Manufacturing in Batches of One
Bespoke Innovations' Scott Summit with a prosthetic limb. Photo by Peter DaSilva for The New York Times.
In his prescient 1995 book Out of Control, Kevin Kelly predicted the eventual realization of mass customization. No longer limited to making large quantities of a few products, companies would be able to tailor products to customers’ needs economically. “If you can alter the manufacturing process on the fly without stopping the flow,” wrote Kelly, “you then have the means to make stuff in batches of one.” The so-called flexible manufacturing model would make use of new computer-automated processes to transform assembly lines into nimble custom production cells capable of producing unique items at reasonable cost.
Today, Kelly’s vision is rapidly becoming reality, with one twist: for some companies, custom products are not only cost-competitive with mass-produced products; they are significantly cheaper. A recent New York Times article entitled “3-D Printing Spurs a Manufacturing Revolution” describes a prosthetic limb manufacturer that can produce superior custom components at 10 percent of the cost of traditional, mass-produced parts. Architectural model-maker LGM has been able to drive this economic ratio even further. According to LGM founder Charles Overy, “We used to take two months to build $100,000 models”—now they cost about $2,000. 3D printing has its limitations, such as a small printing-bed size and few material choices, but increasing demand suggests that the process may soon overcome these restrictions. Not only has the new technology proven it can change manufacturing “without stopping the flow,” as Kelly predicted—rather, it is becoming the new flow.