Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

More links for 25 February

February 25th, 2009

1.  If you’re a parent of a young baby or toddler, this press release might be of interest to you:  A company called MyPacifier will sell you a child’s pacifier with the name of the child on it – probably most useful if your child is in a creche or playschool.  The press release tells the story of the company:

The MyPacifier Personalized Pacifier story started when a young mother in Denmark experienced the pacifier swap problem.  Pia Callesen, the creator of MyPacifier Personalized Pacifiers, says, “When I went to day care to pick up my son Frederik, more often than not I found that his pacifier had disappeared and Frederik had another child’s pacifier in his mouth.  I began searching for a pacifier product with a name on it, but I got the same answer in all the shops, ‘buy a permanent marker pen and write his name on the pacifier.’  I thought it should be possible for all parents to buy a quality pacifier with their child’s name engraved on it.  Apart from looking good, it could then also survive repeated sterilization.”

Pia Callesen went on to invent the world’s first personalized pacifier, something she thought was sorely needed for mothers everywhere.  Callesen spent months researching to find the right mix of a quality pacifier and the best-possible engraving equipment.”

The company trades in Denmark and Sweden under the name Navnesutten.dk, and in co-operation with Kim and Carol Pedersen of Fremont, California, the product is available to American parents at MyPacifier.com.

2.  Deborah Gage, writing in SFGate (the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle), describes how the paper invited readers to submit business ideas for assessment by venture capitalists.  One of the companies that made it through initial screening, to reach the venture capitalists’ evaluation, was Mojamix, a service that allows customers to mass customize breakfast cereals.  The service is somewhat similar to that of My Way Cereal, previously covered on this site.

A venture capitalist, David Pakman notes:

I’m skeptical that consumers at scale actually know enough about what ingredients go together to make a breakfast cereal or granola they will like and will taste good.  If I pick dried cranberries over raisins, will I like it less or more? Kinda have to taste it to know.

Mass customization of food products is indeed an interesting trend, but I wonder if it is better to focus on areas where the customer does not have to taste it to know if they will like it.

Margins in food products are low and are thus only interesting at scale, so Mojamix would need to demonstrate that the lifetime value of a customer is large enough to afford the customer acquisition costs that would be required to attract lots of customers.

The alternative is to make it a niche business with high margins and high prices, which are generally not interesting businesses for venture investors.

It is difficult to argue with this analysis:  there is a question mark over whether companies offering customised food products for delivery can achieve the scale required to move from being an artisan product to a mass customized one.  I do not know of any company relying on this business model that has achieved significant scale in terms of sales.  I’m open to correction on this.

Links for 25 February

February 25th, 2009

1.  Jeff Howe, author of the Crowdsourcing book, has written an interesting and comprehensive blog post about the possible future online business models that might be adopted by the print media.

2.  RPI, a provider of automated, mass-customized manufacturing and fulfillment for the consumer print-on-demand market, recently announced that it has set an industry record through the production of more than 1.3 million photo books in 2008.  This brings its overall production tally to three million photo books since the product’s launch, representing a 60 percent year-over-year growth.

3.  Tim O’Reilly, founder of the O’Reilly Publishing company that specialises in programming and other IT topics, gives an interview to The Inquirer, in which he notes:

“The deeper idea we’ve been exploring throughout all aspects of the company is the idea that a lot of times the most interesting technology can be discovered by what people do with it for fun.”

He gives a number of examples to support this idea, including the following:

“Open-source hardware is telling us something about the future of manufacturing – playing with mass customisation in various ways.”  This trend began with sites like Threadless, in which communities collaborate and vote on T-shirt designs; now there are all sorts of start-ups enabling people to design items for manufacturing.  “That’s open-source hardware.  People are realising there’s no real advantage in owning the design.  The cost may come down if more people use and manufacture the parts.”

4.  The AsiaOne website contains a reproduction of an article from Singapore newspaper The Business Times, in which Sivam Krish, CEO and founder of Genometri, describes the possibilities for user-generated content, and user-generated products.  He tells how:

“I was a former assistant professor in industrial design lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for about three years.  During my classes, I found that the younger generation was able to create designs using a fundamentally different approach.I found them spending a lot of time in front of computers modifying computer-aided design models, and I felt that this could be automated.

……..

With the support of the university’s Industry Liaisons Office, I patented this technology that I felt could completely change the way products are designed.

Together with four friends, I set up a company called Genometri, to develop this core design technology and with a deep breath I took the leap from being an academic to an entrepreneur. NUS has a good support structure for funding. But as with all start-ups, there were its difficulties too.  Mine was in convincing designers to use the software I created.

After attending a conference in the US on mass customisation, I realised that the greater opportunity is in letting customers design and that most companies were trying to let their customers do this.

So we swung our B2B model to a B2C model, focusing on the consumer.  We launched a portal (www.jujups.com) as a design platform that would allow consumers to create personalised keepsakes, including mugs, t-shirts and 3D-printed photo frames, by using drag-and-drop functions.”

