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Guest Column: CONSUMERS - THE NEW DESIGNERS Indranil Mukherjee

10-January-2015
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Guest Column: CONSUMERS - THE NEW DESIGNERS Indranil Mukherjee

New product design is no longer confined to the well-funded R&D labs of large corporations and universities. Technology is changing the way products are created today, whether it is at a desk or on the shop floor. There has been a steady “democratization” of the product design space, which has brought the whole arcane, tightly controlled Design->Develop->Monetize cycle within reach of the ordinary person. Printers now can use materials other than ink and prototyping can take just hours. Highly specialized software help sharpen designer’s output in real time. Along with this, there’s a rapidly maturing ecosystem, that’s threatening to disturb the equilibrium established over the last several decades.

What’s this ecosystem and what’s the disruption anticipated? Are there additional opportunities for marketers to capitalize on?

The new product design space has witnessed massive changes since a number of new technologies have gone mainstream. A few years ago, we did not have individual board-game developers manufacturing products they personally designed, using 3-D Printers and selling them on Amazon. We do now. Along with the technologies themselves, we have the seen the emergence of radical new business and operating models, such as peer-to-peer product innovation and crowdsourcing. Xiaomi in China has crowd-sourced features of its mobile phones. Unimaginable 5 years ago! 

Product design and development have moved closer to the end-consumer than ever before.

What are key factors driving this burgeoning eco-system today?

Emergence of heavily customizable cores

There are a number of platforms for consumers to design and build electronic and mobile projects and products around a standard core. Arduino is a open source electronics platform that has spawned a range of interactive projects around the globe. Raspberry Pi is another low cost, credit card sized computer with the ability to interact with the outside world. It has become the platform for a wide array of digital projects, some of which could become full -ledged productsFinally, there is Project Ara from Google that offers consumers limitless possibilities to design their very own Android based smartphones.

Introduction of brand-new materials for Prototyping

New innovations have uncovered materials that allow rapid creation of mechanical prototypes and fix-it projects. These in turn spawned new product ideas. Sugru is the world’s first mouldable glue that turns into rubber after curing. It is revolutionizing the world of prototype creation. ShapeLock is an “Ultra-high Molecular Weight Low Temperature Thermoplastic” - another easily available and affordable material that’s seeing interesting use everyday.

Easier access to high-end machine shops

In the past, a deterrent to physical design was easy access to high-end manufacturing setups. Now, firms like TechShop, allow designers with new product ideas ready and affordable access to tools, software and space. As claimed on its website, TechShop is part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hacker space and part learning center, backed by comprehensive instructions and expert staff who guide users through the entire process – in short everything the designer needs to bring ideas to life.

Specialized services to take new products and inventions to the market

Some new age firms are helping inventors and product designers monetize their ideas by offering specialized services around the whole commercial supply chain. InventHelp aims to have “everyday inventors patent and submit their ideas to companies”.  Quirky not only accepts new product ideas but takes selected ideas through a structured program that includes manufacturing and selling finished items on Quirky’s own eCommerce site. The inventor is involved in every step of the way.

So, how is this design ecosystem disrupting the existing equilibrium?

For one thing, the Consumer has emerged as the latest Design whiz kid and this model is disintermediating existing Customer – Supplier relations in a big way. Many thought that it would start and stop with Crowdsourcing of Product Design, but it didn’t and the big guys are onto this trend. GE’s Garages and Google’s Project Ara are but two examples that highlight the involvement of large players in this space. What this signals loud and clear is Hyper Customization is here to stay AND there’s money to be made by allowing customers to conveniently customize their own experiences with products (creating new products along the way, for all practical purposes). Few of these products will probably ever see volumes like an iPhone or a Kindle but the collective, connected intellect that will power the creation of these products will be strong enough to find niche markets for some of them, for sure.

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