Sketchchair Could Be Mass Customization's Missing Link

Optimism that the recovery from recession is in full effect has allowed furniture designers and manufacturers to pick up where they left off in the pursuit of mass customization. Mass customization is an emerging differentiation strategy for consumer goods where products are manufactured using flexible computer-aided manufacturing systems to produce customized goods.

Essentially, mass customization is a service offered by innovative product manufacturers in which at least one step of the mass production process is variable and individual consumer data is applied to the variable step(s), resulting in a customized product at a competitive price. To collect individual customer data, manufacturers offer software or a web-based interface that allows the customer to experiment with a range of material options, product configurations, and even dimensions to customize their product.

The focus of innovations in mass customization has been developing the process of customer interaction and virtual manipulation to provide the customizer, a customer of mass customization, the most accurate representation of the customized goods. Due to liability and an unpredictable work-flow, traditional manufacturers are not willing to offer mass custom products so advocates of mass customization have turned to offering a virtual product for the customer to download for fabrication as the solution.

Droog unveiled Design for Download, their version of mass customization at Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan this past week, where a series of products are offered for virtual manipulation. Once the customizer is pleased with the virtual product, they can download the plans for the product and have the parts cut at a local manufacturing facility. The design for download concept is certainly progress towards mass custom products becoming a viable option for the tech savvy customer with a DIY mentality, but hardly a step towards mass custom products in every living room.

I recently spoke with London-based Diatom Studio about their new project, Sketchchair. Sketchchair is software that allows the customizer to draw their desired chair profile. The software then extrudes the form into a three-dimensional object and extrapolates the appropriate construction of the chair.

The concept of taking two-dimensional input and generating a three-dimensional product is not unique to Sketchchair, but what is quite innovative is the ability to test the design virtually. Built into the software is a virtual anthropomorphic model that can test the chair based on the customizer's body shape, taking the effects of gravity into account.

The simplicity of sketching a chair profile and the ability to test your design virtually makes this software so accessible, even kids can use it. "It makes failure part of the fun" said Greg Saul, one of the creators of Sketchchair as he described how school children responded to the software when they had demonstrated it in a classroom. If at first your chair tips over, or breaks when your virtual self sits in it and leans back, you can simply adjust the shape and dimensions of the sketch and try again. Diatom Studio is currently using Kickstarter to raise funding for Sketchchair.

When offered with a limitless range of variables or options, the average customer is either unsure of how best to manipulate the product to better suit their needs, or is overwhelmed by the possibilities. Software, like Sketchchair, that offers the customizer the ability to visualize and test mass custom products virtually while instilling confidence in the customizer can protect manufacturers from liability, making mass custom products accessible to a much broader audience. Sketchchair is a step towards true innovation and could provide the missing link between the conjecture and reality of mass customization.