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Manufacturing Just for You

Mass customization makes it far more practical to fabricate products in small quantities.

Want to build a device that takes video in 360 degrees? That can communicate with a car’s onboard computer, or connect to sensors that can measure your heart rate or blood pressure? It used to be that to build a self-designed gadget, you had to know how to make it entirely from scratch. And if, after testing it, you wanted to sell a few, you had to build each one by hand—large manufacturing companies generally wouldn’t pick up the phone to take orders that numbered fewer than hundreds of thousands.

Buggy design: Bug Labs makes hardware components, such as those shown above, that users can mix, match, and program to create customized electronics.

A process called mass customization is changing that, offering a way to use the technology of mass production to manufacture devices in small quantities. Taking off in sectors ranging from electronics to fashion, it lets design-savvy consumers get exactly the products they need. It also offers a heavy assist to small businesses that want to get started without huge capital investments, or to give their customers some input into design.

New York-based Bug Labs, for example, is making electronics easier to customize—something that was hard to do because “the world of electronics is basically dominated by five to 10 giant companies,” says its founder, Peter Semmelhack. “The economics that are involved are so onerous, and so daunting that only the largest companies can afford to take the risk of product development,” he says. “I don’t see it as a sustainable model for innovation.”

Semmelhack got the idea of creating hardware that people could mix, match, and program to put together their own devices. His company does the legwork, arranging manufacturing deals, building hardware modules with a variety of capabilities, and getting certification and approval (from the FCC, among others) so that devices built from the modules are legal to use and sell.

This process would be extremely daunting for most people or small companies to undertake on their own, Semmelhack says. For example, he wanted to include Wi-Fi with the first version of Bug Labs’ product, but he couldn’t find a company willing to supply chips in the relatively small quantity he needed. What’s more, the first manufacturer Semmelhack found to produce his devices “left Bug Labs at the altar” when it got cold feet about the modest volumes involved.

But Semmelhack hopes to spare others similar pain. Thanks to Bug Labs, designers can create their own devices using mass-produced parts the company sells. If they’re ready to transform these devices into objects for sale, they can repackage Bug Labs’ parts in 3-D-printed shells or other types of casing. Finally, if they want to produce a product on a large scale, they can do so through Arrow Electronics, which has a partnership with Bug Labs. The existing hardware can be modified and streamlined as needed.

All of this, Semmelhack says, gives individuals the power to create specialized devices, while also allowing small businesses to get to market much faster and at less expense. “What makes mass customization possible is a platform,” he says. The platform allows mass production to the greatest extent possible. Bug Labs’ hardware modules are an effort to balance flexibility with quality and polish. Designers can use these modules in combination with open-source software to create their own products while benefiting from the sort of large-scale effort that goes into products manufactured in the hundreds of thousands. Semmelhack says, “That’s an important part of the equation, because it’s the only way to get costs down.”

Ponoko, a company based in Wellington, New Zealand, uses digital fabrication techniques such as 3-D printing and laser cutting to allow individuals to produce jewelry and household items. One key, says cofounder and CEO David ten Have, is the Personal Factory platform that Ponoko has created. That system automates many processes that used to be done by hand, he says, streamlining individual submissions so they can be produced in a way that lends itself to mass production. When a user uploads a design, for example, the software can assess to some degree how viable it is, and it can calculate the cost of materials and manufacturing. Ponoko also offers an application programming interface that makes customization easier. So, for example, a small business could use Ponoko to design a chair and then let customers specify the pattern on the chair back.

The most significant thing about these companies’ products, says Semmelhack, is that they “take a lot of the risk out” of designing and building something new. Now, he says, “people can capitalize on what we’ve done because they can build a market-ready product in one day.”

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