Mass Customisation

From: Ben Halford (
Date: Mon Jan 07 2002 - 17:23:12 EET

Technological and market maturity aside, perhaps one key element that will
ultimately limit mass customisation is product liability. True
customisation is bound to impact on function even if the users / customers
interest is purely form driven i.e. fashion. Testing of one-off products
which may vary from the core design (and which might have new &
unpredictable interactions) would be essential. Likewise, present day
design philosophies which integrate ‘function’ elements (such as crash
worthiness or pedestrian safety) into superficially ‘form only’ components
would have to be re-worked. Even if Moore’s Law hold’s true and someone
actually manages to fully automate FEA then cheap / quick computing may
allow validation but I suspect we are talking decades rather than years
before this may happen.

Take the case of moulded shoe inserts. If the rp-ml was a list for
professional or up and coming athletes for example, would any of us really
risk an untested in-sole which may put us out of action for months and ruin
our million dollar incomes. I can imagine the same concerns applying
equally to school / university sports departments and senior citizens alike.
Imagine the class action if your generic design rules are found to have
missed an as yet unknown but crucial effect and suddenly people’s foot
arches start collapsing. Just look at the prosthetics industry, which works
with designs no more revolutionary than the ball joint and huge R&D budgets,
yet 1000’s have been failing prematurely forcing huge multi-nationals into
protective bankruptcy.

Do these considerations then permanently limit mass customisation to
non-safety critical 'primitive' objects? In the long run I'm not sure, but
at the moment and for the average consumer I think yes. I have always
wondered how RP generated toys as a concept got round this one ?. A ‘sign
your away life’ style disclaimer would limit applications severely in the
end. For those of us working in art / design / development / manufacturing
perhaps what we actually want, and to some extent have (ongoing system &
material development aside), is Mass Iteration which enables us to rapidly
assess performance (options / envelopes) and use our professional knowledge
to customise within known limits in a world where quantitive data is still
the ultimate proof.

Curiously, the companies concerned may take a view that in order to protect
their brands (in which they have invested huge sums creating) they may not
even wish to offer true mass customisation anyway. Lets face it, we've all
seen some quite ‘interesting’ (ok, horrific) aftermarket accessories for
cars and phones which would, and surely do, make manufactures turn green.
If I understand the story correctly, Nike ran into this very problem when
customers tried to request anti-Nike text on it’s configurable shoes. Who
knows what will happen, humans are ultimately strange creatures. My brother
’s teenage daughter spends hours just perfecting the ‘same’ look as her
friends. Even in this early adopter group, being different can be the last
thing on anyone’s mind…………

Ben Halford

For more information about the rp-ml, see

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