Generative experience: the new customer-brand relationship

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This post is also available in: Italiano

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 At the same time, there is a chance that this is something already out of date.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.

STITCH FIX – also known as the fashion “Tinder”, Stitch Fix offers a service that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to suggest, among the products of over 1000 brands, the most suitable look for every occasion. The service is based on a “style assistant” application capable of suggesting combinations, giving the user the possibility to evaluate them (thumb up, thumb down). Thanks to the interactions, the app is able to gradually improve the quality of the suggestions. This strategy is combined with a very attentive customer care service, which allows the customer to keep or return even parts of the orders received, after trying them on (credit: Stitch Fix)
DOLLAR SHAVE CLUB – based on the idea of the home barber, Dollar Shave offers a direct-to-consumer service that determines types and quantities of products based on personal use. The delivery of beard products and personal care items does not follow the logic of the large stock but is fragmented to offer what each user needs at that moment. The customisation of the service is an added value that progressively improves thanks to machine learning. (credit: dollar shave club)
HEXR – Based on a “perfect fit” logic, HEXR was the first custom-made cycling helmet. The British brand offers support for 3D scanning carried out by an authorised retailer. Instead of using traditional EPS liners, HEXR produces helmets with a light and extremely resistant honeycomb structure, made in 3D printing using 100% bio-compatible and renewable materials (credit: HEXR)
HALO – At first glance, they might look like regular headphones but Halo Sport’s devices can stimulate the cerebral cortex to facilitate learning processes thanks to a precise muscle reaction. Halo does not promise you the Moon nor science fiction results but rather shows what results can currently be achieved. Halo is the result of long scientific research and experimentation (credit: Halo Sport). The recent billionaire acquisition of CTRL-Labs by Facebook demonstrates an enormous interest emerging in the field of Brainwaves. Such technology makes it possible to establish neural connections thanks to the use of nano-technologies to capture the data processed by the human brain.
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PHONAK (SONOVA) – the prosthetic and medical fields are application areas in which additive manufacturing is experiencing great success. The reasons are very simple: huge quantities of elements to be manufactured, all different from each other. Through its brands, including Phonak, Sonova has been experimenting with and producing customised 3D printing solutions for 10 years. In particular, it has been manufacturing shells in many materials, including titanium, which are super light, resistant and bio-compatible. (credit: Sonova). 3D printing is widespread also in the dental field, even in very high numbers: Invisalign uses 3D printing to make the moulds of its dental appliances.
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MINI YOURS CUSTOMISED (BMW) – Mini Cooper offers its clients the possibility to customise some details of its iconic car, for example, by inserting one’s name in highly visible parts of the car, such as the headlights and the dashboard. In the case of very complex products, such as those in the automotive sector, customisation is possible thanks to hybrid concepts: from the configuration of the car produced with serial methods to the creation of custom parts made in 3D printing (credit: Mini Cooper – BMW)

This article is the third issue on 3D STORIES dedicated to generative themes. We suggest reading the following articles on related topics: Generative Design and Generative Manufacturing.

* 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

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Francesco La Trofa

Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at Treddi.com and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.