I hope to write a longer post on the current state of the 3D printing sector soon.

More links later!

Contrasting uses of open strategies in the music industry – EMI and Minimum Noise

January 19th, 2009

The music industry has faced considerable strategic challenges in recent years, not least the trend towards reduced revenues caused by file sharing, but also the shift in market power from labels towards online aggregators such as Apple iTunes. Another side-effect of the world wide web on the music industry has been the trend towards dis-intermediation, with some enterprising musicians bypassing the labels to publish and sell music directly over the web.

Various aspects of user-centric business models have also been employed in the music sector. The use by Sellaband of crowdsourced band financing was previously covered here and elsewhere. Separately, the metal band Nine Inch Nails offers fans the facility to remix and upload their own versions of some tracks.

Now, two music industry companies at opposite ends of the size scale are using open innovation and crowdsourcing in new ways.

On 12 January last, EMI, the major music label, in association with BootB, “the online platform dedicated to challenge the marketing industry”, launched a worldwide competition to find innovative new ways to help consumers connect with music. The challenge, which is open to all creative sources (agencies, professionals, consultants, freelancers, innovative minds), is to find solutions for people who love good music but think it is currently hard to find.

BootB (Be out of the Box) is an online marketplace launched a year ago that allows anyone anywhere to respond to the creative briefs of major organizations and be paid professional fees for their ideas. BootB says that since it was launched, more than 10,000 people from 118 countries have joined the creative department of BootB to receive briefs and submit their ideas.

The press release announcing the project includes the following quote attributed to BootB’s Founder and CEO, Pier Ludovico Bancale: “As part of its new innovation strategy, EMI Music wants to leverage the power of BootB to solicit unconventional ideas from around the globe, and find a truly original, one-of-a kind innovation concept. This new extraordinary pitch confirms the relevance of our business model that is based on crowdsourcing of ideas. Original ideas will arrive from everywhere and the winner could come from anywhere.”

At the time of writing, the challenge is due to close in just under an hour. The page on the BootB site with details of the challenge shows that it has a budget of US$10,000 and 118 submissions. According to a comment from EMI, submissions could relate to an idea or a product solution, and not just a marketing idea.

At the other end of the scale, TechCrunch recently reported on Denmark-based startup Minimum Noise, which is planning to introduce crowdsourcing to music production, by “connecting musicians around the world in an open marketplace where like-minded artists can get together to create music tracks”.

According to the TechCrunch article:

..users can submit a project, describe what they’re looking for and what they’re prepared to pay for it. This can be anything from vocals to a bassline or the main instrumental riff, but the bottom line is that someone from the Minimum Noise community is supposed to run with the project and add a layer to whatever exists already. Typically, this would be something the project creator(s) or any of his musically gifted friends or family members are unable to accomplish without looking online for help. Project creators can accept submissions from other community members, pay him / her if they’re happy with the results and obtain the necessary material and rights of usage.

Comments to the TechCrunch article offered mixed views as to the prospects for Minimum Noise. Its prospects may be helped or hindered by how well it enables the process of co-operation between members.

These developments are reflective of a recognition, by both the large incumbents and small players in the music industry, that the closed models of the past are now history. The process of innovation can shift the ground under existing players in a very short space of time. How many of today’s major labels will still exist in ten year’s time? Will major labels exist at all by then? What business model will dominate in the future?

In the case of EMI, the BootB initiative signals, on some level, a willingness to change and innovate. In five years time, the majors may, by adapting to the changing nature of the sector, continue to dominate the world market for music. Alternatively, the market may shift completely to one where artists, serviced by innovative companies like Minimum Noise, sell directly to music consumers, with extensive use of a ‘freemium‘ business model, where some music is given away free to entice consumers to purchase premium music and related products.

Customization links for 19 January

January 19th, 2009

An article in LimaOhio.com includes information on American Trim, a company from Lima, Ohio in the U.S. that is held up by the local Mayor as an example of a enterprise that has successfully pursued a mass customization strategy. American Trim manufactures parts for appliances and heavy trucks.

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In FXStreet.com, John Mauldin wrote a column last November titled ‘The Financial Fire Trucks are Gathering‘. While the first two sections of the column refer to other topics, the third, titled ‘The Millennium Wave’ is an insightful analysis of ‘The Third Wave’ Alvin Toffler‘s book from the 1970′s, which predicted a world wide computer network (which came to reality as the internet) and mass customization. Toffler depicted the First Wave as the agricultural revolution, the Second Wave as the industrial revolution, and the Third Wave as the electronic data and communication revolution. ‘The Millennium Wave’ also looks at the nature of change. John Mauldin writes:

“Although some suggest that we’re still in the middle of Toffler’s Third Wave, I would suggest that what we are facing is different in both substance and character.

The Third Wave was actually the result of an innovation cycle that we can call the Information Age. I believe we are only halfway through the Information Age, with more profound changes as to how we work and play just around the corner.

But this time something is different. Instead of one wave of innovation following another, I believe that we are going to see multiple waves of significant change and innovation surge all over the world at roughly the same time. The combined effects are going to produce a period of change unlike anything seen in the history of man.

