User manufacturing as an alternative model to mass customization – and how this can become the next big trend of user-driven value creation
User manufacturing is an alternative (or supplemental) idea to mass customization, building on the notion that (some!) users are able not only to configure a good within the given solution space of a manufacturer, but also (at least partly) to develop such a solution space by their own. And then transfer their individual creations in a product.
Consider a PC: Most of us are now used to the idea to mass-customize a PC using an online configuration toolkit as, e.g., Dell offers it. Here you can just select what the manufacturer has already provided. Indeed, a main task of a configuration toolkit is to exactly ensure that a custom configuration meets the pre-developed manufacturing specs and design of the producer.
But there are also some more extreme users that really build their own, very custom PCs. They do not just configure what a manufacturer has done, but really craft very individual PCs (see the projects at pimprig.com to see what I mean). In this industry, the actual manufacturing is not too difficult, as PC architectures are modular and build to be interchangeable. But you still need some skills and dedications to do so.
Here now the idea of user manufacturing starts: I have included this within the last year or so frequently in my talks and lectures, but have not blogged too much about it yet. But this posting is the start of a series of articles to formulate this idea better:
User manufacturing (perhaps there is a better term?) is a business model were users (customers) are becoming not only co-designers, but also manufacturers, using an infrastructure provided by some specialized companies.
[Update] User manufacturing is enabled by two main technologies:
(1) Easy-to-operate design software that allows users to transfer their ideas into a design without much experience in how to operate a CAD software. eMachineshop's software is a good example for this (see below). Eric von Hippel called this tools "toolkits for user innovation": Think of mass customization configurators with a much broader solution space.
(2) Easy-to-access flexible manufacturing technology. New manufacturing technologies, first of all rapid manufacturing (e.g., laser sintering or 3D printing) enable users to transfer their ideas into concrete objects -- even of they are no pure digital products. Laser printers made publishing possible for anyone (combined with DTP software to design the stuff). Similarly, future manufacturing technology will make the manufacturing of physical goods possible for everyone.
Well, perhaps not everyone but everyone interested and involved enough with the product to invest the time in the design and manufacturing. At the beginning, user manufacturers will show lead user characteristics, i.e. users that really are ahead of a trend with regard to an application and who really hope to benefit from getting a specific product design. With a continuous improvement of tools and manufaturers, however, user manufacturing will turn mainstream.
This also allows (expert) users to set up an instant company that designs, makes and globally sells physical products could become almost as easy as starting a blog or creating an eBay store — and the repercussions would really change the way we still think about manufacturing today.
In such a world, "user-generated content" would not solely refer to media (blogs, citizen reporters, YouTube movies etc.) but to just about anything: user-generated jeans, user-generated sports cars, user-generated candy bars.
In the world of printed goods, user manufacturing is pretty much established: Companies like Lulu.com enable everyone to become their own publisher and provide publishing and fulfillment infrastructure that up to a few years was only of the hand of a few specialized, huge publishing houses.
eMachineshop.com is a great venture that provides full-scale manufacturing capacity to everyone. Over the internet, users can here access the entire infrastructure that before was only available for "real" manufacturwrs, or demanded complicated and transaction-cost intensive search process for local job shops. But with a very flexible toolkit at eMaschineShop, users now can design their own components and place them on diverse manufacturing outlets.
A similar idea has Big Blue Saw. The company was founded by Simon Arthur, who, as a hobby and later job, build fighting robots for Battlebots, the Robot Fighting League and other robotic sporting events. Doing this, he thought about ways to make it easier for inventors, artists, and hobbyists to create anything using modern machining technology. Big Blue Saw is the result. Its customers can upload their designs to their website. We then make these designs come to life in metal and plastic through the use of advanced robotic machining technology like waterjet cutters.
These companies are doing something really new: They provide technology that before demanded high investments and operating skills not to everyone. Well, everyone that really knows to design and assemble.
To increase the potential of user manufacturing, some other companies come in. They offer not only manufacturing, but also some supporting services. And actually provide a product, but not only components. Consider Crowdspirit. This company tries to provide everyone the capability to become the make of next ipod. Their focus is electronic manufacturing. Springwise recently reported about this idea :
What blogs, citizen journalism and YouTube have done for media, CrowdSpirit hopes to do for product development. ... How it works: Inventors submit ideas for innovative new products and contributors submit problems for inventors to work on. Members vote, define a product's specifications, and can invest money to finance development. After a first prototype has been created, selected members test and help fine-tune in cooperation with manufacturers. Once the stage of product development has been completed, contributors continue to be involved, for example by acting as a product's ambassador and promoting it to retailers, or by providing product support, like translating instruction manuals.
