Business 2.0, Design, Sustainability

3D printers and mass customisation

I had the opportunity to catch Lisa Harouni: A primer on 3D printing on TED recently. It’s a terrific introduction to what 3D printing is and why it’s important, especially for the manufacturing sector.

In preparing for the Stepping up workshop one of the themes that emerged in our thinking was “mass customisation” (including its relationship to “authenticity” which also manifests in social media). Mass customisation refers to the ability of customers to selectively design the products they purchase. Lisa highlights how this can then be extended to allow customers to produce the products at home as well.

Products can be quite complex, as the AirBike demonstrates. And 3D printers are rapidly decreasing in cost, with basic DIY models like the MakiBox coming it at USD$350. That provides some indication of what Harouni is referring to when she says their affordable and crossing over.

In her TED talk, Lisa also explores how just product data can be shipped, instead of physical product, to deliver a product to a customer. She also outlines how distributed manufacturing might work, where a customer defines their requirements and the data is shipped to a local manufacturer for production and delivery (with the potential of significantly lowering carbon footprint).

This type of distributed model brings to mind RiverSimple, which is a new car concept based on the principles of the hyper car, introduced by the Rocky Mountains Institute and outlined in more depth in Natural Capitalism.

Part of RiverSimple’s vision is to distribute manufacturing to local hubs, rather than centralising manufacturing in one country, or distributing manufacturing across a global supply chain. (As an aside, I see this approach as having both parallels and coming into conflict with Porter and Kramer’s “industry cluster” principle for creating shared value. Perhaps for another post…)

I’m interested in seeing how technologies like 3D printing develop, enabling these kinds of decentralised manufacturing models and enabling companies like RiverSimple to fulfil their vision. It’s worth noting that 3D

Business 2.0, Sustainability

The social side of sustainability

I’ve been thinking about how the techniques we use at Zumio suit organisations looking to become more sustainable. Sustainability, of course, is a social challenge as much as a technical one – while eco-efficiency (making products using more sustainable materials and processes) is a critical aspect, many of the barriers to more sustainable practice have social aspects.

Today I’ve been thinking about two areas in particular that can benefit from research and social design methods – they are Product Service Systems (PSS) and organisational capabilities building and communication.


While PSS in and of itself is not a panacea, the concept will no doubt play an important role in our shift towards a sustainable economy.

Qualitative research methods are very well suited to understanding the broader context of user needs and motivations, an essential component of defining and identifying opportunities for PSS.

Many of the benefits from service design principles (including prototyping and user testing) can then be applied to the development of the PSS to help increase uptake, among other things. An example of this can be seen in live|work’s work with Streetcar.

Organisational capacity building and communications

BSR and IDEO’s Aligned for Sustainability (PDF) report outlines a number of factors required for building sustainable thinking within an organisation. The report suggests that cross-functional communications, sharing learnings, and collaborative problem solving with people throughout an organisation are all important facets of building such capacity.

Social technologies, or “Enterprise 2.0” approaches, can clearly play an important role here. But design approaches such as stakeholder workshops, personas, customer journey mapping, prototyping – especially when collaboratively generated – can all help with both building capacity (through better sharing of learnings and incorporating more diverse input in the design process) and communicating concepts and learning.

So it seems to me that the same tools that we can apply to generate opportunities for innovation can also be applied to achieve sustainable outcomes. In this model, far from sustainability being an “added cost” over an above standard operations, we can instead frame sustainability thinking as a lever for innovation. To me, this is a very exciting prospect, and something I’m looking forward to exploring further…

Business 2.0, Sustainability


I came across Sourcemap (via FastCompany) the other day – a project by MIT that aims to map out where products come from, down to the material level in some cases. Check out the vid:

Getting Started with Open Supply Chains from Matthew Hockenberry on Vimeo.

From the site:

Sourcemap is a tool for producers, business owners and consumers to understand the impact of supply chains. Our site is a social network where anyone can contribute to a shared understanding of the story behind products.

I’ve long imagined tools like this making it easier for the public and other organisations to both determine the footprint of the products they use, but also to make this information available and learn from others in the process.

Acknowledging that the site is beta and still very early days (and also being a fan of the agile “fail early, learn often” approach) I don’t think the site yet lives up to the stated objective of telling the “story behind products” (such wording evokes images of initiatives such as Patagonia’s ‘The Footprint Chronicles’). That said, it seems to me to be a big step in that direction on a much broader level.

I like the fact that it is, in part, a crowdsourced approach. The QR codes that allow producers to create a URL pointer to the Sourcemap page for a product is also a nice touch – though I’m still not convinced about QR codes (I’ve not had much success using them personally, and the impression I get is that they are far from “mainstream”).

I’m also not sure what the business value for organisations opening up their supply data is – I suspect the emissions calculation aspect of the tool would not be totally sufficient to do so, but it will be interesting to see how the database develops over time. The about page hints that organisations wanting to promote their eco-credentials may also want to use the tool – I think this is probably a stronger “market”, albeit a potentially small one…

There are some parallels here with Nike’s attempt to open up its supply chain as part of their “Considered” product line and philosophy. While I agree with Joel Makower that radical transparency may not save the earth, tools such as Sourcemap will hopefully make it easier for organisations to become more transparent, which is definitely a good thing for customers and the environment, even if it is only part of the puzzle.