It will change things in ways that almost defy the imagination and at a pace that will leave one breathless. On the one hand, the Millennium Wave will be seen as a source of good, as we will live healthier and longer and there will be more of the basic necessities of life and more life options. On the other hand, the very ground we walk on will seem like it is shifting. The roadmap we have in our minds for our future will require a constant fine tuning (if not major reprogramming) in order to determine our position.

The more precisely you plan your future, the harder that change will hit you.”

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Austin Weber, writing in Assemblyblog.com, (part of the online version of Assembly Magazine) describes the need for the U.S. auto industry to switch to a build-to-order strategy. He notes that Matthias Holweg and Frits Pil, professors affiliated with the International Motor Vehicle Program, a research consortium based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Cambridge, MA), believe the auto industry desperately needs a flexible production system that addresses complexity issues by focusing on strategies such as “decoupled assembly” and body shop modularity.

The article also describes:

…another interesting concept that could revolutionize the age-old way in which cars are manufactured and distributed…a system in which local car dealers would engage in final assembly.

Here’s how it would work: A basic car, consisting of an engine, chassis and body, would be delivered to a dealer. Then, a team of individuals would set about customizing the vehicle for each buyer’s individual tastes. In other words, final assembly would be done at the point of sale. It would be interesting to see an automaker that’s bold enough to try that kind of innovative strategy.”

The proposal described in the Assemblyblog article sounds a lot like that proposed by Local Motors, featured in a recent post on this website.

Categories of crowdsourcing and more on whether contributors should be paid

January 17th, 2009

Since the crowdsourcing phenomenon was first documented during 2006, in a Wired magazine article by Jeff Howe, followed by his book of that name in 2007, the business and technology world has continued to adopt the concept, with varying models and methods.

In some cases, the crowdsourcing model used involved a reward of some kind for contributors, on other occasions there is not. I’ve previously expressed my own opinions on this, so won’t repeat them here. Other writers have recently looked at this variation in approaches to crowdsourcing. Firstly, Scott Klososky in Technology Story has described a classification for the different types of crowdsourcing:

Voluntary vs. Involuntary – Wikipedia asks for voluntary contributions to its online encyclopedia. By contrast, Google’s image indexing game is an involuntary crowdsourcing scheme to index images by leveraging the brain power of the people playing the game.

Social vs. Commercial – Yahoo Answers is an example of a social crowdsourcing operation where the community of users is crowdsourced to provide the underlying product – which is advice.  On the commercial side of this same model is Name This, which pays contributors to offer advice to companies trying to develop brand and company names.

Rewarded vs. Unrewarded – Innocentive is a site that allows companies to post problems that they need solved with a specific bounty that can be earned if someone has a solution. By contrast Dell’s Ideastorm, and Starbucks mystarbucksidea, provide a place for customers to give product advice with no reward other than maybe getting these large organizations to improve their products. Or, as Scott Klososky says “In other words, free market resource leveraging the herd.”

The potential for business to exploit a pool of free labour through crowdsourcing initiatives may not be the bonanza envisaged. Writing in CRM Buyer, Erika Morphy notes that:

“The crowd is beginning to look like an incredibly large, wise, cheap labor pool. Fortunately, it’s also unwieldy, which may be the crowd’s saving grace”.

The article describes a number of examples in the crowdsourcing sphere. LiveOps uses a form of crowdsourcing, which it calls “crowdsourcing BPO” – to schedule the 20,000 home agents that support its call centre operations. Essentially, it sources complex calls to agents that have the expertise to handle the topic. An interesting comment is made by Eckart Walther, SVP of marketplace at LiveOps:

“Almost all crowdsourcing plays I have seen so far use an oversupply of people,” he noted. “That doesn’t work in the real world because it is not practical.” For starters, he said, a company cannot pay all those people — and expecting consistently high-quality work from volunteers is not realistic.

Should crowdsourcing initiatives limit the potential population of contributors to those most likely to make valuable contributions? It depends on the nature of the initiative. Innocentive, an online community where companies can post problems they need solved, is theoretically open to anyone to contribute. However, the complex nature of the problems posted will, in themselves, filter the quality of responses to some degree.

By contrast, a crowdsourcing initiative for technical support may attract contributors whose confidence in offering solutions is not matched by their abilities. The possibility of incorrect solutions being offered is relatively high in such cases. Perhaps in this circumstance, some process for filtering of applicant contributors is appropriate to ensure the integrity of the initiative.

The dream of ‘free labour’ (or ‘free labor’ in U.S. English) envisaged by some businesses may turn out to be a double-edged sword, as a business wishing to leverage the contributions of the masses may have to minimise the difficulty of the challenge, which may have the undesired and paradoxical consequence of lowering the quality of contributions.

A third category of crowdsourcing is where ‘solutions’ are not offered in response to a technical challenge, but to an invitation to contribute visual design or other non-technical contribution. Obvious examples include the crowdsourced clothing enterprise Threadless.com. In this case, there is no need to raise barriers to entry, as the community will collectively vote on the contributors effort, based on their tastes rather than any specific knowledge base.

