To be economically practical, the mass customization process must take advantage of emerging technological innovations to design, manufacture, and assemble products and collect data at every stage throughout the process. Mass customization manufacturers prefer machines that fabricate without extra tooling or use low-cost rapid tooling.
Like most modern product design, mass customization starts with CAD modeling. In addition to the flexibility and speed of standard 3D modeling, certain CAD software has specific tools for mass customization. These may include industry-specific tools for making custom implants or prosthetics for the medical sector or for making customized jewelry. Autodesk Fusion’s configuration features make it a mass-customization software where designers can quickly create multiple versions of a product from a single CAD file.
CAD modeling for mass customization also gets a hand from 3D scanning technology. Using dedicated 3D scanners or smartphone cameras equipped with LiDAR or photogrammetry apps, 3D scanning analyzes physical objects and turns their dimensions into 3D models that can be edited for manufacturing. For mass customization, 3D scanning can scan people’s bodies for custom-fit clothes or wearable devices, faces for custom-fit glasses, and even ear canals or teeth for custom-fit earphones, dental retainers, and more.
Fabrication for mass customization often uses 3D printing (additive manufacturing, where the printers build objects layer by layer from a 3D CAD model. Because 3D printing requires no tooling, changing the CAD file is all it takes to make design tweaks or switch to an entirely different product. With 3D printing, complex and organic shapes can be created that would be otherwise be difficult or impossible to achieve by other means.
However, when mass customization calls for using other machines, it benefits from rapid tooling, the practice of creating low-cost tooling quickly for CNC machines, or traditional manufacturing methods like injection molding. Rapid tooling often takes advantage of novel or limited-run parts that would be too expensive to make with standard tooling, and the tools are often produced with 3D printing.
The rapid iterations of generative design also play a part in mass customization because the process can output thousands of design options that adhere to specific input parameters in minutes. Generative design uses algorithms—sometimes incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) —and high-powered computation to run simulations and churn out optimal design options that designers can choose from and refine. These geometrically unique designs are often best produced using additive manufacturing with 3D printers, subtractive manufacturing using CNC machines, or some combination thereof.
With mass customization jobs, many more distinct parts are involved; sometimes, there are one or more unique parts on every product made. That makes job- and part-tracking much more difficult. However, automation and robotics work together and connect everything through the sensor data of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to centralize information on cloud data platforms for smoother operation. Robotics are also becoming more accessible to program and safer to interact with through technology like computer vision, all of which benefit the highly flexible production needed for mass customization.