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How do you select a product type that might perform well as a customisable, manufactured on-demand product?

How do you select a product type that might perform well as a customisable, manufactured on-demand product?

One of the key questions you should be considering if you are considering offering a customisable product or service are:

  1. What is the market for my custom offering?
  2. Is this market large enough to sustain the company? 

Sound simple right, find the existing market for the for the product type that you wish to customise and assume you can capture a similar slice of the pie and if it’s big enough proceed.

The reality of finding a market for a custom product is somewhat difficult, it is a mistake to think that offering customisation on top of an existing successful product type is sufficient. In many cases customisation is not sufficiently appealing to enough of the market to justify proceeding. 

Often a start-up or firm embarking on customisation actually find that those who consume the product are a small subset of the market they anticipated capturing, and sadly often that the subset is not sufficiently large enough to justify their continued engagement. Interestingly they also often find that these customers are already customisers of the product type they offer, and were so long before the company offered their service. 

These customers may be categorised as “lead users”, users who are innovating on a product that does not fully serve their needs (von Hippel). According to von Hippel lead users may be categorised as those who 

“(1) They are at the leading edge of an important market trend(s) and so are currently experiencing needs that will later be experienced by many users in that market. (2) They anticipate relatively high benefits to from obtaining a solution to their needs, and so may innovate.”

Such user innovation activities has historically been instrumental in bringing about development in sports equipment and highly specialised tools where the users are experts and their needs have not been fully served by the existing iteration of the product.

With this in mind, how does an organisation working towards customisation as an offering determine if their product might capture a proportion of a market sufficiently large enough to justify their endeavour? 

That is a long and complicated process of research and testing more of which I will cover in a later post but one key strategy is to start identifying areas in which consumers have varying needs that is - heterogenious needs. Wide ranging needs combined with prevalence of user modification  can be indicative of an item likely to perform well if provided under customisable and on-demand services. 

Don't forget though that mass production has been very successful in satisfying the needs of the majority, it does so in a way deemed 'good enough', at comfortable price points, it ships fast, you can inspect it, understand it's brand values and quality indicators. We understand mass produced products, less so customisation.

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You bought it, you own it? Right?

You bought it, you own it? Right?

‘If you can’t open it you don’t own it’ (Jalopy) is an extract from the Maker’s Bill of Rights in critique lack of access, control and product ownership. Product ownership might once have been understood to include the right to fair use, to repair, to transport and move and to perhaps eventually resell, recycle or gift the product that you paid for, right?  Recently however we find a growing list of controls and licences that inhibit the extent of your rights as a product owner. 

I'm no longer talking about your music or films, instead i'm talking about your car, your fridge and your phone. Of course we’ve already seen this battle over ownership and copying in the digital sphere but Digital Rights Management (DRM), and similarly IMO problematic legislation in the digital sphere are making their way into physical products in new and troubling ways. In part due to servitisation but also to serve the lifetime value (ie money extracted from customers over time) aims of the company producing the product.

To take the critique beyond your right to look under the hood - if you can’t move it, is it really yours? Consider the Mori Seiki NV5000 A/40 CNC Mill which contains a GPS and a gyro sensor package which shuts down the machine if it is moves and will not allow a restart until it receives an unlock code from the manufacturers of the machine. This lock in to manufacturer services is pragmatic for the business aims of the machine manufacturer but perhaps less so for the owner of the machine. (Via Cory Doctorow) Equally miss a payment on your financed car and find it disabled, rendered unusable remotely - a tactic employed by sub prime lenders in the US.  New York Times

Similarly if you can’t repair it or choose the best third party to repair it, do you actually own it? Ford recently tried to shut down an independent repair tool company Autel citing copyright infringement. Autel are a manufacturer of third-party diagnostics tools automobiles, and they are being sued for creating a diagnostic tool that includes a list of Ford car parts and their specifications. EFF

Interestingly the underlying difficulty with repair (in the US at least) can be attributed to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which prohibits bypassing or circumventing ‘technological protection measures.’ Where most of the control measures in the aforementioned restrictions are mediated or tracked by digital technologies this predominantly digital act becomes enforceable in physical products.

None of these ‘lock-ins’ or protections against bypassing or circumvention are new of course, with phones and laptops if you open the case you void your warranty with printers if you use non approved cartridges you void your warranty but the extent and type of use in products are expanding.

Where will this take us? A future where repairing, customising or moving a product you own isn't possible or will land you in court is not a future I look forward to. Nor is  a future where my car stops working because the manufacture goes bust and the repair and diagnostic tools are discontinued and locked behind copyright.  Hacking, modding and repairing products are central to innovation, reuse and repair are important for environmental reasons and competition between manufacturers and third party services is healthy in our capitalist society.

