Beyond Mass Customization
The era of digital manufacturing is upon us. When I was a boy, bank tellers used to add up the balance in your account and write it by hand in your bank book. Remember that? Now you have computers not only at banks, insurance companies, and travel agencies, but at the local flea market and even, most likely, in your home. Computer dont just add up numbers any more, they draw pictures, show you movies, and let you correspond instantaneously with people on the other side of the world. And if a person speaks a different language than you, your computers can perform instantaneous translations in both directions.
With developments like those, can the delivery of actual products by your computer be far behind? Im talking about real hard-goods, like furniture, toys, and sports equipment, popping out of your computer, just like color pictures coming out of your ink-jet printer today.
Digital manufacturing comes from the convergence of computers and chemistry. Its roots are in the ancient trades of manual and analog manufacturing, like carving, smithing, casting, and masonry. But instead of wood, iron, clay, and stone, digital manufacturing uses modern materials, such as plastics, composites, and intermetallics. And instead of using the skilled hands of a craftsperson to shape the product, automation drives electromechanical devices to form not only the external shape, but also the internal structure.
A lot of people worry that digital manufacturing will make people obsolete and put legions of trades persons on the unemployment lines. These are the same fears that people had when the industrial revolution made factories more productive, and when computers started keeping track of account balances in banks. And its true that the ranks of weavers and bank tellers have been thinned by machines and computers. Yet the quality of life has increased and the weavers and tellers have found other jobs to do, jobs that have usually been less monotonous and better paid. If you defined yourself as a weaver or a teller, then you were in trouble. But if you were creative and resourceful, then you survived and prospered. The same is true of factory workers and trades persons today.
In this mornings session they talked about the Internet bringing about the second industrial revolution. I dont see it that way. Digital manufacturing (and the Internet is the delivery medium for digital manufacturing) will bring about the undoing of the industrial revolution, not a new industrial revolution. The effects of the industrial revolution have been, in addition to an enormous boost in wealth and physical health, a stultifying imposed conformity and subjugation to centralized authority. Digital manufacturing will eliminate the economies of scale that support mass manufacturing or even mass customization. Digital manufacturing will allow people to become individuals again, and well still become even wealthier and healthier than ever before.
This panel discussion is about mass customization. But at Ennex Corporation, we believe we are leading the way to the next paradigm after mass customization. Mass customization is about making products in smaller lots so you disappoint fewer people with your cookie-cutter designs. Digital manufacturing is about throwing away the cookie cutter and making products one at a time for each individual customer.
However, the irony is that doing mass customization today requires digital manufacturing. The realization of my vision of people making all manner of products at home on their personal factories is a good 10, 20, maybe 30 years away. In the meantime, digital manufacturing is used today in conventional factories to reduce the cost and lead-time of product development and tooling, which is what allows manufacturers to make todays products in smaller and smaller lot sizes and still make a profit.
Selected Panel Questions
Q. How do you see the movement toward customized solutions blending with the need to produce products on a mass scale?
A. Mass customization is the intermediate stage of commerce between mass production and the return to making fully custom products for each customer. And as I mentioned in my introductory remarks, digital manufacturing plays an important role in this transition because it reduces the cost and lead-time of product development and tooling, so that mass production can be done economically on smaller and smaller scales. But as the cost of digital manufacturing declines and its productivity increases, the need to produce products on a mass scale eventually will evaporate.
Q. What will be the next step in manufacturing following mass customization?
A. True custom manufacturing. Custom, not customized. Customization is about tweaking your cookie cutter, its about taking a product that you make for everyone at once and allowing people to have a little variation here, a slight modification there. Thats not the way to create ultimate satisfaction. Digital manufacturing is about making products one at a time from scratch. Its up to the customer: it can be identical to a product used by a million other people, or it can be a little different, or it can be completely original and unique. And when digital manufacturing is mature, it wont cost any more or take any longer to make a product either identical or unique.
Q. What are the roadblocks to implementing mass customization in manufacturing?
A. Mostly inertia, confidence that the way weve been making these widgets for the last fifty years is the way we ought to make em for the next fifty.
Q. What expertise will manufacturers have to acquire or develop to succeed in a mass customization environment?
From your perspective, what tools (i.e., information, manufacturing, etc.) will companies need to succeed in a mass customization manufacturing environment?
A. Mass customization comes from applying the tools of digital manufacturing to reduce the cost and lead time of product development and tooling. The tools of digital manufacturing fall into four categories:
- 3-D CAD (computer-aided design). You need this to create the digital files that represent your product design and your tooling.
- Scanners. These are used to capture existing geometry in digital form for reverse engineering.
- Fabbers (also called rapid prototyping). These are your output devices. In mass customization they make your prototypes and either your tooling or tooling masters.
- EDI (electronic data interchange, now also known as the Internet). This is how you communicate designs among your facilities. Design a product in Kansas, tool it in Korea, manufacture it in Thailand, and market it around the world. Your organization has to be integrated with seamless communications.
Q. How will employee training need to change to create the mass customization factory?
A. Youd better make sure that your design employees are using 3-D CAD. I find it absolutely amazing that with 400,000 hard-goods manufacturing companies employing some five million design engineers and manufacturing engineers, we still have only about 500,000 users of 3-D CAD in this country. That means only 10% of the engineers that are responsible for designing and making our domestic products are using 3-D CAD. The rest are using 2-D CAD or, perish the thought, manual drafting tables!