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This article was written in collaboration with Massimiliano Moruzzi (from Autodesk Research) *
The dynamics that have governed the markets over the past few years require a profound reflection on the concept of mass customisation. It has been the companies’ dream for years and finally, thanks to the evolution of the technologies required, it is coming true. At the same time, there is a chance that this is something already out of date. Its original concept was to obviate mass production in favour of a production technique capable of adapting products to multiple configurations chosen by the user. However, today, the focus is shifting from the product to something wider and more complex to grasp. Benchmarks constantly vary: just think of the evolution of sales channels.
Selling products on multiple channels is by now a consolidated technique; however, there is rather a need for an omnichannel approach to give substance to experiences that are based on a continuous and lasting relationship between a brand and its customers, who play an increasingly key role in the process. This view is diametrically opposed to the traditional market models, which until a few years ago were influenced by mass logic, generally imposed from the top down, except for rare and pioneering exceptions.
Mass Customisation: smart, feasible and sustainable for brands
If the concepts related to mass customisation are nothing new, the setting in which they concretise has changed substantially. The evolution of the digital world has introduced technologies and methods that paved the way for a concrete approach to product customisation and an interaction with the user during their entire customer journey. In a few words, a generative experience, which we could summarise in three fundamental phases.
Step 1 – Making the user an active part of the experience (design driven by the user)
How often, when reading about digital transformation, have we come across the slogan “we must put the user at the centre of the experience”? What does this hackneyed expression translate into on a practical level? What are brands supposed to do to put their customers – and potential customers – at the centre of the purchase experience?
As the customisation experience derives from a holistic component, it would be reductive to limit the scope of product configuration to a set (even though extensive) of preset options: configuring is a necessary condition but is not enough. Digitising a traditional catalogue is the fundamental starting point for presenting a product on any device and establishing a continuous relationship with users. In this perspective, a simple, realistic 3D model is not enough. It is rather the tool that adds value to the relationship itself.
The ability to interpret users’ behavioural data makes it extremely desirable to go beyond the traditional catalogue, be it physical or digital, to fully exploit the potential that technology offers today in terms of customising the experience. It would make no sense to have a huge amount of data available, with more and more accurate information about the wishes and needs of each customer, and simply offer a series of predetermined options. In compliance with the rules and constraints that the company deems appropriate, true customisation entails the possibility of generating the product the user wants in real-time. It is not inappropriate, then, to think in terms of generative marketing.
Putting the user at the centre of the experience means, first of all, acknowledging and interpreting their needs, to respond with coherent products, which can be produced according to a logic of environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Step 2 – Discovering the experience and interacting with users
Establishing a fruitful relationship between the content of a brand and its users is one of the main objectives of any marketing strategy which promotes the customer experience of the company’s products and services. To make this process practical, it is therefore necessary to create interfaces capable of communicating at any time and in any place with the consumers, to collect and analyse data regarding their behaviour and needs.
The possibility of true Augmented Reality is strongly envisaged: a technology made of trackers and smart sensors, capable of digitally and physically intercepting the user habits (e.g. via neural connections). The goal may seem obvious: to acquire that information that is essential for the machine learning of artificial intelligence trained to generate the behaviour of virtual assistants. In reality, this process is the foundation for something with a much broader potential, which we could implement in generative design.
In line with the considerations on the catalogue made in the previous paragraph, why limit the scope to the designer’s vision? There’s no doubt that for a brand, style and hallmarks will always be valuable elements. However, there are many contexts in which this formal connection can be achieved through the functional nature of the objects, starting from the premise of generating a product based on what the final user needs and appreciates. A generative design technology, constantly trained on all the fundamental variables for the creation of a product, becomes a fundamental factor: firstly, as an aid for designers, secondly, in connecting all company stakeholders in real-time (from design to sale) and, finally, as an independent player in the relationship between the brand and the customer.