CrowdSpirit's primary focal point is electronics with a market price below USD 190. If all goes well, this will be followed by more expensive electronics, and other sectors as the concept develops. A selection of inventions will be launched in parallel, so that the community can work on several projects at the same time.
And now Amazon:
In an interesting article (thanks to MIT colleague Ethan Mollik for this link!), USA Today technology reporter Kevin Maney places the known activities of Amazon to let others use their infrastructure in the new light of user manufacturing:
"Point, click, make a product to sell to the world ... That's the future Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos hopes to set in motion with the company's new direction. If you tease out Bezos' plan, you get to a point where a high school cheerleader sitting at home with a laptop could theoretically harness computing power, design capabilities, manufacturing and distribution from around the world, and make and market a cute little pink hot rod that would compete against General Motors.
... You can rent space on Amazon's computers to run a business, or rent out its transaction capabilities to sell things and collect money, or rent pieces of its warehouses and distribution system to store and ship items — or all of the above. So, with almost no start-up costs, anyone anywhere could become a retailer. It's not just contracting with Amazon to sell your stuff, the way Target does. It's leasing pieces of Amazon to create something totally unrelated to Amazon. ...
What's new about Amazon is the leap to physical products. This might be one of those evolutionary milestones, like when the first fish crawled up on land, or Jimi Hendrix discovered feedback on his electric guitar and altered the path of rock music.
Amazon's platform will be the first to include physical distribution. "You could notify us to expect inventory from you, tell us when to pick it (from warehouse shelves), and we'll send it to any address," Bezos says. "We've spent 12 years getting good at these things, so why should somebody else have to start from scratch?"
Bezos' idea cracks open an intriguing can of worms. Why shouldn't an established manufacturer do the same, leasing out factory space and industrial design teams and its expertise the same way? Sure, there are limitations. Factories aren't as flexible as warehouses or data centers, which can handle business from just about any industry. So a manufacturer's markets would be narrower. ...
Maybe this trend would not be such bad news for GM. It has excess capacity and nearly 100 years of manufacturing expertise. If it created a carmaking platform, GM could enable the creation of dozens of new niche-market car companies, all using GM to make and distribute their designs."
As Kevin Maney observes, this model is not far afield from today's contract manufacturers in Asia, which make batches of cellphones or toys or shoes on demand for Western brands. User manufacturing would transfer this model to everyone in much smaller batches, using rapid manufacturing technologies and easy, but flexible design tools.
Just imagine what would be possible if Amazon would add to its shared online-selling and distribution capabilities some physical manufacturing capacity as, e.g., offered by e-machineshop (they do this already in the context of book printing with print-on-demand). Then we all could design, click and manufacture a product to sell to the world. Welcome to the world of user manufacturing.
- The Elite Vintners wine customization toolkit can be interoreted in this way: This is not a real configurator (as much too complex), but more the provision of the infrastructure of a professional vinery to everyone.
- Spreadshirt, Cafepress and Zazzle enable user manufacturing within a bit more constrained solution space in the fashion industry. They allow much more than the usual t-shirt configurations.
- Tim O'Reilly characterized recently Threadless as a model of user manufacturing, but I disagree. This is crowdsourcing of design, but otherwise a more traditional (if revolutionary) business model. But Tim has a number or other good examples in his post.
- The review of the history of mass customization by Donal Reddingtion also makes this bridge from mass customization to more active users.
- And researchers of user innovation like Eric von Hippel have always noted that innovative (lead) users, who find no manufacturer that would produce their idea, turn themselves into manufacturers. Lead users, however, had to build their own manufacturing capabilities. Here is a great study by Eric with Christoph Hienerth and Clariss Baldwin about this area.
- Books: Neil A. Gershenfeld: FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. And in GERMAN: Andreas Neef: Vom Personal Computer zum Personal Fabricator, a book on fabbing, rapid manufacturing and new flexible manufacturing technologies.
- If you live in Singapore, joint this workshop exactly to the topic on Feb. 27, 2007: http://genometri.com/DIY/
- Paul Krush reports his story of opening a user manufacturing service bureau in his new blg.