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PA OPINION

Meet consumer demand for customisation without breaking the bank

Personalised products used to be premium offerings that only direct to consumer retailers could deliver. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it was manufacturers’ job to produce standardised, low-price goods for mass markets. Now the lines are blurring. Consumers are asking why they can’t have it all – personalised products, at low prices and available on demand.

Ambitious manufacturers have spotted the opportunity this presents. The confectionery industry, for example, already customises products for special occasions like Christmas or Hallowe’en. This ‘mass market customisation’ has become a significant source of revenue – and there are plenty more opportunities out there.

Consumers are looking for personalised products to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries (individual regular occasions). There’s also an appetite for ‘special edition’ products that tie in with events like sports tournaments or elections (mass-market irregular occasions). And uniquely personalised gifts for other events, such as graduation or a job well done, (individual irregular occasions) are in high demand too.

Want a piece of the pie?

You’re probably looking at these options and wondering how you can access this revenue stream and still stay profitable. And how you can do it before your competitors.

Seizing these opportunities does feel a bit ‘all or nothing’. If you’re not careful, it can get very complicated. Will you be able to make and deliver personalised products as fast as customers want them? How will you predict demand and how will you establish the direct relationship with consumers that personalisation requires? Will you be able to produce these personalised products at a price that consumers like, but still at a profit?

The challenges vary according to whether you’re looking to customise for mass markets or sell to individuals, and whether you’re targeting regular or irregular occasions. Digital technologies hold the key.

Digital supply chain

You’ll need to adapt existing supply chains to take orders from consumers rather than retailers. That means having intelligent ways of grouping similar items to reduce the burden on manufacturing and the logistics in place to send products direct to consumers.

Digital manufacturing

You’ll need to re-invent existing manufacturing operations to handle the variations that consumers demand. The goal is to manufacture smaller and smaller batches (possibly even batches of one) at speeds and efficiencies that keep your cost base sustainable.

But which do you develop first?

My recommendation is to focus on the ability to manufacture the products first. Begin by targeting the mass market for irregular occasions, which doesn’t require the same consumer relationship that selling to individuals does. That way, you can drive immediate benefit to the business and start to build a business case for the IT infrastructure, brand and logistics changes needed for a direct-to-consumer relationship.

Technology top picks

There are several technologies that can help reduce your minimum batch size to single units and still meet your price point.

Technology available now

High-speed, high-quality printing
Digital inkjet printing lets you create customised product packaging, while edible inks let you print messages and high-quality images directly onto a product.

Collaborative robotics
Robotics can help you customise products more efficiently and make a ‘manual line’ price competitive. Essentially, people do the customisation while robots perform the more repetitive tasks like product presentation, component selection and order management.

Technologies coming soon

Late-stage additions
As depositing technologies become more accurate, micro-dosing of intense solutions becomes possible. This means you can add expensive ingredients at the end of a process or only where needed.

Modular technology
These are designed to be ‘snapped’ in and out of machinery according to demand so you could, for example, change the shape of a cutting tool quickly.

Technologies on the horizon

High-speed additive manufacturing
Additive manufacturing, often called 3D printing, is a well-known but slow process. Being able to create complex 3D structures at normal rates would allow new product functions, textures and production opportunities.

AI and vision-guided robotics
Artificial intelligence could help optimise product management. It could also feed processing information into vision-guided robotics to enable near tool-less manufacturing.

Even further into future, manufacturing-driven marketing will close the loop and help you benefit from the direct relationships you’ve built with consumers. Wouldn’t it be great if you could switch to marketing alternative products when stocks of ingredients fall or critical machines require maintenance? Driving a subtle change in demand from consumers could help balance out supply chain and manufacturing stresses.

For now, though, the message is clear. Implement what you can to gain immediate benefits within existing markets and access some new ones. At the same time, invest in developing technologies so you can be among the first to access the opportunities created by changing consumer demands.

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