Getting Your Company Ready for the 'Custom Economy'

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2014-05-31 Print this article Print
Custom Economy

Once complicated and expensive, 3D printing is quickly becoming a mainstream product.

Let's say you want to replace a light-switch plate in your living room. You could go to the local hardware store and pick from 10 options or go to Home Depot and pick from 30. Or you could go to a Website with 3 million options with additional customization factors, and then print it out with your home 3D printer.

That's easy to imagine. But how mainstream will 3D printers get?

The newest 3D printer project is called the New Matter MOD-t. It looks like an Apple product and costs under $200—roughly one-tenth the cost of the lowest-cost 3D printers from a year ago. The creators say it's a breakthrough in ease of use, too.

Intel provided another glimpse at the future of 3D printing. The company announced on May 28 its intention to sell a $1,600 robot kit that anyone with a 3D printer can customize by designing or choosing body parts and then printing them out. It's called the Jimmy robot.

Why does this matter? Because 3D printers are part of the digitization of physical objects. They give "hardware," if you will, the stunning qualities of software.

More to the point, they represent the end of settling for limited options in thousands of product categories. Every object you print can be totally unique.

3. Ubiquitous virtual assistants

You've no doubt heard of Siri and Google Now and probably Microsoft's Cortana.

These represent the first wave of virtual assistants. They're generally viewed as convenient user interfaces or gimmicks. But here's another way to look at them: They represent the future of customized services.

Today's virtual assistants are mostly about harvesting limited personal data, and then bringing it to your attention in a friendly, human-like way. For example, Google Now can scan your Gmail inbox for information about bills, and then, at the appropriate time, remind you to pay the power bill before it's too late.

But future virtual assistants will have more capabilities; they'll be able to pay the bill for you and so much more. Five or 10 years from now, Siri-like virtual assistants will be ubiquitous in our lives. We'll talk to microphones in our glasses, our car dashboards, our refrigerators and tell them what we want. The assistants will not only figure out the specifics based on troves of personal data but make those things happen.

When our assistants remind us that Janet's birthday is in three days, we'll be able to say: "Send her a present." Our assistants will harvest Janet's data and our gifting history to find out the perfect gift, and then buy and ship it.

In this scenario, the need to interact with multiple services has been replaced by our interaction with the assistant. We don't interact with our calendar, our contacts database, the online catalogs or the delivery service—none of it. Instead, the entire process is customized very specifically to us.

The world is changing fast, and the old world of mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption is being replaced by custom-tailored everything.

The real point is that, in the customization economy, customized options will almost always beat a mass-market approach. And that's why every aspect of every business needs to prepare for a world of expectations, where advertising, manufacturing and services all provide extreme customization.

In other words, don't get caught with yesterday's mass solutions in tomorrow's custom economy.


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