Next Generation Product Development Tools – Part 20

In my last entry I ended with this question: “At what point do non-monetary motivational factors – reputation and empowerment – overwhelm the barriers to entry for average people?” It’s an especially timely question because the interface barriers are dropping so rapidly.

Minority Report technology no longer seems like science fiction; in fact, YouTube is filling with it. And once-daunting 3D application tasks are routinely simplified into “I can do that” activities (e.g. ILoveSketch).

Consequently, it may not be long before increasingly sophisticated users reach the proverbial tipping point where mere apprehension of using a 3D application is no longer an issue preventing them from attempting to learn. And of course, when the barrier to entry lowers, so does the necessary motivation.

The DIY/Mass Customization Tipping Point

Most of you are familiar with the phrase “mass customization”. It’s a curious term because while “customization” holds such promise, “mass” removes so much of it.

This is how Wikipedia defines it:

Mass customization, in marketing, manufacturing, and management, is the use of flexible computer-aided manufacturing systems to produce custom output. Those systems combine the low unit costs of mass production processes with the flexibility of individual customization.

I think Wikipedia is being generous. Nonetheless, there would seem to be significant potential in allowing consumers to customize the mass-produced products with which they’re already familiar. However, the trend hasn’t exactly caught fire. And I can understand why it hasn’t.

For many early adopters, coloring within the proverbial lines isn’t enough. If they’re going to have to pay more, they’d apparently prefer to spend it on something other than helping a company overcome a process mismatch (i.e. high volume system efficiencies don’t jive with low volume customization realities). These consumer pioneers are fully aware “mass customization” means compromise, and they ain’t buying it.

Of significance, the growing self-reliance of these early adopters presents an additional pair of issues to those companies attempting to incorporate mass customization into their business.

First, early adopters tend to be extraordinarily motivated to overcome obstacles and as a consequence they can help companies fine-tune their services. They’re the ones who will download, install and learn an application (like Inkscape) to help them use a service (like Ponoko’s). They’ll figure out a 3D application and upload their files to a traditional rapid-prototyping service bureau.

They are, by definition, not like most people. But not only do they help companies massage their offerings, they also often bring the rest of the crowd to the party because secondly, they’re frequently the trendsetters driving others to a company’s new service.

Thus, if the early adopters are mostly bypassing the current mass customization offerings provided by high volume manufacturers (and from the relatively small number of meaningful success stories I’d venture this is the case), it presents a potential long-term issue for manufacturers who anticipate competing in more competitive, niche-focused markets.

To compete, companies which lower the threshold – both in terms of relative cost and in computer-aided usability – stand the best chance of initiating a landslide of interest. But if involved parties aren’t active in defining how the threshold is lowered, they may be caught off-guard by not balancing the various factors appropriately.

One example of this “out of left field” impact to which I’d point is the ripple effect caused by Google’s virtual 3D service, Lively. Beyond whatever impact Lively will have on the developing virtual world industry, I was somewhat amazed to see so much attention being paid to 3D tools; if only for a short span of time.

Suddenly everyone was surfing for free 3D modelers. Mashable even posted a (lame) list of 3D tools.

One has to wonder how many people went looking to learn how to make 3D models for Lively but discovered they could also order 3D prints of their creations. The person who discovers they can have their own designs fabricated is less likely to jump onto the mix-n-match mass customization bandwagon.

Meanwhile, Ponoko’s recently announced PhotoMake service is an obvious attempt to beat the “mass customization” people to that tipping point by continuing to lower the interface barrier. And whether or not the Nike iD’s of the world respond (and they are) is less relevant than when – not whether – consumers respond to DIY-centric business approaches, because we’re approaching an event horizon and some industries may not have enough time to make course corrections.

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