Mass customization by parametric variations

When I was a small child (nearly 30 years ago), we went to Kashmir on vacation and we saw a lot of wonderful and the thing that is still with me is a set of 6 chairs and 3 tables.

The unique thing about them is that they were all handcrafted in wood and that made that the back rests of none of the chairs has the same carving: every backrest is different even front and back! In this day and age nobody would even bother going through so much labour! This makes them so special as opposed to the homogeneously designed chairs you get now.

I think 3d printing will bring back part of that uniqueness. You will be able to make generative designs that will turn out different every time based on randomised parameters. A few examples...

Imagine the magnificent dresses of Iris Van Herpen with complex build structures. Now imagine a dress where the elements would change size and shape based on the shape and build of the person who will wear them... This could be parametrised into the 3d model... So create once and make many different. And all that with a spinge of randomness so that every dress looks slightly different regardless of the build as well.

Another example would be a house that would change the outer shape of the building based on the internal layout of the rooms: intelligently placing the rooftop based on where the living room is, so you have the highest part of the house in te living room... And now add beams from the living room to the center of every room and your house looks totally different from your neighbours' houses even though the whole suburb is based on one parametrised model...

Other examples are ample in areas like watches, jewellery and prosthetics. Imagine a chandelier full of glass flowers, with each flower having a slight variation of the petal formation and a slight variation of color...

If you are doing things like this, please leave a comment with your work, so we can all get inspired...

Enter the Age of Designers.

When you look at the history of manufacturing, there are three distinct stages:

The first stage was the age of the marketeers: A very monolithic manufacturing process which made products sub-optimally, but the lack of quality was compensated by the power of marketing... The Ad-men sold whatever you could produce and you produced whatever your factory could make with the resources available to you... It wasn't great, but it was better than nothing.

That stage evolved into the age of the engineer: now manufacturing got optimized and you started to offer a product of better quality and optimized the resources. This led to a higher quality of product, but now rather than the marketeers, the engineers told the customers what they needed to buy... The perfect example is the ultra-thin watch: at one stage, the Swiss watchmakers started a headlong race to make the thinnest mechanical watch to compete with the quartz watches. Everybody competed to make the thinnest watch possible, but nobody listened to the customer's needs: which was not thinner, but more functionality (complications) to compete with the quartz watches. Maybe you can see the same thing happening in Ultra-books, where people are making thinner and smaller laptops, but out-compromising the functionality that discerns the Ultra-book from the Tablets.

Now comes the third age: the age of te designers. When additive manufacturing delivers on all the goods, the only major constraint will be the design of the product, not the resources, not the fixed set-up costs, not the production efficiency. This will mean that you will actually be able to efficiently produce what the customer wants. This does not mean that marketeers and engineers will become obsolete overnight, but the importance of design is going to become larger as technology progresses: right now a designer may design a very cool car, but the engineering filter will look at production efficiency and remove design elements and then marketeers will smooth out the non-conformist elements to make it sellable and you end up with just another car. Now designers will be at the consumer end of the production line, rather than the far side.

There are of course some human limitations to this scenario, which mainly has to do with attention-span and time. Humans only have so much time and energy and would only spend it on things that they need to survive or are passionate about. This is the very reason why "interactive" TV never worked: you do not want to control the outcome of TV, you just want to sit and watch... So people may not want to design their own doorknobs, but they would want to design their own wedding rings (at least for their first marriage).

the second human limitation will be ability: some things you can design yourself on a piece of napkin, but when it comes to making your own car, you would not want to sit on top of the fuel tank... Some products will need expert guidance. Some of this expertise will be stored in design software parameters that will make sure you can only design within safe boundaries, but some designs will need human expert checks.