In all of the above scenarios, the idea of paying all contributors is clearly nonsensical. It is the successful contributors whose efforts should be rewarded. To achieve the objective of leveraging the knowledge of the masses, business must realise that to get the best answers, it is necessary to attract those who can give them, and these are the people who also best know the value of the knowledge they hold.

Customization Links for 17 January

January 17th, 2009

Following on from the previous post on personalized medicine, a less serious application of genetics: DNA art, as reported in the Pittsburg Live website. DNA 11, an Ottawa, Canada-based company, takes people’s DNA, obtained by a simple cotton swab wiped inside a cheek, and turns the genetic information into a glass-framed, 8-by-10-inch visual piece of art or large wall hanging.

Picture:  MyWayCereal.com

Picture: MyWayCereal.com


Although it markets itself as ‘hand crafted’ I thought this might be worth a mention: MyWayCereal.com allows customers to create their own breakfast cereal mix. The customer first select a cereal base, then adds their favorite all organic ingredients, from a range that includes fruit, nuts, seeds, as well as grains (all organic). Customers can also add a sweet treat to their mix. They can then put a name on their chosen mix before purchase. Delivery time is a few days (restricted to U.S. and Canada, so no possibility for Europeans like myself to try it out!)

State of personalized medicine in 2009

January 14th, 2009

I have found some interesting articles on personalized medicine around the web in recent weeks which, when taken collectively, provide a useful examination of current developments in this area.

An article in the Vancouver Sun, ‘One-size-fits-all no more‘ provides an interesting overview on the topic of personalized medicine, explaining the topic everyday language, and decoding some of the terminology used in this area.

Scott Duke Harris, writing in the Mercury News, includes personalized medicine as a ‘Tech trend to watch in 2009‘ and summarises some of the examples that have made the most progress towards widespread usage.

In addition to technological developments, the increasing affordability of current personalized medicine technologies such as genomic sequencing will advance their use in the healthcare market, which John Carroll describes in the Fierce Biotech blog.

Personalized medicine is frequently concerned with diagnosis – analyzing whether a particular existing treatment is compatible with an individual patient’s genetic makeup. The New York Times looked in detail at this area in a recent article titled ‘Patient’s DNA may be a Signal to Tailor Medication‘, focusing in particular on changes to the U.S. legislative environment to reflect advances in science. It also raises the question as to whether major drug companies will be enthusiastic about personalized medicine technologies that may reduce the sales of existing drugs, by identifying patients for whom they are likely to be ineffective.

It should be borne in mind that the current trends in personalized medicine are mostly concerned with the development of more effective diagnostic techniques, something which is evidenced by all the articles referenced here. It is likely to be many more years before personalized treatments, that combat diseases with unique solutions based on individual patient genetics, become a reality.

Dorling Kindersley Travel launch customized travel guides

January 12th, 2009

The Inventorspot website has a news item on the new customized travel guides being produced by Dorling Kindersley (DK) Travel.

The DK travel customized travel guide website

The DK travel customized travel guide website

They are similar in concept to Offbeat Guides, which were covered on this site recently.

The Inventorspot article considers the DK Travel customized travel guide to be a superior offering to the Offbeat Guide, although it should be pointed out that the Offbeat Guide is still in a ‘beta’ stage, to allow it to be evaluated by customers before launch, a method more commonly used with computer software.

Cincom enters blogging world to engage with customers

January 12th, 2009

Cincom, which provides software solutions for configuration of complex products (often called product configurators), has started two separate blogs to engage with its customer base.

The first of these blogs is called Complex Selling Made Effective, with articles written by contributors from Cincom, principally Louis Columbus and Dale Wolf of Cincom Manufacturing Business Solutions. While some companies use blogs as little more than a press release service, Complex Selling Made Effective is populated with genuinely interesting posts. While this blog is in existence since June 2008, I only became aware of it recently and am catching up on the posts to date.

The second, Product Configurator Blog, is a product blog for Cincom Acquire sales and product configurator, which highlights and discusses the technology options and features to speed up sales in a complex manufacturing setting. This blog is more commercial in nature and the content is somewhat comparable to ‘White Papers’ – documents written by IT companies to that analyse a particular business challenge in a quasi-academic fashion, but are ultimately aimed at selling the company’s products.

Following a number of consolidations over recent years, Cincom is one of a smaller group of independent software suppliers specialising in products for complex selling. The contributors to Complex Selling Made Effective have an opportunity to become ‘technology evangelists’ for their company, emulating the likes of blogger Robert Scoble, who was the public face of Microsoft to many in the technology community during his spell working for that company.

