Linux computer manufacturer System76 made its mark in part because of its commitment to open source principles and doing what it believes is right. Last year it released its homegrown Linux, Pop!_OS. In early March, System76 founder Carl Richell tweeted about the company's plans to locate its computer manufacturing factory in Denver, Colorado. By moving its manufacturing from China to the United States, System76 is offering more proof that it's not afraid to buck prevailing tech norms to do things "the System76 way."
Carl Richell, founder and CEO of System76, says in a Twitter exchange that they anticipate shipping products from the factory by the end of the year. Also:
Not yet. Getting machinery in and setup, moving from plastic prototypes to metal, testing metal finish techniques, assembly line setup, inventory, etc. All the work on the march toward production.
— Carl Richell (@carlrichell) April 5, 2018
Fascinated by System76's decision to "onshore" its manufacturing facility, I reached out to the company's marketing director, Louisa Bisio, to learn more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
Don Watkins: Why are you building a factory in the United States when so much is offshored?
Louisa Bisio: Over the last 12 years, we've developed every capability, capital-wise, that an organically grown hardware company can. We can make careful and deliberate choices about hardware and our product line. We can customize all parts of the software stack from the firmware level to the operating system experience. But today, we can't design and manufacture our products.
It's similar to how Tesla used a Lotus chassis for their first car. Like the Roadster, the outside of our computers might look similar to others, but it's the inside that counts. The strategy was cash-efficient and allowed us to focus on developing high-value areas of the company. However, knowing what we wanted to build—but without the means to do so—left us constantly yearning.
Being that we're System76 and we do things the System76 way, our design principles are the polar opposite of the rest of the industry. With bringing manufacturing in-house we are able to:
- Better represent the character of our company: Our company is open, warm, friendly, and high-quality. Our designs will reflect these characteristics.
- Represent the open source community: Our CAD work will be open source and our design will pay tribute to computer science.
- Maximize serviceability: [To create] a computer that's easy to work on and expand, at every step along the design process we ask, "How does this decision affect serviceability?" Open it, change it, expand it. Let's ensure our product will be flexible for its users.
- Efficient to manufacture: Like software development, our manufacturing will continuously integrate product-design improvements into production.
Creating a computer that is open source from the physical design to the OS is the next step in our mission to empower our customers and the community. We believe that by leading with open source design, the rest of the industry will have to follow. The open source model leads to improved quality and greater experimentation through peer review and expert analysis. It also guarantees users' freedom to own the product they've purchased, down to the design and how it was manufactured.
How do consumers' choices change when owning a product's design is an available option? What happens to hardware quality when the designs are free and people can test new cooling theories or drive-mounting techniques? While not everyone will have access to the machinery we have in the factory, there are ways we can help make experimentation a reality for hobbyists. Production CAD and prototype CAD will both be open source. Prototype CAD designs can be cut out of acrylic on a hobbyist laser, the same way we're producing prototypes now. We hope that our approach and designs will be the spark that helps bring the open source philosophy to hardware.
Chris Short: Where are systems being built before the factory opens?
LB: Current products are produced from a global supply chain with much of the manufacturing concentrated in China. Final assembly, OS imaging, and QC testing are in Colorado and California.
CS: How many people will be employed there?
LB: This is still to be determined as we build out the manufacturing facility and convert prototypes to production processes. A small team is working through supply chain development, manufacturing techniques, and design refinement. Throughout the process, we're evaluating manufacturability and automated production to maintain competitiveness while manufacturing in the U.S.
DW: Are you finding an adequate supply of people to hire? What skills do you need?
LB: Yes, we have the fortunate challenge of receiving a large number of resumes for open positions. We're hiring mechanical engineers, and we always consider software engineering candidates, particularly those with Rust or Elixir experience. We anticipate adding electrical engineering expertise as well.
CS: What influenced factory site selection and building processes? How have open source practices contributed?
LB: It took over a year to find our light industrial space. But we are quite lucky to be established in Colorado, where a hub of open source companies already exists with some, like Aleph Objects, also leading the way in open design.
As far as the impact of open source practices on the building process, we are excited to make this a community project. Last year [we revealed] a design concept for the desktop chassis. Our Superfan winners were the first to see the chassis and provide their input. [Superfan is a contest for System76 users to show the interesting things they're doing with their computers.] We plan to continue having Superfan and our OS release events as a place for continuous discussions. Outside of that, we anticipate including community input in the same way we have done with Pop!_OS. For example, in order to decide what software applications Pop!_OS should feature on install, we hosted an online community meeting (open to the public) to solicit feedback. We've partnered with open source groups to collaborate on projects that were aligned with each other's goals, and we've hosted hackathons and sponsored group meetups.
DW: Does having your own factory give you greater creative control in designing the Linux computers you sell?
LB: Absolutely. Current chassis manufacturing can require nearly four months to get a change in production. With our software-based design and fabrication approach, we'll be able to introduce changes immediately after validation, similar to OS and web development processes. Owning the factory means we have complete control over manufacturing techniques, product quality, design characteristics, and the rapid iteration of design to match customer needs as they evolve.