You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who works in the additive industry that doesn’t have a custom printed part sitting on their desk. When given the option, we all want the objects that surround us to reflect our unique personality and needs, including myself.
Most recently, I began to reverse engineer a broken Iwazaru – the ‘speak no evil’ monkey. A beloved figurine of my step-mom’s, Iwazaru had fallen off its perch, and broken most of its skull. Using a Faro Edge arm, I scanned the monkey, creating a digital file that I could then print. But rather than repairing the skull to its original geometry, I decided to get creative and transform the monkey into something that reflects me.
Monkey See, College Student Do
Letting my imagination flow, I sketched out an eerie Xenomorph-like alien emerging from Iwazaru’s skull. Then using Zbrush, an artistic sculpting software, I created the creature digitally. Finally, using the magic of the HP 580, I printed the monkey in full color.
Harbingers of Mass Customization
My project isn’t unique. In fact, with public libraries now offering 3D printers and scanners, people of all ages, disciplines, and skill sets, who don’t necessarily work in the additive sector, are customizing off-the-shelf products into their own. You see, one size does not fit all, and the imminent ubiquity of digital manufacturing technologies is beginning to make mass customization a reality – and companies are starting to take notice, too.
Capitalizing on Customization
In the world of razors, what really constitutes as innovation? Five blades over four? New and improved lubrication strips? Ergonomic grips for max shaving pleasure?
For Gillette, the answer is none of the above. By leveraging digital manufacturing, Gillette is trialing a new service called The Razor Maker. The basic premise is this: Consumers can go online and design a razor handle unique to them. They then choose a standard 5 or 3 blade cartridge, have the handle design printed, assembled with the blade cartridge, and then shipped to their door.
Notice that the only customized part on the customized razor is the handle – it offers no functional advantage over any off-the-shelf razor Gillette offers. Rather, customers are paying a premium not for functionality, but for aesthetics that resonate with their personality.
A New Age of Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing (AM) offered prototyping and low volume production a high degree of customization. What separates prototyping and low volume runs from mass customization, however, is size. Prototyping and low volume runs kickout onesie twosies, while mass customization seeks to manufacture millions of unique product iterations.
Historically, this has been impossible: material quality, speed, and post processing were all limiting factors. But with the advent of new additive systems that focus on engineering materials, speed, and automated post processing, this is no longer the case.
Today, systems like HP and Carbon are additively manufacturing end use parts in the thousands. It’s true, mass customization is still in its infancy. But as market leaders like Gillette – who held 54% of the market share in 2016 – launch customized products, they validate not just the business case, but the logistics, too.
An Expectation, Not an Exception
As consumers become accustomed to personalizing their products, mass customization will become an expectation, not an exception. It is a trend that’s only gaining momentum, and to stay competitive, companies must start exploring now. When the advent of mass customization finally arrives, companies who begin today will have the experience needed to hit the ground running and execute.
While a future where eyeglass frames are made to fit each individual might seem like something out of a Bradbury story, the reality is that this is not fiction. We live in a world where technology is growing exponentially, and if we are to stay competitive, we must grow with it.
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