Have It Your Way28 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
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.
Frame and Panel
This video illustrates how customers can soon use online tools to easily customize a Frame and Panel bookcase:
"With Frame and Panel, my goal was to afford customers a quality, scalable product that was reasonably priced," Hale explains. "It was also my intention that the customizing process helps to establish a relationship between the customer and their furniture that carries over into their home."
An example of Hale's adaptable cabinetry is a bookcase that can be sized to fit a given space. Using an online parametric modeling–based tool, customers not only will be able to change details such as color and shelf quantity, but also directly "push and pull" the model to the desired size, and then order it as configured. Finally, the customized components are shipped to the customer for easy assembly.
Hale believes that Frame and Panel would not be feasible without parametric modeling. "Parametric modeling is essential because of how it engages the consumer," he says. "I believe that specifying their design requirements through an interactive interface creates an experience that is much more fulfilling than simply filling out text fields or checking boxes; the consumer is drawn into the design process and can develop a true sense of ownership over their design. Moreover, fully parametric modeling takes the idea of customization to its natural conclusion, providing the customer the opportunity to see different configurations and sizes in real time."
The capabilities yielded by parametric modeling will make businesses more adaptive while also decreasing production time, says Hale. Additionally, he believes, "it will streamline the ordering-to-production process, outputting orders to specific lists of standard components and custom part cut lists."
Tapping into parametric modeling–based technology, the Frame and Panel web site will allow customers to specify the exact size and finishes they want in the furniture they order.
This game-changing shift also is taking place in industrial manufacturing, where a degree of customization has long been the norm in product design. These days, however, manufacturers are using parametrics to optimize in-house design of ETO products and enhance their customers' bottom lines by reducing delivery time and cost.
Sabre Building Systems by CellXion designs and manufactures shelters, building systems, and mobile disaster-recovery products. Lukasz Drozdz, engineering intern and CAD development director, says that although the company has been using customization in its manufacturing process from the beginning, it now uses Autodesk Inventor and Autodesk Inventor Engineer-to-Order (Inventor ETO) to automate drafting and design. These technologies have allowed them to cut drafting time on new projects from two days to 15 minutes, which helps them to submit — and win — more bids.
"Converting engineering rules to code gives us better control over design and minimizes design mistakes," says Drozdz. "We are able to produce drawings much quicker and respond to customers faster — ultimately gaining more business."
Manufacturers are looking for three solutions from parametric modeling, says Autodesk's Rochelle. They want to be able to respond to bids very quickly, present visually compelling renderings, and improve their bid-to-win ratio.
Autodesk customer Evans Consoles uses Inventor ETO to design technical furnishings for operations such as NASA's Mission Control room and air traffic control towers. According to Rochelle, Evans clients can customize furnishings via an easy-to-use web form, "but then in the background, our technology is building 3D solid models based on rules that say you can have something this long, but not that long," he explains. The design intelligence that comes from years of product design and manufacturing is embedded into the rules-based modeling program to minimize errors and ensure safety.
"Once you can scale [the ETO system] and build it out in such a way that anyone can access it, you can really start to unleash the potential on the manufacturing side," says Rochelle. "Mass customization is a great enabler. … If I can keep 80 to 90% of what 1,000 customers need to be the same, and then highly customize the last 10% in a way that's efficient for me, it works for me, and you get exactly what you need."
Using Autodesk Inventor ETO, a client can specify a customized conveyor belt and the program will determine the correct length, width, and number of rollers based on embedded intelligence.
Another program that offers ETO technology is DriveWorks for SolidWorks. The program can be used locally or on the web to configure custom designs and is offered in three different versions. With it, users can generate manufacturing drawings, 3D models, and sales documents. The programs are specifically designed for companies that design products that are "the same, but different." DriveWorks Xpress is included in SolidWorks, a reflection of the market demand for design automation.
DriveWorks for SolidWorks lets manufacturers capture and reuse information and use rules to specify, design, and engineer to order. These images show an ETO online browser used to design a sofa (top) and a trailer. Users can change size, color, and other details for each order.
Despite its promise, mass customization won't be the savior of the lagging U.S. manufacturing industry, believes Ezell of ITIF, but it will make it feasible to manufacture at scale while simultaneously responding to unique customer requirements. It has an important role in shaping the future of manufacturing, he says, but it won't be the "singular catalyst" to revive the market.
Consumers Benefit, Too
It will, however, be a boon for consumers. Personalization of products will deliver benefits that are both functional (for example, prosthetics) and aesthetic (for example, a customized car), says Ezell. "While certainly companies will charge a premium for such customization, because it's mass customization, such personalization should be broadly affordable to consumers."
Hale concurs: "Mass customization will definitely play a huge role in the future of product design. … It will be very interesting to see what happens as technology advances and consumers become increasingly capable and shift more into the designer role."
About the Author: Heather Livingston
Autodesk Technical Evangelist Lynn Allen guides you through a different AutoCAD feature in every edition of her popular "Circles and Lines" tutorial series. For even more AutoCAD how-to, check out Lynn's quick tips in the Cadalyst Video Gallery. Subscribe to Cadalyst's free Tips & Tools Weekly e-newsletter and we'll notify you every time a new video tip is published. All exclusively from Cadalyst!