As demand for more tailored products grows, industrial product manufacturers face the challenge of keeping pace. One solution could lie in developing mass-customization capabilities facilitated by 3D printing. But key to effectively using these capabilities lies in understanding how they might fit into company operations.
The appeal of mass-customization, the mass-production of individually customized goods and services, lies in its potential to help manufacturers reduce costs and gain a competitive advantage in this emerging market. The use of 3D printing, a technology that is moving toward broad industrial use, is becoming a key aid to customizing products on a large scale. Some major companies already are incorporating it in their design processes. Ford Motor Co., for instance, accelerated the prototyping of its testable prototype metal parts, ranging from brake rotors to transmission cases, using 3D printers.
Manufacturers of highly configurable products could benefit from similar strategies because of the rapidly evolving production benefits of 3D printing technology and mass-customization. Moreover, the disruptive potential of such technologies could radically change the competitive landscape in favor of those that adopt them. Integrating 3D printing into manufacturing processes could reduce production material costs by as much as 90 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It also could help manufacturers better respond to on-demand production and improve their long-tail product operations.
Although the general rule has been that mass-produced items are much cheaper when made in large quantities, the trend toward more customized production will impact the mass-production model, where standardization of items has been an adequate and preferred trait. Mass-customization might not replace mass-production anytime soon, but to sustain a strong competitive position, manufacturers should be prepared to incorporate elements of 3D printing into their processes.
There are four areas where industrial product manufacturers should consider integrating mass-customization and 3D printing technologies:
Co-creation of product design. Though mass-customization will be increasingly critical to producing tailored items, so will the creative process needed to optimize their design. The digital platform on which 3D printing is based can enable multiple individuals—from an organization’s product engineers and other employees to customers and industry outsiders—to contribute to design ideas, resulting in more differentiated, better-designed products. This concept, called co-creation, will help companies become more agile and flexible in meeting the product needs of a rapidly changing market.
Prototyping. In addition to co-creation of design, companies should be prepared to make incremental modifications to pre-defined sets of product attributes and parameters in response to customized product demand. Three-dimensional printing moves design closer to prototyping, and thus new product concepts can be created in less time than traditional methods, which required sending designs to external prototyping firms. The use of 3D printing software to visualize, analyze, test and validate these products can save significant time and costs, while helping to ensure their production suitability. Software engineers who specialize in the application of 3D printing technology will play a critical role.
The supply chain. The impact of 3D printing will be felt in the supply chain because on-demand part creation means some parts will no longer be shipped. Businesses will need to develop a digital inventory management system for warehousing 3D digital files to support their inventory and mass-customization capabilities. Technology consulting firms like Accenture can offer a pipeline for 3D file management, business system integration, and support of digital file creation. Creating customized tools for the repair and enhancement of existing customization equipment also will be needed.
Market delivery. As 3D printing and mass-customization processes advance, manufacturers will be able to respond more quickly to demand for the increasing variety of customized products, from car shifter knobs and kitchen drawer handles to other spare parts, as well as create new specialized products for the market. Accelerating speed-to-market not only will help competitively, but spur growth.
Meeting the challenge
Whether small specialty shops or large multinational producers, companies will be challenged by how best to integrate mass-customization. Industrial manufacturers that can meet the challenge, helped by building 3D capabilities into their enterprises, will enhance their chances of succeeding in this growing market.
>> James Robbins, firstname.lastname@example.org, is Accenture’s automotive industry and industrial equipment industry North American managing director. Sunny Webb, email@example.com, is a manager with Accenture Technology Labs in Digital Experience.