Product Design

Have It Your Way

28 Mar, 2013 By: Heather Livingston

Tech Trends: Mass-customization depends on parametric modeling to deliver made-to-order goods in less time and at less cost than one might have ever imagined.


Customization is as old as craft itself, but for quite some time customized products have been out of reach for most. Until recently, custom often meant handcrafted — and the more intricate the work, the higher the cost. That expense has limited the number of buyers who could purchase unique designs.

In architecture and manufacturing, the most significant drawback of customization has been lengthy product delivery times. When low cost trumps aesthetics, customization too frequently has meant bid-losing delays.

Today, however, parametric modeling is changing that paradigm rapidly. In the design, manufacturing, and retailing industries, customers now expect — and receive — individualized products in record time, for minimal extra cost. "Digital design tools are fundamentally reshaping how products are designed, and this has implications for all manufactured products in all countries," believes Stephen Ezell, a senior analyst with the Washington, D.C.–based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

Parametric modeling is CAD technology that uses parameters, or rules, to drive a design's geometry. If, for example, a user changes a dimension, the model size adjusts automatically according to the specified relations or constraints, also captured in the model.

When United Space Alliance, the prime contractor for NASA's Space Shuttle Program, needed to remodel its launch control rooms, it turned to Evans Consoles. Using basic consoles as starting points, they designed five different engineered-to-order custom consoles to house NASA equipment throughout the room. Image courtesy of Evans Consoles
When United Space Alliance, the prime contractor for NASA's Space Shuttle Program, needed to remodel its launch control rooms, it turned to Evans Consoles. Using basic consoles as starting points, they designed five different engineered-to-order custom consoles to house NASA equipment throughout the room. Image courtesy of Evans Consoles


Parametrics and engineered-to-order (ETO) methods have been around a while, says Grant Rochelle, senior director, Manufacturing Industry Marketing, Autodesk, but in this new paradigm, the manufacturer configures the software with the parameters that drive design and costing. That tool can then be used by the manufacturer as an in-house aid for ETO products or by customers who use it to design their own items that the company then manufactures.

"Our technology [takes] the power of configurable 3D models off the CAD desktop, where they're only accessible to designers, and extends it into the enterprise," Rochelle explains. "Immensely powerful capabilities [that] are in the background can be intuitively driven by non–CAD design experts, i.e., application engineers, salespeople, or even actual customers if the service is further exposed through web sites."

From Chocolates to Cabinets

Mass customization of retail products has been gaining traction in recent years. Dell was in the vanguard of this trend when it first offered custom computers. Nike and Reebok have had tremendous success with personalized shoe design. Following the lead of M&Ms, which customers can order with custom color combinations and imprinting, food manufacturers are getting in the game too: Customized cereal is available from Cerealize, nutrition bars from Element, and chocolate from Chocomize. Even mass-production furniture makers are seizing the trend.

Customized computers and candies are relatively simple to produce, with customers selecting from a fairly straightforward range of options. But mass-produced yet still custom-designed shoes and furniture require more complex technology. For example, Reebok offers more than 25 color and style options for its customizable shoes, and each variable the customer selects is instantly reflected in a 3D rendering of the product. Although this is more complicated than specifying the simple style, color, and size choices of traditional e-commerce, parametrics provides manufacturing clients such as Reebok with technology that nontechnical customers can easily understand and use to create a personal design.

Edward Hale is a custom cabinetmaker with a Master's degree in industrial design and a vision for customized furniture. While employed as a furniture designer, he discovered that furnishings are most beneficial to clients when designed for a particular space and use. Unfortunately, he says, custom cabinetry is not an option for most people due to cost, so customers are left to choose from off-the-shelf options that are merely adequate in terms of price and fit.

To provide custom furniture to a broader base, Hale started a company called Frame and Panel that soon will provide furniture that can be configured to fit the purchaser's needs. 

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