Of course the benefits of a service economy are not to be forgotten, equally the notion of ownership of products is also under change in thanks to the sharing economy. I'll talk about those more in a later post but protecting ones ability to repair, reuse, tinker and use is important. Thankfully orgs like the EFF are working on this and we see some support for the Right to Repair act 2009 but such protections need to extend far beyond the car industry.  

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Maeemo & nordic wonka magic.

My doctoral thesis speaks of service and experience design associated with co-creative manufacturing models.  Refering to and referencing the magic and spectacle found in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory I've been probing the value of the co-creative process and the subsequent presentation of the manufacturing experience in the consumer experience in the course of my research. 

So my recent visit to Maeemo, Oslo gave me much food for thought. Here we experienced >20 courses of the most magically presented nordic food. Process innovation, sourcing, localism and narrative played a large part of the experience alongside the playful and spectacular presentation.  Words are not quite sufficient so I leave you with some photos. 

 

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London to Hong Kong

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London to Hong Kong

After two wonderful years in London with Makielab I packed my bags in February of this year and moved to Hong Kong (for 6 Months-ish) to complete my PhD and to work with a toy and games team thinking about integrating 3D printing into their service offering. More on this soon.

London has been a kind old city where I've had the best of times, it is a home I won't ever forget and a home I may soon come back to. Makielab are as ever, wonderful - if you don't know what they are up to have a look here

And so, I found myself wandering through Hong Kong for a week in late February wondering what Hong Kong held for me. I opted to live in Kowloon - a place often described by locals as the 'dark side', where I find myself living just off one of the busiest night markets - Tung Choi Street, near the Bird Market on the edges of Boundary Street. 

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and the day to day bustle in Kowloon certainly helps remind you of this. It's a city that doesn't stop, awake at 3am the food and wet markets rouse the city and it keeps on going, through commuter hours, school runs, evening dinner and night markets, the bars close just as the wet markets open once more.

It's a city of contradictions and chaos and I find myself part of an equally bustling start-up 'scene' thinking about it means to establish a company in Asia, to work globally and hire locally. With side trips to Japan and China, visits with haxlr8r, PCH Int, Seeed Studio, Fab Cafe Tokyo and Tencent amongst others my projects are up and running. 

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3D printing in Fiction

My first ventures into what might be described as social science fiction were in 2002/3 with Aldous Huxley and a Brave New World which depicted a society operating on the principles of mass production and pavlovian conditioning. It touched upon my interests  in critiques and depictions of alternative political, economic and social orders. Science fiction presents itself to me as a mechanism by which alternative worlds and societies, interactions and values can be discussed and critiqued.

Divine Endurance by Gwyneth Jones for example, presents a post-apocalyptic setting, where a cat named Divine Endurance and a child named Chosen among the beautiful (Cho) exist in a profoundly matriarchal world makes for an interesting consideration of gender constructs and roles.

So, the collection presented in the slide deck was a result of some pondering of the role of fiction in anticipating, shaping and critiquing the future of manufacturing technologies, in this case post-industrial manufacture.

I have spent time thinking about the possibilities of an alternative production system, the implications for consumption, economics and society. I looked to fiction, as others do to provoke wider thoughts on as yet unconsidered implications from which I would subsequently construct a grounded academic critique.

Which brought me back to thinking about science fiction as design fiction;

 “[T]he theory and practice behind conflating design, ‘building things that exist’, with fiction, ‘making up shit that doesn’t exist’. Design-fiction–either through its own limited fictional proposition or on the back of pre-existing works of fiction–links a fictional narrative regarding a proposed object, with some image, shadow, ghost, dream, or otherwise hologrammically-real design of that object.” (Adam Rothstein)

Much like critical design or speculative design, science fiction if we are to understand it as design fiction can serve as a mechanism of inspiring design and development of technologies but perhaps more importantly in provoking conversations about the implications of technology as embedded in wider socio-economic constructs, but do we use it as such?

Some academics and technologists do obviously, but the impact and value of this is ultimately undermined by the market and pursuit of profit and power. Interestingly, it perhaps isn't so much about how the technologist and the academic perceives and utilises science fiction, because somewhere in the wider subconscious there is an instinctual referral to science fiction when a new (to public) technology emerges and perhaps feels uncomfortable,  Siri and Skynet for example. Though often accessible, these reference points are not often widely shared (show me the real Sci-fi consumption statistics if you wish to argue this point). 

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