Many products, whether for consumer, industrial or technological applications, perform to a more or less satisfactory level. In today’s world, however, we want products that do more than just ‘perform’. This is just the base line; more and more of us want products that also express our individuality.

Bespoke design is the trend towards greater designed-in product individualisation; allowing consumers to choose or create products which uniquely express their values and personality.

Pre-industrial revolution, every product was ‘bespoke’ in that it was essentially handmade and therefore unique. (The word ‘bespoke*’ originated in the UK referring to hand-tailored clothing). Today, bespoke is more associated with premium-end products who want highly individual individualised choice. By definition, then the current perception of bespoke is expensive and exclusive.

So does the concept of bespoke design apply to high-volume, reasonably-priced products? Surely mass-produced bespoke products are an oxymoron.

The principle of bespoke design for high-volume products can be summarised to:

  • Wide colour or material choices to provide an exponential number of combinations
  • Additional or optional trim parts
  • User editable finishes
  • Digital manufacturing

Colour Choice

KeepCup is a reusable coffee cup developed by Cobalt for Bluebag and is a good example of the first category. Each of the component parts (cup, lid, plug and band) are available in several colours, creating an almost unlimited number of alternatives.

Trim Parts

Cars are a good example of optional trim parts to create differentiation. The growth of cars being ordered with body-kits has reached the majority of many models. The Mini Cooper is a particularly conspicuous example, even being available with Union Jack rear vision mirror trims which click into place. Additional trim parts have become almost standard for many mobile phones (with clip-on fronts and backs) and iPod skins designed to stretch over the casing. With some forethought these trim parts can also serve some functionality, such as covering fasteners or allowing alternative branding.

Custom Finishes

Early examples of user editable finishes sit on the edge of kitsch. These include having a picture of your cat on a coffee-mug or a personalised calendar. Worryingly, advances in printing technologies are now allowing consumers to transfer their own photos onto higher-value and longer lasting products, such as the plastic casing of their laptop; permanently inscribing Fido onto your Dell.

Whilst many of the above can rightfully be dismissed as novelty applications, eventually these technologies will mature to favour more tasteful and functional applications. For example, imagine creating a special pattern that co-ordinates across your home’s fridge, cabinets and soft-furnishings. For the time being, bespoke design is more suited to higher-value products used by a single person, the technologies and expectations created for consumers will eventually transfer to commercial and industrial products.

The Web is the Key

In all of the above cases, a key enabler of high-volume bespoke design for consumers is the internet. Through interactive websites like that by Mini Cooper, where product, branding and lifestyle choices are cleverly integrated into an interactive ‘build your own Mini’ section. Through the web, consumers can choose, visualise and order their own bespoke masterpieces. Tail-end software can also drive production processes and supply logistics. Without this digital interface, the retail complexity of this much choice would be too difficult to manage. The internet is the perfect interface for a market increasingly hungry to feel involved in the design and creation of ‘their’ new PC, car, coffee cup or garment.

Digital Manufacturing

The opportunities for personalising design are not just limited to aesthetic attributes. It can equally optimise functionality especially through digital manufacturing.

‘Digital (or direct) manufacturing’ generally refers to the scaling-up of rapid prototyping technologies to mass-production applications. Processes such as 3D printing, laser sintering or stereo lithography technologies were originally developed to produce one-off prototypes. These have transformed the product development process technologies but have limitations in terms of their material properties and finishes.

The next ‘quantum leap’ for manufacturing is to combine the flexibility and control of these techniques to produce parts of moderate cost in high-volume and in high quality materials.

Digital manufacturing’s attraction is in by-passing traditional manufacturing processes such as fabrication, tool-making, die-casting, moulding and assembly, with dramatic savings in time, materials, energy and other costs. There is also opportunity for significant reductions in adverse environmental impact.

These technologies have the potential to deliver significantly reduced time to market, cost and energy consumption savings as well as customer responsiveness. Digital manufacturing can also offer the opportunity to produce parts from difficult-to-fabricate materials such as titanium and nickel for applications in aerospace and automotive industries. They can also be used to create parts that cannot be physically made by any other technique.

Producing the Future

Digital manufacturing is not here yet, but research, technologies and industry are all working towards this, and already planning what the future may enable.
Cobalt are members of the Direct Manufacturing Technology Centre project, an initiative including CSIRO, Swinburne University and RMIT University and a number of leading manufacturing companies exploring direct and digital manufacturing.