Advanced manufacturing: getting what you want

When the term mass customisation was first coined in the 1980s, it conjured up visions of large production lines churning out complex items, such as engines, that could be personalised using sophisticated automation.

Now the idea of making multiple varieties of products, within an overall system of mass production, has become sufficiently widespread that it encompasses a much larger range of manufacturing approaches.

Peer below the surface and it becomes clear that, for many UK manufacturers, ways of combining the economies of scale of high-tech automation with making bespoke products is a key to their ability to prosper.

At one end of the scale is Bouncepad, a small business in London which is a world leader in making specialised holders for iPads and other tablets that are personalised to suit the needs of all sorts of customers from retailers to museums.

“We use a form of mass customisation to give people what they want,” says Tobi Schneidler, Bouncepad’s chief executive. “We make a range of 12 different types of tablet, but if you count the variations beneath these then you come up with tens of thousands of possibilities.”

The diversity is catered for by building up each individual product from about 20 metal or plastic parts made by external suppliers. The companies use the same 3D-design software as Bouncepad’s engineers. The job of putting together the complete holders is left to Bouncepad’s in-house production workers, who follow assembly routines prescribed by the design software.

For many UK manufacturers, ways of combining the economies of scale of high-tech automation with making bespoke products is a key to their ability to prosper

A similar approach is evident at Tibard, a Manchester-based maker of chef’s uniforms and other clothing worn by catering staff employed, for instance, in chains of high-street restaurants.

The proliferation of styles of clothes favoured by specific catering businesses has led to Tibard adopting a strategy of mass customisation. This aims to make it possible to produce individual types of garment in small volumes or as one-offs, while keeping costs down and production throughput high with close co-ordination of the key cutting and stitching operations done in the factory.

Something closer to the original vision for mass customisation can be seen on the production line at Britain’s biggest car plant, run by Nissan in Sunderland. The Japanese company’s best-selling Qashqai vehicle can be made in 24,000 varieties, dependent on the choices possible over such key components as body frames and engines, plus the myriad of smaller parts that are important in giving a car its identity.

Flexible automation, including a small army of robots putting together body panels, is important in helping the plant to produce such a range of car types.

A further example is the pioneering Nanoco plant in Runcorn where microscopic quantum dots are produced for applications such as coatings for TV screens. The precise size and chemical nature of the dots can be engineered by Nanoco’s technicians using a series of control mechanisms to provide products with different properties.