and future technology. She points to Normal, which sells custom 3D-printed earphones, as a great example.

She also sees Carvey fitting in well in today’s design landscape, when young designers are coming up in a world where you don’t have to work for a company to get a concept built. You can do it yourself, make your own mistakes, and learn. “This would be a big leap forward if it’s a real production system,” Diana says.

Kaplan firmly believes that Carvey’s versatility and simple customization make it a perfect fit for a period that will see the continued downsizing of specific product runs and the increase in personalized manufacturing. Creating products by the dozens allows near-infinite options, compared with the previous mass-market runs by the thousands—or in some cases, millions—which just leads to a “beige-ification” of design.

Instructables Carvey CNC machine
Courtesy Instructables

“I think we’re moving away from it being all about form and function to a time when it’s all about fans,” Kaplan says. “The details aren’t as important as fans having a strong affinity to the product.”

While it’s too early to predict Carvey’s potential, according to Wohlers, the real key will be software. Simplifying the process in, say, the 3D-printing market, would make a competitor stand out among other low-cost options (sub $5,000).

While, by definition, Carvey can’t do what 3D printers can—carving is subtractive, not additive—Kaplan hopes to fulfill a new need and be a catalyst for new businesses. “Carvey is addictive, and I mean that in the best possible way,” he says. “The design cycle for projects can be long, and this provides instant gratification. I can’t wait until this first batch ships, and customers can have the same experience we’re having now.”

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