Local Motors joins trend for crowdsourcing car design

January 12th, 2009

Could 2009 be the year that crowdsourcing takes root in the area of car design? My last 2008 post here described how Caterham, a specialist British sports car maker, is crowdsourcing the design of its next car. In late December, an article in the Boston-based XConomy website described how Local Motors, a startup company in Wareham, MA, raised $4 million in funding to test the idea that “car design can be crowdsourced to web-based communities and that consumers will want $50,000 “mass-customized” vehicles built in small batches at a network of micro-factories”.

Company head Jay Rogers and his staff of nine have built a system that:

“so far is 50 percent Web 2.0 social community and 50 percent rapid-prototyping workshop. The first half of Rogers’ big idea is tospeed up the design process—and, in theory at least, tap directly into consumers’ own ideas about what they want from their next car—by staging online design competitions. Hobbyists and professionals alike are invited to join Local Motors’ online studio and submit their 2-D sketches and renderings for periodic contests focused on cars for different geographic areas. Community members vote on the designs, and the winners get not only cash prizes ($2,000 for first place, $550 for second, $300 for third) but a shot at having their design turned into a production vehicle. The company pays the final selectees $10,000 for the right to the production-bound designs.”

The company will then take the selected designs into full-scale, 3-D engineering plans, designed to use as many off-the-shelf parts as possible.

Many of the recent rounds of the design competition have asked participants for designs that are inspired by various locations within the U.S., for example the tagline for the current ‘Chicago’ competition is “Driven by Humanism, Gangster by Design”.

Local Motors Chicago competition poster

Local Motors Chicago competition poster

Local Motors wants to build a network of 50 small assembly plants around the United States, where engineers would essentially hand-craft vehicles, with help from the buyers themselves, at least in the beginning. The company will limit production to runs of between 1,000 and 2,000 cars per year per factory, miniscule figures by comparison with the mainstream auto industry. However, the company’s target market is not regular car buyers but rather those from the auto enthusiast sector, who may well be involved in motorsport or kit-car building.

In the XConomy article, Jay Rogers focuses on the ‘green’ credentials of the Local Motors concept, referring to the goal of making the cars lighter than mainstream equivalents, therefore improving fuel economy. From his experience of the Iraq war, he is also interested in reducing the U.S. dependency on imported oil.

Separately, he makes an interesting comment on the inability of large manufacturers to respond to changing consumer preferences:

“I looked at the supply chain and I saw that there are people who make great engines, great batteries, great lightweight materials—but the people who make cars can’t use them, because they’ve gotten stuck in their enormous apparatus.”

He notes that this will delay the large U.S. automakers in particular from responding to the fall in demand for SUV’s and other larger vehicles. I made similar observations in a post titled ‘Car Trouble‘ two years ago. This difficulty in responding to changing customer demand had been foreseen by many commentators in the automotive media. There is also a certain amount of overlap between some of the ideas in my Car Trouble – Part 2 post, and Local Motors strategy of using ‘off-the-shelf’ components wherever possible.

Local Motors is admirable for offering winning contributors to their crowdsourcing project rewards in cold, hard cash, compared with the ‘free labour‘ view held by some.

As the XConomy article notes, the history of the auto sector is littered with stories of companies that started promisingly but fizzled out after a few years.  However, many of those companies were trying to emulate the mainstream manufacturers in the way they organised themselves.  Because Local Motors is starting from a ‘blank page’ in terms of so many aspects, from design to supply chain, it may at least have a better chance of success than many of those other small manufacturers that came (and went) before.

Caterham to crowdsource design of its next car

November 14th, 2008

Caterham, the specialist British sports car manufacturer, has launched a crowdsourcing initiative for the design of its next model, in association with PerformancePR, an automotive public relations company.  The project, named Splitwheel, which is described as “a revolutionary online project to design and build a new performance car based on the collective decision-making of its members”.

Members will discuss, debate and collaborate on all aspects of the vehicle’s design through the Splitwheel.com website.  Key design decisions will be decided by a regular vote, covering everything from the chassis layout and engine choice to hundreds of more detailed decisions on the suspension, interior, body and all other aspects of the car. The project managers will provide users with in‐depth analysis on the key issues around the car.

The website will use a combination of forum discussion, a Wikipedia-style user-edited knowledge base and a comprehensive voting system to turn user input into a workable vehicle design.  Along with acting as a liaison with Caterham’s engineering team, Project Splitwheel will also provide guidance and input from other automotive suppliers and experts as required.

Caterham will work with Splitwheel members on translating our specification and designs into a real world prototype vehicle over the next 2-3 years. Providing that Project Splitwheel provides a realistic specification and business case for the car, Caterham will commence build of the prototype in 2010.

While some petrolheads may be dreaming of designing a rival to the Bugatti Veyron, the design to come out of this process must also be a viable, saleable product for the real world that Caterham can realise.  The most important factor is that the car must be enjoyable for an enthusiast to own and drive in its own right.

While the objective of the project is to put the completed design into full production, this will inevitably depend on many factors, including production and material costs, economic conditions and market demand.

The project is open to ordinary car enthusiasts, and not just trained engineers.  The Splitwheel website states that:

Whilst expert technical input will be welcomed and sometimes necessary, first and foremost we want to recruit ‘ordinary’ car enthusiasts. Anybody with a passion for cars is welcomed. Any technically complex issues will always be broken down and explained in plain English.

