On-Demand Manufacturing and Personalization

On-demand manufacturing and “open source” projects enabled by the Internet, combined with other fascinating technological advances, will change how all of us buy, sell and consume goods. They have the collective potential to allow people around the world to specify every imaginable attribute of any product they want, when they want it. And it will affect your business sooner than you might think—because it’s already happening.


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The Internet has blown the doors off this concept, and there are several examples on and off line to be found:

• Starbucks

On-demand, as-you-like-it, personalized coffee, made on the spot, and people line up
all over the world to pay $3.00 for it.

• Build-A-Bear

People used to come to a store and pick out a teddy bear that someone had already made, without ever meeting them. Build-A-Bear lets people come into a store, personalize the looks, feel, color and clothes of the bear, and pay sometimes nearly $100.00 for the privilege of stuffing it themselves (and eliminating the need for labor to do it).

• Threadless.com

Through this Web site, people submit designs for t-shirts. The community votes for the designs they like best and say they’ll buy. Once a design gets enough votes, the shirt is manufactured and—voila!—it sells. Call it demand and supply.

By now, you may be thinking that I’m not serious. T-shirts, coffee and teddy bears? But apply this concept to how cars are made and sold today. A company decides what a car should look like—what color it is, what adornments it has—and sends it out the door to be sold (or not) based on market research. Now imagine an on-demand model where a customer comes to an automotive design and assembly center where they can personalize their car any way they want and have it assembled from inventory and emerging manufacturing processes.

3-D printing is emerging as a viable, realistic technology. It allows anyone with a machine to “print” layers of materials on top of one another, creating a form. Companies like Ex One have pioneered the concept into a reality that will lead to a “printing machine” in every home. Again, imagine a consumer going online to Amazon.com, ordering a CAD or design file, stopping at Home Depot for a “materials pack,” driving home and “printing” a coffee maker. Or a bearing. Or a shock absorber.

What would these shifts do to your business? How would nodes in the supply chain be affected—distribution, sales, purchasing, design? On-demand and personalization models will continue to permeate the marketplace, and manufacturers will have to respond to these shifts.