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November 21, 2017
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Fabsie is a new concept in ready-to-assemble furniture, allowing mass customisation through digital manufacturing methods. "Source: fabsie.com".

Most of us know them well: the flat cardboard boxes filled with about a million small parts that - if assembled correctly - add up to a new dining room table or TV stand; one that doesn't break the bank to buy. The self-assemble furniture industry has been providing inexpensive, standardised home furnishings for more than 60 years, observes Emily M. Bernstein in the The New York Times. But despite its enduring success, one man is ready to revolutionise the ready-to-assemble market.

Fabsie stool parts.

"This Stool Rocks" takes just four simple pieces
that snap into each other in seconds.
Source: fabsie.com.

In March of this year, architect-turned-entrepreneur James McBennett launched Fabsie, a new platform that aims to use technology as a way of changing how we view and consume furniture by introducing mass customisation into the market. With Fabsie, you can still expect the flat-pack and self-assembly process, but what is different is the ability to personalise each item.

McBennett first introduced Fabsie to the world with "This Stool Rocks" - a stool that actually does rock. In addition to choosing from three levels of rocking mobility, customers can add a logo or design to the stool's circular seat; the first batch of This Stool Rocks ranged from branded versions for companies to ones with playful taglines for personal use.

The idea for Fabsie came to McBennett in 2012 after years of studying and working in the architecture field, through which he became familiar with computer-controlled machines. While he started out on a traditional architecture career path, McBennett decided to veer away from this route after beginning a theoretical project on downloadable buildings while doing post-graduate work at the Architectural Association of London. He left that role, took some entrepreneurial courses and began to adapt the idea of downloadable buildings for the furniture industry.

Still, today's ready-to-assemble furniture industry has been hugely successful from an economic standpoint. From August 2011 to August 2012, IKEA reported €27.6 billion (US$37.5 billion) in total sales worldwide, reported the BBC in January this year. When asked if the "if-it-isn't-broken-don't-fix-it" mantra should apply to such a profitable industry, McBennett adamantly says "no".

As he elaborates when speaking with The Genteel: "The mainframe computer was very successful and not broken when the personal computer was a small niche market; the CD was very successful and not broken when digital music was a small niche market; and more recently the Nokia phone was very successful and not broken when the smartphone was a small niche market. But those small niche markets have a habit of growing rapidly and overtaking the incumbent technology, no matter how big that incumbent industry is. The success stories of today with strong histories of a hundred years hold no guarantees to be relevant five years from now."

I am driven by a rebellious spirit to push the field where it has not yet gone; to continually offer something that is fundamentally better than everything that has gone before it...

And so, McBennett sees the potential for Fabsie to be a game changer in the world of furniture. "I am not driven by money nor profit," he explains. "I am driven by a rebellious spirit to push the field where it has not yet gone; to continually offer something that is fundamentally better than everything that has gone before it, which is the training and mind-set of a designer."

While Fabsie is still essentially a work in progress, the initial public response to it has been positive, with more than GBP £26,000 being raised in a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year. As McBennett explains, this money allowed him to begin production on the stools and paid "for several mistakes learnt in packaging and using couriers that won't be made again." Supporters who donated £25 or more received one of the stools from McBennett's first batch, which he produced in May.

Having worked through a number of issues during this early stage of the project, McBennett is now selling stools to the general public through Fabsie's website. He produces items whenever there are enough orders for a batch - 150 or more in the case of the stools. Down the line, however, McBennett also hopes to allow customers to download the design plans for Fabsie products and bring them to a local manufacturer with the necessary tools. For This Stool Rocks, that means a CNC (computer numerical control) wood router that can cut out its four parts would be required in order to begin production.

"Producing products one-by-one adds considerable cost that conflicts with my desire to offer very affordable options," McBennett says, explaining that many academics believe economies of scale don't apply in digital manufacturing, no matter how many pieces one produces. McBennett disagrees with this perspective, however. "Real world experience has taught me that this simply isn't true. I switched to batch production from a single location for the fulfilment of the Kickstarter orders, gaining important economies of scale in production, materials, packaging and shipping, and later finishing."

Fabsie customised stool for Olytico

Social media monitoring company Olytico
received a customised stool for supporting
Fabsie's Kickstarter campaign. 
Source: fabsie.com

In addition to the economic factors to consider, McBennett says he must develop a system of quality assurance before moving to the local manufacturing method.

There are many other things in the works for Fabsie, including opening it up to the design community and launching a second product - a personalised standing desk that McBennett created after finding inspiration in an article by Nilofer Merchant for the Harvard Business Review entitled "Sitting Is The Smoking Of Our Generation". He is also currently taking part in Start-Up Chile, an entrepreneurship programme that awarded him a USD$40,000 grant that will be used to establish a working hub for Fabsie in his hometown of Dublin.

And while McBennett has a lot to work towards in the short-term development of his business, he has one simple goal for Fabsie in the long-term: "I want to make products people love and bring mass personalisation to the mainstream."

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