The research and the industrial application

In a few weeks from now, I will have my PhD defense. Therefore, I have been preparing for the upcoming moment and thinking about the future work: the application of the research in the industry and possible partners for it.

mass customisation furniture

model for mass customisation in the furniture design industry

As part of this ongoing reflection, I have read two articles from FastCoDesign and I will relate my research to their content. One article, by John Brownlee, lists Marcus Engman’s (head of design at IKEA) seven predictions for the furniture design industry in the next 5/10 years. In the other Diana Budds explains an implementation of a design system – similar to the one I am proposing as part of my thesis – by the industrial designer and researcher Jonathan Olivares in collaboration with Zahner, a custom facade systems manufacturer.

Engman’s predictions relate with new furniture typologies, materials and mass customisation. According to him, new typologies will be designed as a response to the importance that interaction with digital devices play in the changing lifestyle in the home. Tables are increasingly becoming the central piece of furniture of homes, instead of the sofa, enabling people to “work, eat, play and socialize around.” Multifunctional furniture will also have a key role, as a result of the smaller spaces people in the Western societies live in. Accommodation of digital devices and the end of wire clutter will equally be a growing trend. The introduction of new and smarter materials, which may enable additional functions and even furniture shape reconfiguration, is amid Engman’s predictions.

However, the most promising prediction made by IKEA’s head of design is on achieving mass customisation, which he refers as personalisation, but with the same scope. In his words:

“I think this is one of the most interesting and promising areas to explore.”

According to him, 10 years will not be enough to fully achieve it. Although he does not detail the premise, the issues are connected with designing, fabricating and distributing customised designs on a mass scale.

The issue of designing is the main subject of my thesis. I propose a customisable design language encoded as a generative design system. The ultimate goal is to enable users to customise a generic layout according to their own intentions by using a configurator. My current focus is on the act of designing both the product (as a design language) and the system itself.

Considering a transposition of these principles to IKEA, the encoding of such a generative design system would be possible. IKEA is a modern mass producer and some of its product lines are based on modularity to provide choice to consumers, which can select from a list of predefined options. An effective mass customisation strategy requires digital information to connect on a large scale with potential consumers. IKEA’s digital strategy and the current encoding of such contents indicate their preparation to increase the degree of customisation in the next few years. IKEA’s planning tools are configurators enabling online customisation. In addition, the use of CG imagery is expanding greatly, as reported in this insightful article. Although these two types of digital information may not be directly related, since they refer to different phases of the product development process, they indicate a transition from a large company to encompass additional flexibility that can be serviced to consumers. According to my research, the implementation of a generative design system would provide consumers additional choice, by permitting a continuous customisation, i.e. enabling a consumer to customise a piece of furniture to his/her own idiosyncrasies (dimensions, configuration, aesthetics, materials and finishing). Implementing such a system in IKEA would require a more flexible network of fabricators and distributers, such as the one envisioned by Joschen Gros. The network should encompass a series of smaller-size manufacturers, to fabricate and distribute customised designs locally. IKEA would coordinate quality standards, in similar fashion to what they have been doing in outsourcing their production. Although it is possible to envision and maybe to implement such a scenario, the concept clashes with an important point of IKEA business strategy: cutting costs in distribution to provide affordable prices to consumers.

The development and implementation of a generative design system leads me to the second article. Jonathan Olivares developed a design system not for end consumers, but mostly for designers. In his case the product is a public bench, therefore the target of users (of the system) is different.

“The tool solves a couple problems present in the contract furniture market: flexibility, price transparency, ease of use, and accessibility. Professional designers can use the tool to create seating that meets the exact specifications of a project and all safety and durability requirements (…) and non-professionals can have the exact same access.” Jonathan Olivares

Although I have not tried the configurator yet (I am on a waiting list), the concept shares some resemblances with the generative design system I am proposing. In particular, it is based on an alphabet (in my case it is a shape grammar); Olivares set the minimum values for parameters (which I also did, minimum and maximum to establish the limits of the design language); and it is connected to a production system (which I only conceptualised, but did not tested the full integration).

Since I have not tested the configurator there are several conclusions I cannot make additional insights. I want to assess the design language, the possibilities of design, the limits of the language, the usability, the UI, expected time for delivery and so on. Nevertheless, these predictions and implementations make me eager to propose similar concepts to manufacturers. It is good to know that mass customisation is in fact coming to the design industry with greater flexibility than modularity.