Where Additive Processes Fit in the Mass Customization Movement

Additive technologies will play a significant role in the production of custom and personalized products in the future.

By Terry Wohlers

"Viewpoint" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the May/June 2006 issue.

Corporations and other organizations have been discussing opportunities associated with mass customization over the recent past. Likewise, the press has been publishing a lot lately on the subject. We now have methods and tools that make it feasible, whereas before, it was cost-prohibitive most of the time.

In the July 2005 issue of Manufacturing Automation, former editor-in-chief Robert Malone stated that we have gotten used to the idea of ordering a custom computer from Dell. He also mentioned custom (i.e., semi-custom) cars that we can order from an auto dealer. Malone believes that many opportunities are developing to produce custom products, especially given the wide reach and efficiencies of the Internet. "All of these possibilities are a form of outsourcing, but the actual manufacture is mostly kept within our national borders," he explained.

I agree strongly with Malone's views. When considered in the context of additive fabrication, the possibilities seem endless. Hearing aid manufacturing is a good example of mass customization and it's quite possibly the best example of using additive processes to make custom products in relatively high volume. It is important, however, to understand that hearing aid manufacturers were making custom in-the-ear hearing aids long before additive systems became available. Believe it or not, technicians would produce a single mold for every custom hearing aid they would produce. The process was time-consuming, expensive, and prone to error. Wall thickness was inconsistent, the electronics sometimes did not fit well, and feedback would occur due to a poor seal in the ear canal. The use of additive systems, such as stereolithography, to produce the custom-fit shell has solved these problems.

Indeed, additive technologies will play a significant role in the production of custom and personalized products in the future. Individualized products that before were too expensive to produce one by one are becoming affordable. An example is a set of 28 complex trophies that were manufactured in Alumide on the EOSINT P 380 machine at Central University of Technology, Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa). Alumide is an aluminum-filled polyamide powder from EOS, the manufacturer of the EOSINT machines. The commemorative trophies were given to the keynote speakers and session chairs at the RAPDASA 2005 conference in Pretoria, South Africa last October. (RAPDASA stands for the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa.) Each trophy included the speaker's name in raised letters, as well as other relevant information, making the gift even more special and personal.

In Alumide, the cost to manufacture one of the trophies was about $130, when building 28 at once. If the university had used polyamide, the estimated cost would have dropped to about $35 per part. Producing the trophies any other way would have cost dramatically more-assuming that it would have been possible-given the multiple undercuts and highly complex and delicate features of the parts. This was clearly a case where it would not have been practical to manufacture the products using conventional methods of manufacturing. Using additive fabrication, the effort of manufacturing the 28 custom products was almost trivial.

The Design Task

As with rapid manufacturing, one will benefit the most from making custom products with additive processes when the shape and geometric features of the product are complex. One could easily argue that the basic task of personalizing most any product becomes involved, which is why custom products are relatively rare. The availability of additive systems makes the manufacturing process much more feasible, but someone still needs to create or modify the computer model data to make the product custom.

No matter what you hear from CAD vendors, their software products are not easy to learn and use. They have improved over the years, but they can still challenge even a seasoned CAD professional. Software products such as Cosmic Blobs from Dassault Systemes are a step in the right direction. This relatively easy-to-learn and use 3D modeling product is targeted at kids and sells for just $35.

In March 2006, search engine giant Google announced that it had acquired @Last Software, the makers of 3D modeling software. The company offers SketchUp, which enables you to produce design concepts in 3D. The software is targeted not only at design professionals, but also at general audiences. If Google can help to popularize 3D design software, it could provide widespread access to anyone wanting to personalize and manufacture custom products.

Manufacturing in the West

With most low-value, high-volume manufacturing now being done in Asia, U.S. and European companies must look to other areas of opportunity if they expect to preserve some manufacturing. The manufacture of special products of high value that are produced in relatively low volume is where Western nations can experience success. And, this is where additive fabrication will serve as a strategic tool.

When considering the limitations of additive processes, one might expect a relatively short list of industries and applications that could benefit from them for custom manufacturing. Not so. Consider aerospace, motor sports, medicine, dentistry, prosthetics and hearing instruments. Also, consider marine and military products, antique restoration, museum exhibits, sculptures and jewelry. If you add up the money spend annually in these industries worldwide, it amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars.

Western nations have all but lost the battle of manufacturing of many products. But it can still play a significant role in the manufacture of specialty products that may not be practical to manufacture on the other side of the world. For example, it does not make sense to produce a $3,000 hearing aid in China that can be produced in the U.S. or Europe for a few dollars and in a couple days.

The Future

On January 4, 2006, CNNMoney.com published a thought-provoking article titled "Tech's New Resolutions: What Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others should shoot for this year." Author Erick Schonfeld, Business 2.0's editor at large, subtitled one part of the article "Amazon.com's resolution: Let customers design their own products." In five paragraphs, he explained why Amazon should offer part fabrication services to anyone with an Internet connection.

Schonfeld explained how Amazon could give customers the opportunity to use Web-based tools to design custom products, such as kitchen cabinet hardware, cell phone cases and action figures. He said, "Tight design parameters would ensure a basic floor of quality." He went on to say that Amazon could set up CNC machines, 3D printers and other rapid prototyping tools, or could outsource the production of the parts to machine shops and service providers.

I agree: The idea could work. Amazon would not want to offer a blank screen from which to conceive a new product. Instead, it could provide basic shapes of new designs — starting point — with specific dimensions that could be changed to a point. These limits would prevent amateur designers from making features of a design too large or too small. The design experience could be somewhat analogous to piecing together a new computer configuration at dell.com. You are offered many combinations of options, but limits are built into the system so that you configure a computer that is manufacturable. The same is true at nikeid.com where you can very easily and quickly produce a semi-custom pair of shoes.

Schonfeld continues by explaining how Amazon could expand the service to include a design marketplace where customers, and even engineers and designers, could trade and sell designs. I believe that all of this will probably occur in the future. However, a small start-up will likely pioneer the idea. After lots of trial and error by the small company, an established corporation, such as Amazon.com, will then enter the business. And it could grow into something very big.

Industry consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). For more information visit http://wohlersassociates.com.