The Splitwheel.com website currently has explanations of the project and other related information, but the crowdsourcing element is not yet active. It is expected that the full site will be launched before the end of 2008 , with the project starting in earnest in the New Year.

Members who contribute a worthwhile idea or suggestion to the Project will have their efforts “recognised by the team”, although it is not yet specified what form this recognition will take.

For those who are unfamiliar with Caterham, it is a British sports car manufacturer that originally bought the rights to the Lotus Seven when the Lotus company discontinued that particular model. Caterham continued to develop the car, with a wide variety of engines used over the years. However, today’s Caterhams retain the distinctive ‘cigar-shaped’ bodywork of their Lotus forebear. The company’s products are generally highly rated by the motoring press. The Caterham is designed to be a lightweight, well-handling car, rather than a massively powerful one. Its agility and lack of weight means that it is often quicker on a track than many more powerful cars.

I recall a television documentary during the 1990′s which followed Caterham’s efforts to move away from the ‘cigar shape’ to a more modern design. The result of that process was the Caterham 21, which was not a commercial success. The 21 was expensive, but what really killed it off was the re-appearance of other lightweight sportscars such as the Lotus Elise, with which it could not compete.

In view of its past experiences, Caterham will probably be hoping that the Splitwheel project produces a design that is in line with the spirit of the existing Seven.

Gartner highlights mass customization and customer innovation in banking

November 9th, 2008

Business consultancy Gartner has issued a press release relating to a recent IT symposium which it hosted in Cannes, France.

Gartner claims that “Financial Institutions Must Focus on IT Innovation or Hibernate to Weather the Economic Downturn.” The press release quotes Alistair Newton, research vice president at Gartner, who makes a number of recommendations aimed at financial institutions. Two of the recommendations cite examples that may be of interest to readers of this site:

“Extreme but not complex innovation – Use technology to deliver a new level of personalisation for the customer. For example, one Spanish bank allows its customers to calculate exactly how much the bank profits from their custom and enables them to donate a portion of those profits to a designated charity.”

While the option to donate a share of the profit to charity is admirable, this example is interesting for a different reason – it introduces a measure of personalized transparency to the relationship between the bank and the customer. There is still a dependency on the bank to be truthful in relation to the profit figure which it derives from the customer, but this might trigger an expectation among bank customers for of a higher level of information on how profitable they are to the bank.

“Treat customers as innovators via social networks – Customers can answer most of what organisations want to know about them, whether it’s where they shop, how they feel and what and when they want to purchase. Some new financial services entrants such as the social networking start-ups, are trying to leverage customers more effectively using this technology and customers’ increasing acceptance and use of it. The next innovation step will be to bridge the gap between pure social networks and financial social networks (FSNs). FSNs are leveraging social networks to initiate a new form of financial transaction, allowing members to not only share information but to actually start lending and borrowing to each other, cutting out the middle man – in this case the bank.”

It should be remembered that customers of every bank already lend to and borrow from one another – one customer’s deposit savings are provided to another customer in the form of a loan – but this proposal suggests that the bank might become a simply an intermediary between the parties, which implies that the bank itself would not be a contracting party. Whether any bank would be willing to take this step is a subject for debate!

David Sifry announces beta of personalized travel guide

November 9th, 2008

David Sifry, the founder and former CEO of Technorati, has announced a first public beta (test version) for a new personalized travel guide service called Offbeat Guides.

Offbeat Guides create personalized, up-to-date travel guides that cover over 30,000 travel destinations, using a combination of search technology and curation by both amateur and professional travel experts.  The Offbeat Guides website states that their guides scour the web to find the best, most up-to-date information about each destination.  Customers can personalize the information they want, based on their travel dates, preferences, and destination.  The guides come with local maps, festivals and events going on during the customer’s period of visiting, exchange rates, key phrases in the city’s language, weather forecasts and other relevant information.

The key selling point of Offbeat Guides is that standard guidebooks are often 12 to 18 months out of date as soon as they are available on bookshelves.  Offbeat Guides claims that its content is the most up-to-date because they have an enormous technology base of spiders and crawlers that find the best information out on the internet, and combine it with information from established authors and thousands of locals who are always updating the information about where they live.

Offbeat Guides is also a strong believer in Creative Commons, in which users can share, create and build information that is available for mixing and remixing into unique new applications. As well as Creative Commons licensed information, it also use proprietary content and professional authors, which it says makes for accurate and authoritative information in our guides. The customer can get their guide in electronic format for printing at home, or Offbeat Guides can create and ship a printed guide before the time of the customer’s trip, with all the latest information packed inside.

