In a previous post I mentioned the we don’t do retro site/blog written by Matt Sinclair, PhD student at Loughborough University, in the Design Practice Research Groupthesis is “An investigation of the feasibility of product architectures to facilitate consumer-created designs in the consumer electronics industry, using rapid manufacturing technologies as an enabler”
Matt has been kind enough to grant us an interview so we could delve into his perspective of mass customisation.
What specifically brought on the idea to start incorporating consumer involvement into product design?
I had always been interested in designing for people who are at the fringes of mainstream consumerism. When I was at the RCA my personal tutor was Tony Dunne, and he got me interested in the idea of looking at how people subvert products, (ab)use them in ways that weren’t intended by the designer. A mundane example is using a screw driver to open a tin of paint, a more “colourful” example is using a vacuum cleaner as a sex aid(yes it is on youtube). His theory was that you could learn a lot by looking at the way people invent new uses for products. Nowadays this isn’t particularly controversial, Eric von Hippel has written a lot about how mountain biking and kite surfing were “invented” by people abusing existing products, but at the time it seemed very new, at least to me.
When I first started at Nokia there wasn’t much opportunity to put these ideas into practice, at least not at first. But Nokia was the first company to introduce customisation into mobile phones in the form of user-changeable covers. That led to a lot of concepting exercises in the design team, thinking about how customisation could be expanded further. I guess that’s where I first started to realise the logical conclusion of consumers customising products is consumers designing their own products. But at the time there didn’t seem to be any way it could be possible.
What from this experience inspired you to undertake your PhD into consumer created designs?
To be honest, that wasn’t the focus of the PhD when I started. It began with me looking at the way rapid manufacturing technologies would change the industrial design process, and I was thinking more along the lines of consumers working alongside designers, what’s usually called user-centred design. Again whilst I was at Nokia, I had run a project where we worked with professional sports people to design a range of products; we interviewed them at the beginning of the project, and then repeatedly asked them to review the designs and models and to give their feedback. But as my PhD research continued, I started to realise that the user-centred design process is still a process where the designer is in control, where the designer is the “expert” and has the power to veto features or suggestions from the user. And it became clear that the reason for this is that the designer has access to the means of production, ie factories and machines, which the user does not. Rapid manufacturing changes that completely. When 3D printers are available to consumers, they will begin to design and make their own products whether professional designers like it or not.
Speaking of 3D printing, Current rapid prototyping techniques seem to be the starting point for consumer driven design outside of the current standard paradigm which in most cases is really just multiple choice. What do you see the major limitations of an RM model once the cost is reduced/out of the equation?
There are two main ones, which both come down to the question of “quality”. The first is that the surface finish of parts made by rapid prototyping or rapid manufacturing is relatively poor compared to mass manufactured products: they tend to have ridges, or rough surfaces, and the colours are limited. But these are gradually improving, and it’s worth remembering that injection moulding is a process that’s 140 years old. 3D printers and other rapid manufacturing technologies are still in their infancy by comparison. The second limitation is the tools that consumers have available to design their own products. This is hard enough in 2D, which is why I imagine Ponoko has introduced Photomake, for people who can’t use Adobe Illustrator. 3D Computer Aided Design is much harder to learn, most designers take at least three years to get good at a single CAD package. So there needs to be much simpler modelling tools, and that’s now a significant part of my research. But again there are signs that things are moving: Google SketchUp and 3DVia Shape are undoubtedly consumer-oriented, and Shapeways Creator and FluidForms show some interesting approaches. I also think there’s a hell of a lot to learn from Spore Creature Creator, in the way it both helps and restricts you in designing new creatures.
One thing that’s important about “quality” though, is that it depends how you view things. Consumer culture is primarily visual, and we judge the quality of products, at least in the first instance, by how how they look. We’ve come to judge the quality of a product by it’s appearance, and in that sense the production values of mass manufacture are a lot higher than those of rapid manufacture. But think of another category such as film. Blair Witch Project or 28 Days Later or Dogville had much lower production values than a typical Hollywood blockbuster, but people ignored the rough edges and focussed on the quality of the idea rather than the polish of the celebrities or special effects. I think that when we can make products in much lower volumes, they will be better able to meet the needs of individuals rather than the mass market which products are aimed at nowadays. And it could be that if a product is designed specifically for you, especially if you’ve designed it yourself, those rough edges won’t be as important as the idea behind the product.
Thanks again to Matt, Interview will continue in next post:
In future posts I will also be speaking to some of the speakers from First Annual MIT Smart Customization Seminar for more insight into mass customization.