Britain's manufacturing sector isn't as stable as it once was - just ask one of 2,200 steel workers that have just been chucked on the scrapheap in Redcar. But, while heavy industry has struggled with competition from developing markets, new methods of production and a desire for shorter lead times means there is a big opportunity for domestic production to rise again.
London start-up Opendesk wants to be in the vanguard of that shift. Founded in 2013, the company connects customers looking for new furniture to designers all over the world and manufacturers in their back yard. For instance you might spot a chair on their website that has been dreamed up by a designer in Tokyo, but be able to get it made just down in the road in Bristol.
'We grew out of this idea of exploring what the web and the new means of digital production would do to furniture design and manufacturing,' says co-founder Nick Ierodiaconou, Opendesk's head of product.
'Instead of us owning factories and doing manufacturing, or owning shops and holding stock of products, through this model everything gets manufactured on-demand locally, as local to the customer as possible.'
The thinking is that by outsourcing design and manufacturing locally, costs (both for the end user and for Opendesk itself) can be kept to a minimum. Although its desks are a lot pricier that you might find at the likes of Ikea (its original four-seater desk starts at around £1,200), they are cheaper than those you might get from a fancy premium furniture designer.
Opendesk (whose name is evocative of a co-working space provier) sits at the intersection of several trends. 3D printing and other digital fabrication methods have bolstered interest in the manufacturing sector, while Opendesk's marketplace is similar to the likes of accomodation website Airbnb, takeaway business Just Eat and fellow furniture seller Made.com. Where it differs from Made.com is that customers can select both the designer and a manufacturer.
'What's unique, and what a lot of people say is crazy, about our model is it has three parties,' says co-founder and CEO Tim Carrigan (pictured below). As well as managing the needs of customers and designers, Opendesk also has to convince manufacturers to take on the jobs.
It's partly because of that challenge that its current focus is on B2B customers looking for office furniture. It's easier to convince a manufacturer to start taking orders if you're buying in bulk and there's a decent chance of return business.
One element of the model that Carrigan says does count in their favour is people's desire for a more 'human' experience. Part of the reason people are shunning Hilton for Airbnb is because they like interacting with the host, he says.
'This is very analolgous in the sense that when you go to a Heal’s or John Lewis, you get no sense of who made this [furniture], who designed it, where any of the things that go into come from – it feels like the Hilton choice. Versus, "Oh this was made for me by this guy, who was somewhere in the local community, and it was designed by this guy who’s in Brazil or Tokyo or wherever". The fact that they're in Sao Paulo and you’re in New York is fantastic.'
Business customers with a tight grip on their bottom line might not be so interested in that side of things, but Opendesk is focusing on creative companies, start-ups and third sector companies, which tend to be keen on projecting a certain image to clients and potential staff.
It's still early days but the company has got some solid traction. Its clients thus far have included Greenpeace and the Steve Wozniak-backed start-up Kano, and it has drummed up a decent amount of funding, including £300,000 through equity crowdfunding, a grant from Innovate UK and a recent investment from an unnamed family office. It now employs 23 and its turnover in the last quarter was up by around 40% to £280,000. The big challenge now is to maintain that growth.
'It's very easy to describe how it would work really well, if it was very big,' admits Carrigan. 'It's quite hard to think about how do you get to that point.'
'We need to get to a point where we have something in the order of 20, 30, 40 makers making for us in the UK, to whom we're important. We're already a nice little sideline to quite a lot of people, but we’re probably important to about a dozen people right now.' Opendesk is also working on a US expansion to demonstrate to potential backers that its model can work well in more than one market.
Even if Opendesk does get that get that backing and roll-out all over the world, it's probably going to be a good while before its model of global-local manufacturing is the norm. It's nonetheless clear that online networks and new methods of fabrication have the potential to fundamentally change the way the world makes things - and not just in furniture.