According to David Sifry, the company is run by obsessive technologists who happen to travel a lot, rather than being drawn from the travel industry. In order to create a personalized travel guide, they ask the customer just five questions:

  • Where are you going?
    When will you be there? – So that they can include information about local festivals, events, club meetings, sports teams, concerts, and other timely information
    Where are you coming from? – With this information, Offbeat Guides will give the customer contextual information, like timezone differences, embassies and consulates for their home country, language guides, exchange rates, electrical adapters needed, and so on.
    Where are you staying? – Offbeat Guides uses this to localize the maps that go into the personalized guide, and put the customer’s hotel right at the centre of things.
    The Traveler’s Name: – They can put the customer’s name ron the book cover, and this can be used for gift purposes.

The website indicates that the pdf version (for downloading and printing at home) of an Offbeat Guide costs US$9.95, and the print edition costs US$24.95 plus packaging and delivery.

In his blog post, David Sifry notes:

You get full control over your guide – so if you already know where you’re staying, you can click to deselect all of the information about hotels, for example. You can add customized chapters and fill them with information that you gather from your friends, or from around the internet.

This reflects an interesting point – that mass customization of products can also refer to the omission of elements that are not needed by the customer.  Mass customization is often described only in the context of a customer adding features or elements to a basic product.  However, there may also be the potential to develop opportunities in the area of allowing customers to omit elements or features from even the basic specification of a product, if these are not needed by the customer.  However, in the case of Offbeat Guides, it does not appear that omitting a chapter results in a lower price.

The personalization of information, whether on travel or any other topic, is normally viewed only in the context of delivery over the web.  If the Offbeat Guides proposal is successful, it will possibly generate a new level of interest in personalized book publishing.  Personalization in this context refers to the content of the book, rather than the more cosmetic types of personalization (such as putting someone’s name on the cover or at various places in the content).

I think that the Offbeat Guides idea could become a success, as there is still a lot to be said for a printed travel guide that is not dependent on an internet connection, or a suitable power supply to recharge a PDA.  Printed documents can be carried around a city stuffed in a jacket or backpack, do not need batteries, can be generally thrown about, and will still work afterwards.

One critical issue for Offbeat Guides is delivery times for printed versions – the company will need to carefully analyse actual delivery times, rather than the claimed delivery times of the various providers.  This will ensure that customers are correctly informed as to whether there is sufficient time to deliver a printed version of their Offbeat Guide before their planned departure date.  Getting this right could prevent a great deal of hassle for the company from disgruntled future customers.  The worst thing for the company would be having to deal with irate customers who do not receive their personalized printed travel guide on time.  Perhaps delivery times, though outside the direct control of Offbeat Guides, could form a useful part of the beta testing.

Delcam launches tribrid modelling; Geomagic secures €8m

November 3rd, 2008

Two design software companies this week had significant announcements. Delcam, based in the UK, will later this year launch a new version of its CopyCAD reverse engineering package. CopyCAD Pro will be the first product development system to offer “Tribrid Modelling”, by adding triangle modelling to the combination of surface and solid modelling that is currently offered in many existing CAD packages as “hybrid modelling”. Delcam says that the extended range of functionality is ideal for the re-engineering of existing products into improved or bespoke designs.

According to Delcam’s CAD Product Marketing Manager, Chris Lawrie, “Tribrid Modelling offers a better way of working for all companies developing new variants from existing designs, especially those making products that need to be personalised for a particular customer. The combination of solid modelling, surface modelling and triangle modelling provides a unique design system for these companies. Having all the different modelling techniques in a single package reduces the need to transfer data between multiple programs and so streamlines the whole product development process.”

Delcam has developed this approach through the integration of its PowerSHAPE surface and solid modelling functionality with the reverse engineering and triangle modelling options that were in earlier versions of CopyCAD. This means that designers can move data captured with reverse engineering into the design environment more easily and so incorporate additional features into any reverse-engineered design more quickly. The new combination software also incorporates a wide range of enhancements to many of the key operations.

Delcam has developed this unique design approach through the integration of its PowerSHAPE surface and solid modelling functionality with the reverse engineering and triangle modelling options that were in earlier versions of CopyCAD. This means that designers can move data captured with reverse engineering into the design environment more easily and so incorporate additional features into any reverse-engineered design more quickly. However, the new combination is not just a simple bolting together of existing functionality. It incorporates a wide range of enhancements to many of the key operations.

For example, major improvements have been made to the sculpting and model repair tools previously available in CopyCAD to edit triangle files. These tools allow high-quality models to be produced from poor quality reverse engineering data, or from damaged or defective physical components. For example, uneven surfaces can be smoothed out, gaps in the data can be filled and extra points can be added in areas where only sparse data has been collected.

Also, the availability of functionality from PowerSHAPE in CopyCAD Pro has enabled easier, faster and more accurate creation of CAD surfaces from triangle data. The user still retains total control over the way the complete data set is divided into the component features and surfaces. However, each area can now be converted into CAD data by generating a network of curves and then projecting it onto the mesh of triangles. A single surface is generated within the complete set of curves using the Smart Surfacing functionality from PowerSHAPE. This automatically analyses the curves and determines to most appropriate way to create the surface.

