Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing


Mass customization by Context Furniture

Kerry and Bryce Moore. Designers and owners of Context Furniture in Royal Oak, Michigan, USA, have written a guest article in Metromode, an online magazine based in Michigan.  In the article (written as a series of posts over a week in February), they explain how their company has utilised mass customization and manufacture on demand as part of a core philosophy, which also includes allowing design to drive manufacturing, and adherance to  principles of sustainable manufacturing.

The foundation of their philosophies is that design driven manufacturing will not only compete with international low (cost) labour products but will eventually surpass it.

They explain how:

“Our original business model was based on mass-customization, so we could offer custom size, shape, material and finish without significant cost and lead time increases (all associated with custom products.) ….Streamlining the process is essential to mass customization since the focus should be on the endless possibilities of shape, size, material and color.  Our endgame is to develop a reality where the consumer can also act as designer.  We consider this to be the most responsible and efficient way to manufacture.  Create one of something that is truly wanted as opposed to multiple items with an uncertain future.”

This philosophy of making something that is actually wanted fits in well with the idea of sustainable manufacturing.  Any consumer product is less likely to be thrown away if it was made uniquely for one person.

The Moores note that manufacturing sustainably also means being in closer proximity to our customers, which decreases pollution due to transportation.  Also, streamlined production and alliances with similar companies can reduce manufacturing footprints and in turn require less demand on the energy, infrastructure and building consumption.

Apart from being an interesting case study on their business, the Moores’ article provides a very good explanation of mass customization and the other related concepts like manufacture on demand.  They use everyday language that makes their article accessible to any reader, and not just those who are already familiar with the concepts involved.

From my personal viewpoint, the most interesting part of the article is where the Moores predict the growth of ‘manufacturing centres’ for furniture:

“We foresee a time in our industry, where instead of going to Ikea to buy your furniture, you’ll visit a local manufacturing center.  This manufacturing center will have license to produce many designs, Ikea’s included, but will make them for you right there.  This accomplishes several manufacturing sustainability goals: it brings the production of the product closet to the consumer, combines manufacturer’s budget dollars which in turn increases investment in the local job economy, and reduces waste by producing only what there is a demand for.”

Although they do not use the term, what they describe fits in very well with the concept of ‘offline customization’, which has been discussed on this site previously in the context of other sectors such as toys and footwear.  It is quite feasible that a similar model could be applied successfully in the furniture sector.
The existing brands are unlikely to be enthusiastic about licencing their designs to independent manufacturing centres.  They may be concerned about issues like ensuring quality of manufacture.  But if the manufacturing centre idea is successful for any one company, the momentum for change will grow.  If the Moores are right in their calculations (that the manufacture on demand system can beat the low cost import model in a straight fight), then the brand names will move quickly, either by establishing their own centres or licencing designs as the article suggests.

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One Response to “Mass customization by Context Furniture”

  1. Nic Ward Able Says:

    I completely agree with the Moores and think our future is getting more and more personal. Everyone will soon be able to design products or ‘purchase a design’ and have these produced either at their local manufacturing centre or, if the piece is small enough, at their at-home fabber. The ball is already rolling for a central platform that have downloadable designs from it, acting both as a storer of designs, sourcer of buyers, and partner of credible manufacturers. So as a consumer you can download from a credible source and fab at home or from your local fab manufacturing centre. This future is being built by innovative firms like http://www.desktopfactory.com and http://www.ulsinc.com (who also provide the desktop manufacturing hardware you need) and http://www.ponoko.com who provides the personal manufacturing platform you need to buy, sell and share your product designs, and to make them for real with the click of your mouse.

    So cool! ;~}

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