Translating the experience into a product is one of the key points of digital transformation. This is made possible thanks to a variety of technologies capable of managing the entire data flow, from intercepting the potential customer’s needs (IoT, AR Cloud, etc.) to 3D applications based on artificial intelligence (simulations and digital twins) that implement all design processes and, finally, additive manufacturing (3D printing).
Step 3 – From the experience to the product: manufacturing in smart and sustainable factories
In the concept of generative design, the machine, traditionally considered as “stupid”, designed to automate procedures and execute them serially, becomes a smart object. The production system takes on a fundamental role: it can exchange information in real-time with the artificial brain that generates the product in the form of a digital model (digital twin) which contains all the information necessary for manufacturing.
In this respect, the digital enabler par excellence is additive manufacturing. 3D printing technologies will allow us to gradually get rid of huge production plants designed for mass production in favour of “one point factories” with a more sustainable size, fewer resources required and the ability to adapt over time to production cycles and methods.
The research carried out on materials is a fundamental evolutionary step in the generative experience. This challenge unfolds in two different directions. On the one hand, there’s a need to certify more traditional materials for 3D printing, especially metals and metal alloys. On the other, we need to overcome the traditional limitations deriving from isotropic materials, in favour of composite solutions which can make the most of the active capabilities of materials, also equipped with sensors that collect data and communicate in a bidirectional way with the artificial brain that governs production. The field of use of the so-called smart materials can, in fact, open countless business scenarios, in a more disruptive way compared to the current situation.
Producing according to sustainability criteria is a great opportunity for the company, which can generate those advantages – mainly economic – indispensable for the success and growth of the brand. The goal is not to comply with regulations that will be ever more stringent, as they are currently easy to circumvent. In the same way, it is not necessary to come up with new and catchy slogans for advertising campaigns that often turn out to lack substance when subjected to elementary fact-checking. Companies today have all the tools they need to build an honest relationship with their customers, a crucial feature in generating purchase trust.
The real-time connection with the customer makes it possible to switch from a serial purchase process to an on-demand one. As a consequence, penalising factors that affect the life cycle of the product can be reduced, such as production waste and over-production.
The price to pay is sharing personal data for a common benefit.
One of the main barriers in the relationship between the consumer and e-commerce platforms is the constant request for behavioural data. Regardless of the issues related to its processing, the data becomes an essential piece of information to analyse, serving as the basis for commercial actions performed by the provider of products/services.
In addition to transparency requirements, the perception of utility is also necessary for the customer. From this point of view, the perspectives are comforting. A recent survey carried out in the United States by an authoritative body such as the NRF (National Retail Federation) has shown that the youngest fraction of the public welcomes the useful suggestions received for their purchases. This fact envisages the use of assistants trained almost in real-time on the analysis of user data.
Without going into the ethical implications that this subject necessarily entails, collecting the customer’s “DNA” cannot be compared to “stealing” data on their behaviour for speculative purposes (e.g. trading data to third parties or other underlying intentions). The information is rather used to create “live” products, capable of communicating with those cognitive systems that can creatively adapt them to the uniqueness of the customer. The goal is a highly democratised scenario in which brands can take advantage of the possibilities offered by generative design systems to promptly meet the needs of individual users.
From the business concept to successful cases: using digital technologies to offer concrete solutions to the consumer
The perspective just described is not taken from a science fiction film. It is already fully or partially implemented in business cases where the added value does not lie exclusively in the intrinsic qualities of the product but also in the relationship between the customer and the product or service offered by the brand. Let’s see some examples that implement the concept of generative experience.
* Massimiliano Moruzzi (Autodesk Research Senior Scientist) has been active for over 15 years as Lead Scientist & Business Innovator in the fields of Smart Materials and Disruptive Manufacturing Process Automation with specific skills in identifying technologies and solutions to implement innovative products and services. Thanks to his experience as a business developer, he has worked alongside leading companies such as Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, FCA, GM, Ford, Lamborghini, Ferrari and numerous technological start-ups.
This post is also available in: Italiano