A Mass Customization Revolution

by : Patrick Momany

A Mass Customization Revolution

The Industrial Revolution

The great social and economic changes due to the introduction of machine and power tools and large-scale industrial production began in 1760. Through the first 70 years of this century, the US was the industrial giant of the world. In 1960 the words "Made in Japan" was thought to be a joke. By 1980, those same words had become the standard for manufacturing. In 1985, U.S. manufacturing was in a deep depression. Products were too costly, of poor quality and not innovative enough.

Now, again, America is ranked No. 1 in manufacturing (World Competitiveness Report, 1996).

Mass customization

America’s No. 1 standing is primarily due to the manufacturing revolution that has been under way since 1985. This quiet revolution is built on the unsurpassed innovative spirit of the American people. Innovation is one of the qualities upon which America is founded. American manufactures are the world’s leading innovators. The right combination of technology and people is a good foundation for any company. These technologies are leading to a major new phenomenon: mass customization, which is the ability to customize products literally in quantities as small as one, while producing them at mass-production speeds. Mass customization in the Information Age is replacing the mass-production model of the Industrial Age.

The ultimate outcome will be simultaneous manufacturing. Here, even as the customer is giving the order, the product starts to be manufactured. It may seem like a fairy tale, but the time is fast approaching when a customer will stand at a retailers fitting room, download their personal measurements into a computer, choose the pattern and variety of material wanted for their clothing and before they leave the outlet their order is in production. Now that’s a truly empowered customer!

Over the past few years, there have been a number of articles written on lasers. Each author lists applications as it relates specifically to their area of expertise. However, what EdgeWISE Tools would like to do in this article is to stimulate you to visualize all the different ways you can use a laser to produce a variety of products. Let your imagination go. Don’t fear the unknown. Those that can see the future have the greatest opportunity to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. "Carpe Diem" - seize the moment!

Why use a Laser?

In 1985, thermal contact cutting tools were developed for roll feed plotters. The "Hot Tip" became the first large format cutting system introduced to the sign industry. This process became the corner stone that most plotter manufactures built on. Through evolution, the cutting hardware has changed and significant strides have been achieved. We have seen progressive steps taken to where technology is today.

Most old manufacturing technology uses contact cutting tools; where the tool actually contacts the surface, it is meant to cut. The cutting tools must be re-sharpened or replace often and as the tool wears out the quality is compromised. This antiquated method has become an additional source of income for the manufactures because they now get to market one or more consumable tools. Contact manufacturing with all its additional costs can now be replaced with a more economical solution.

The next giant evolutionary leap in cutting manufacturing is the replacement of contact cutting tools with non-contact tools. The next logical step is to use laser technology for mass customization. The traditional high cost of laser technology has delayed the development of the Roll Feed Laser (RFL). A day is like a year in technological development terms. However, recently the cost of laser technology has been reduced to the point where today it has become an affordable means of manufacturing.

Roll Feed Laser

In 1988, research and development began on the first Roll Feed Laser system (RFL). This research developed more than just a new product. It developed new concepts in manufacturing and new ways to manufacture. The realization of mass customization is appearing using lasers. The combination of these two things EdgeWISE Tools calls the laser manufacturing revolution. This laser manufacturing revolution we are beginning to see is becoming bigger than anyone has yet imaged. There are literally hundreds’, if not thousands’, of markets and industries that have yet to be discovered.

Can you change?

As history has proven, there are always those people that lack the foresight and intuition to respond to the changing trends of time. Ten years ago, in 1986, industry scoffed at the idea of a large format, computerized, cutting system becoming the main work tool for the trade. The resistance to change at that time was severe. Seven years ago most plotter manufactures laughed at the idea of a low wattage Roll Feed Laser system and could not see the potential for manufacturing one. Look at what is happening today, Since 1990, the number and diversity of applications for low wattage CO2, Nd:YAG and Diode laser systems have exploded. The CO2 laser market has grown on average of 60% per year. More people are recognizing the benefits of using a CO2 laser over other traditional manufacturing tools. Machinery like dies, routers, hot knives, and mechanical engravers are being replaced with affordable low wattage RFL systems. Ink jet printers, in some applications, are losing ground to the advancing low wattage laser used for marking.

What does this mean?

In what other business can you invest in a piece of equipment to produce such a variety of different products? Products can be manufactured using plastic, woods, fabrics, rubber, and metals. Because the kerf is very narrow and the laser controlled by a computer nearly any design can be cut. It is just as easy to cut one design as it is to cut a million. Comparing this too most manufacturing equipment, you could invest $50K to $500K on an offset printing press. However, you can only use this equipment to print on a specific type of material. A silkscreener, sign maker, engraver, or for that matter most everyone in the manufacturing field, will purchase a specific piece of manufacturing equipment to accomplish a specific task. A machinist may be one of the only people that will purchase a piece of equipment and be able to work a small number of different materials. The machinists’ limitations show up in the restricted types of designs he can shape. Nevertheless, even a machinist’s tools cannot work with the variety of materials and designs that one can attain using a Roll Feed Laser.

Acquiring capital equipment is usually difficult for a new or growing business. Capital investment is one of the major issues for a new or growing business. To a start-up company, or a company that is seeking to reinvest, capital investment is the one main issue that is becoming harder to justify. A piece of capital equipment that is designed for just one purpose is not cost effective when a multifunctional alternative is available. The capital investment to produce an exclusive product has become such an immense cost that these moneys are rapidly shrinking. Switching to the use of a laser for manufacturing is a contemporary new process. A process that, if not adhered to, could cost the business owner market share, and ultimately his market completely. Most of us have known someone that this has happened to in the past. Reluctance to change can cause the demise of any very good company. EdgeWISE Tools is unaware of any other process that can produce the variety of products and open up design creativity as much as what you get when you use the RFL. Nowhere else can you work with paper to plastic to wood and pretty much everything in-between and back again with one piece of equipment. The only challenge now is left up to the ingenuity of the owner or operator to produce the product.

Since a laser does not come in contact with or use force on the material being manufactured spoilage can be drastically reduced. Lasers will increase a companies yield. Some surveys show a yield rate of 95% to 99%. Having owned a graphic arts manufacturing facility in the late 1980’s, on the best of days the yield was 80% to 85% and on average the yield rate would be 75% to 80%. The lack of contact with materials attributes to the higher yield rates. Because the process of using a laser is automated, the process tends to be far more repeatable than most methods. Once the process starts, it is frozen and day to day repeatability is maintained.

The future is at hand!

Imagine the industrial revolution...now imagine the industrial revolution with mass customization. A comparable example mass-customization is the jeans industry. Only the affluent could afford to purchase a pair of custom-made jeans from a tailor. Most consumers can only buy jeans in sizes manufactured to suit the cost of production, not body shapes. As mass-customization technology is available, manufacturers need to again provide the American people with a quality product. The jeans and roll feed laser industries are forerunners in the race to make mass-customized products accessible to consumers

The industrial revolution made products affordable by mass-production. This mass-production required only one setup to produce thousands of pieces. The cost for tooling is one of the largest expenses, which controls the break-even-point. During the industrial revolution, customization was compromised to maintain low manufacturing costs. Today, however, you have the opportunity to choose to take the next step to processing power, user-friendly software, low wattage laser technology, and minimal to no setup time. As you contemplate capital investments, consider end-product quality, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency of roll feed laser technology.

Written in 1996 by:

Patrick J. Momany, Founder of EdgeWISE Tools, Inc. www.ewt-inc.com

Edited by:

Marty Kalberer, Laser Systems Engineer.