Analysis tools are available in Copy CAD Pro to display the differences between the triangle mesh and the resulting surface. This might show, for example, that a closer spacing between the curves would be needed in some areas of the model to keep the surfaces within the required tolerance.

Delcam says that the other key benefit of the integration into CopyCAD Pro of modelling options from PowerSHAPE is the ability to create “perfect” geometry, in areas where any reverse engineering system would give only approximate results. For example, the design might include one extruded surface, which could only be described by a series of individual surfaces in traditional reverse-engineering software. With the added modelling tools, it is easy in CopyCAD Pro to reproduce the original design intent, by replacing the required area with a single surface. Similarly, a reverse-engineered fillet area can be replaced with a consistent, smooth fillet, rather than existing as a set of complex, free-form patches that may have varying radii.

Tribrid Modelling also allows Boolean operations to be carried out between triangle models and either surfaces or solids. For many years, PowerSHAPE has been one of very few CAD systems able to perform Boolean operations between solids and surfaces. The ability to perform similar addition, subtraction and merge operations with triangles as well will make CopyCAD Pro even more flexible.

There are many examples where a combination of different techniques is needed to create a complete design. A typical example would be in the plastics industry, where initial hand-modelled prototypes are often produced in solid material. Reverse engineering from such models will only produce the external surfaces of the component. However, by using CopyCAD Pro, these surfaces can be offset by the material thickness to generate the internal surfaces. Extra geometric features, such as reinforcing ribs and bosses for fixing, can then be added with the extra solid modelling tools from PowerSHAPE to complete the design. The finished model can then be subtracted from a solid block to give the core and cavity shapes needed to mould the product.

Delcam claims that its introduction of Tribrid Modelling provides the optimum software solution for the mass customisation of designs. It notes that consumers are increasingly moving away from mass-produced products. This can be either because they want designs that are more individual or because they want an element of bespoke design, for example, for medical reasons or for increased comfort. This can only be achieved by incorporating reverse engineering alongside computer-based design methods.

Tribrid Modelling in CopyCAD Pro allows users to build up CAD models quickly and easily with data from different sources. It makes it easy to design the main outline of a product with CAD but to use hand models for complex details or decoration, or to capture specific data from a customer or patient. The extra data required can then be collected with a scanning device and combined with the main CAD model in the computer.

A similar approach can be taken when developing “new” parts that are, in fact, variations on existing components that were developed without CAD data. It is often quicker to digitise the existing part and limit the CAD work to the desired modifications, instead of completely recreating the whole part with CAD. This approach is particularly useful for companies, for example those in the ceramics industry, which update historic designs into modern reproductions.

Meanwhile, Geomagic, which provides software for digital shape sampling and processing (DSSP), has received an $8 million investment from Valhalla Partners. The funds will be used to develop innovative products and software platforms in engineering and medical markets, accelerate growth rates, and build a scalable business infrastructure.

Since its inception in 1996, Geomagic, based in North Carolina, has developed a range of award-winning products for DSSP, which describes the process of digitally capturing physical objects and automatically creating accurate 3D models for downstream design, analysis and inspection. Current Geomagic products include:

Version 10 of Geomagic Studio (for digital reconstruction of complex physical objects) and Geomagic Qualify (which enables fast, 3D graphical comparisons between CAD models and as-built parts for first-article inspection, inline or shop-floor inspection, trend analysis, and in-depth assessment), released earlier this year, were the most successful new product launches in the company’s history, coming at a time when DSSP is being acknowledged as a key to greater productivity and cost savings. Geomagic quotes a recent study by the Aberdeen Group stated that best-in-class companies are 2.7 times more likely to use DSSP in design and inspection than are less-successful companies.

Other software products in the Geomagic range include Geomagic Fashion for quickly extracting design intent of physical objects and creating CAD-ready surfaces for mechanical design; Geomagic Blade, the first inspection tool based on unique requirements from leading turbine-machinery companies for automatic dimensioning of turbine blades; Geomagic Review, free software for inspection analysis and collaboration; and Geomagic Piano, a dental CAD/CAM software platform that can be customized for dental equipment manufacturers.

“The support of Valhalla Partners is another validation of our technology and the growing acceptance of the DSSP market category,” said Ping Fu, Geomagic president and CEO. “We think the time is right to use our dominance in the early adopter market as a springboard into broader professional markets.”

Customization of clothing to move beyond appearance

November 3rd, 2008

An article in the website of the Toronto Star notes that a “futuristic fusion of fashion and technology is becoming more common as clothing designers are increasingly incorporating electronics into their garments.”

It quotes Jane McCann, director of Smart Clothes and Wearable Technology at the University of Wales, who predicts that, in the next 10 years, clothes will have all kinds of functionality.

“A garment might have devices on it to help you find your way somewhere, or to tell you how fit you are. It could tell you where someone is to help you meet them, or tell you what’s on at a museum or club.”

Other new developments referred to include the use of thermochromic inks, that change colour when you touch or breathe on them, and a shape-memory alloy called Nitinol, produced by Montreal’s XS Labs, that can alter the shape of clothes while they are being worn.