Thinking of products as input

by Andy Oram
June 28, 2015

This article originally appeared on the International Manufacturing Technology Show site.

As customization becomes appealing to consumers and manufacturers alike, manufacturing chains are starting to emerge. All manufacturers should start thinking about how to go beyond their traditional job—producing robust and reliable products—to produce products that their customers can enhance further.

At this month’s Solid conference, keynoter Kipp Bradford applauded SOC manufacturer MediaTek for helping phone companies design new phones in just 15 minutes. Apparently, the chips they design are not just components, but part of a strategy for making new products.

Autodesk, also well represented at Solid as a sponsor, finds that their designs are becoming platforms. Whereas traditionally a team would produce a product design for their own company to use, groups are now sharing designs the way free and open source software developers share their computer programs.

4D printing is yet another stream helping to form the new current toward manufacturing chains. A product made on a 4D printer can adapt to its environment: instead of a fixed shape and texture, it can sense changes around it and alter itself. This potentially makes it a platform for building new products.

Of course, manufacturers have always created chains. One will make the screws that another puts into motors that a third puts in lawn mowers. But the screw did not alter its function and serve a purpose never anticipated by the screw manufacturer. New manufacturing chains will be much more elastic and innovative.

Danielle Applestone, another Solid keynoter, pointed out new job roles will emerge in retail, accompanied by new educational needs. She imagined a clothing store where staff instantly customized everything for each customer. The store would be like hiring a tailor, but with clothes coming out of machines instead of being taken off the rack and altered by hand.

Naturally, the clothing manufacturer would have to prepare for such a shopping experience. But the retail staff—used to routine tasks such as folding shirts and stocking shelves—would have to adopt the skills to work with the customer, find out what she needs, and create the desired garment on the spot. Applestone referred to the staff’s need for "technical empathy" to understand how their work fits into a larger scope.

Customization is seen by many business leaders as the wave of the future. This does not eliminate mass production—rather, the two will work together. Custom-built computers will need commodity chips, custom-tailored clothing will need commodity textiles, and so forth. But suppose no product is ever considered final until it reaches the ultimately consumer—and perhaps not even then? Thinking this way can change the manufacturer’s deliverables at each stage.

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