We’re all restlessly waiting to see how the information age will evolve. It has already changed the mass production approach that started with the industrialization age. Now it seems that we are ever more experiencing the rise of mass personalization.
We first saw a product offering with only slight changes in colour, size or packaging for different regions, to appeal to local tastes and needs. Now brands are allowing customers to have new ways of customizing a product in terms of its size, shape, material and colour of one’s choice.
It is widely assumed that the more special the purchase is for an individual, the more desire they’d have to personalize it, and make it unique to them, such as customizing an engagement ring. On the other hand we are seeing mass market products leading the way with personalization, to create higher margin specialty products which complement their lower priced product portfolio. We have been personalizing our morning coffee, our clothing, accessories and sneakers for years now. It is hard to imagine that consumers will want to stop here, but rather they will look for the next wave of advancement to put their stamp on every service and product they purchase.
For luxury products, this creates a dilemma when deciding to what extent the final product design should be driven by consumers instead of brands' creative teams. It seems that merely offering a different material or colour may not be sufficient anymore in terms of personalization as technological innovation allows for creativity to be shared. What once required specialized skills to create and produce, is now being compacted into solutions that enable any of us to take part in the process. This brings a whole new meaning to provenance.
3D printing is a technology that was initially used for prototyping in aerospace and medical industries. While it has been around for a while, it is finally finding its way into more mainstream consumer products as, just like computers, it has become more affordable and its functionality is improving tremendously.
The Economist described how the technology works in the remarkable article ‘Print me a Stradivarius’
(Feb. 10, 2011): “…First you call up a blueprint on your computer screen and tinker with its shape and colour where necessary. Then you press print. A machine nearby whirrs into life and builds up the object gradually, either by depositing material from a nozzle, or by selectively solidifying a thin layer of plastic or metal dust using tiny drops of glue or a tightly focused beam. Products are thus built up by progressively adding material, one layer at a time: hence the technology’s other name, additive manufacturing. Eventually the object in question—a spare part for your car, a lampshade, a violin—pops out
…” (Editor's Note: you can read the full article by clicking on the above link)
Even today you can create small items in the privacy of your own home. It is also possible to do larger pieces, if you have enough space to hold the printer. Are we going to see product print shops in neighbourhoods, where you can bring your USB drive to create your item and take it away with you? Or email it online and have it delivered to your door?
3D printing currently uses mainly metals, resins and plastics but in the near future we will see more materials used and combined. With such advancement, bigger questions will arise for brands. Who will be the creatives of the future? Will a personalized item at your own home hold more value than another that many other people have? How will quality be defined, if factory manufacturing, or even artisans are not going to play a key role in the creation process?
Big challenges will arise around intellectual property when you can create a product as easily as you are able to download music or movies online today. On the positive side, this can bring true lean production and just in time inventory to your home. It will also help cut emissions because we will eliminate significant miles from transportation (local vs. from Asia), packaging, high levels of energy use during factory production as well as chemicals used in dying, washing, and tanning processes.
More than ever, brands need to tune in to this new reality so that their claims of selling dreams and desires can be sustained. It seems that products they traditionally sell today might become quickly obsolete if this fascinating innovation leads to a manufacturing revolution and puts control into the hands of consumers.
There may soon be a moment where brands succeed more with ideas rather than products, and sell design, creativity, and innovation, rather than their production capability. Ultimately ‘design’ may be the core product the consumer will buy from brands.
Here are a few examples of how 3D printing is being used
to experiment with new solutions
by EADS which produces the world’s first bike grown from
high-strength nylon powder