We all want to be unique – that’s what makes us all the same. Do you remember getting your very first mobile phone? Back then the height of stamping your personality on it was pretty much limited to owning a coloured case or downloading a ringtone. Today, many of our modern handsets still look the same on the outside – but each is almost certainly bound to be unique on the inside.
We tailor our phones to our interests, download Apps we like and keep them in specific orders, filed as we want them under names we are happy with. Displays can be shuffled and re-shuffled and buttons set to do specific things to suit our fancy.
We’re getting used to a world where we can have everything exactly how we want it. So could that mean a future where we want everything we buy to come with an option of being made to measure?
Some companies are already heading in that direction – and more look set to follow suit as our drive for individuality further combines with improvements in modern technology. Many big firms have already started to offer bespoke manufacturing elements to their business.
You might rightly think custom items like suits and dresses have been around for donkey’s years and this is nothing new, but that was at a time when such a service was limited to the rich. Now a kid with a credit card can click his way to a customised wardrobe in half and hour with a few taps of a mouse. Bespoke is no longer limited to the loaded – it’s gone mass market.
Nike’s iD range allows customers to pick the colour, style and even wording on a wide selection of products – usually trainers – via the web for an affordable fee. Bentley have always allowed rich buyers to come to the factory to customise their motors and watch them be ‘born’ on the production line.
But now the man on the street can by a Smart Car in exactly the colours and specification he or she fancies – right down to the gear stick – with the firm’s ‘Tailor Made’ service. You can even virtually ‘try on’ watches to see what they would look like on your wrist before you buy.
And firms like the Swiss company Freitag even offer drag and drop design layouts online for ordering their bespoke ‘F-CUT’ bags recycling truck tarpaulins. You can simply pick your particular cut of choice from a selection of old tarpaulins in a variety of colours and patterns, which are then cut and recycled to make your unique messenger bag – their motto is ‘it’s your fault.’ You simply submit your order, and they deliver it.
But what about if they didn’t even have to do that? What if you could print out something you had made online at home and have it in your hands within seconds?
Firstly, it has nothing to do with Inkjets or paper jams – we aren’t talking printers as we know them at the office. Objects are created by machine loaded with whatever substance you like – be it cement, metal or even chocolate – which then ‘prints’ the object by stacking the materials thin layer by layer to reproduce the 3D shape in all its glory.
Clément Moreau is the CEO of 3D printing firm Sculpteo.com, who are already producing custom-ordered products in all shapes and sizes for people across the world – and he is confident the business is going to grow over the coming years.
He said: “This made to measure approach is crucial to how our environment is evolving and influencing our day to day life. On our website, there are no barriers between intangible data and real life objects thanks to easy its online 3D Printing technology.
“This ability to customise digital objects will definitely change the shape of the future of what everyday life objects will look like and how they will function.
“People can visualise what their object will look like in the virtual world and have it tailor made before it becomes a real life object through our 3D printing service. This revolutionary technology is already enabling the digital world to influence the real world in which we live.”
Being able to ‘print’ your desired purchase, such as a pair of jeans or t-shirt, at home could solve some of the problems encountered by firms who have up until now struggled with the concept of making mass customisation work as a business model. Delivery, extra costs and the simple facts that some customers just don’t want to stand out or lack the creativity to make something they even want to own are just some of the drawbacks.
Leading mass customisation researcher Frank Piller is an American who has worked with a string of top firms and he believes around 80 per cent of mass customisation is about building the existing brand.
And you only need to look at the success of NIKEiD to back up his argument. Nike last year announced the arm had passed the $100million revenue mark, while also growing a global online community of more than 15million people.
They are being hailed by many firms as the example of how to make bespoke work on a huge scale. And Ryan Greenwood, Head of PR & Communications for Nike UK, believes the success of the iD brand is linked to consumers feeling like they are being given the star treatment.
He said: “Nike design and build custom-made products for the world’s most dedicated athletes, and through NIKEiD these services are now available to everyone.
“We have over 100 products to choose from across performance and lifestyle shoes, T-shirts, bags and watches. NIKEiD offers the most advanced customisation experience available.
“It was born from colour customisation in 1999 and Nike now offers the most innovative and bespoke performance design customization service to consumers – to design and wear footwear that features the same level of technology as the world’s leading athletes- andimprove performance and comfort.”
Clément agrees that the key to the future growth of customisation as a mass market, won’t just be about what products look like – but how they have been made for you. He explained:
“The size of my hand is not the same as the size of your hand and my habits are different to everyone else’s. More and more consumer electronics companies are developing ways in which to create devices which are not only adapted according to my needs, but also ergonomically designed to adapt to my body.”
This is true of custom ear-piece producers Etymotic, who measure and make earphones to perfectly fit your ears only called Custom∙Fit.
Managing Director of consumer electronics Mark Karnes says his firm have been a niche player for 30 years and that modern technology has allowed the use of new materials to give users an even better product.
He said: “We’re meeting the challenge of a competitive landscape with programs that provide customisation and programmability.
“The Custom∙Fit program is backed by an international support network of qualified audiologists and certified earmould labs that provide consumers with a cost-effective method to upgrade to personalised earmolds made of medical-grade ultra-soft silicone.
“These moulds, which are exact replicas of the ears, provide high noise isolation and a secure, comfortable fit for extended listening.”
While it’s true to say mass customised products are in their relative infancy, the years to come will certainly open the way for more interactive ordering services with tablet applications and 3D printing.
But as Will Findlater, the editor of Stuff Magazine adds, it seems the logical next step for the generations to come, who won’t be interested in ‘one-size-fits-all’ gizmos to fit their customised lives.
“It makes perfect sense,” he said. “Consumer tech has become hugely popular and design-conscious, so in the same way that consumers have a desire for individuality in the look of their clothes and homes, there’s a corresponding desire to have unique-looking gadgets that work with their personal palette or decor.
“Now it’s over to the manufacturers to deliver.”
Dave Masters writes for The Sun’s online technology page thesun.co.uk/gadget