Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 5: post-assembly line production and the emergence of a new personalized production capability 1

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on May 25, 2013

This is my fifth installment in a series on the changing nature of production and commoditization (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 364 and loosely following for Parts 1-4.)

I want to start this posting by stating that old approaches to production and manufacturing productivity do not go away. Specific products and services do; they come and go. But the basic approaches to production persist, even if they do shift for the overall percentage of marketplace entries that they individually provide.

• Artisanal production still thrives, even if primarily for specialty and niche markets and for products where hand craftsmanship and the unique individuality of the hand-produced still equates with defining value.
• Mass production as exemplified by the assembly line predominates where completely standardized and per-unit cost effective are seen as offering greater overall value.
• Neither is likely to go away, and even if a third approach is developed and as a significantly valued source of marketplace options.

With that in mind, I turn here in this series to consider what might be the early and even embryonic stage of development of a manufacturing approach that I see as offering that third-way alternative: personalized automated production. And as working examples of this, I will at least briefly discuss two emerging examples of this phenomenon, one of which I do not expect to see take off except as a niche market capability, and one of which I see as holding still unknown but perhaps more significant market potential:

On-demand printing and book publication, and
3-Dimensional printing and particularly if it is developed to its full potential.

On-Demand Printing and Publication: According to alibris and its Interloc, out of print search and sales service, something over 99% of all published books worldwide are out of print.

• According to that logic, some 99% of all books that are currently in print and available as new right now, will go out of print as soon as their current and any immediately succeeding and selling print runs are sold out – or when these books are remaindered as they drop for their immediate public interest and are no longer selling fast enough.
• Most of these books that get published by standard mainstream publishers at all, only go through one printing before they disappear as currently available, in-print offerings.
• And the costs and returns dynamics of this industry serve to limit what can get published through a traditional book publication and by standard publisher processes in the first place. The up-front costs of prepublication editing, printing set-up and marketing expenses, to cite just a few of the cost centers involved here, dictate significant minimum publication runs if these costs are to be amortized across book copies sold, to a per-unit cost increase that is low enough to keep these books competitively priced to the consumer.
• The economics of this limit access to publication to titles and to authors that editors and publishers see as selling in at least minimum acceptable volumes within a relatively short timeframe to make publishing their work a financially sound investment.

The basic economics of mass production systems, as have been touched upon in this series, limit the range of end-product options that can be offered at any one time, and the open-ended nature of book writing means there will always be more and even vastly more material that could be published than ever would be – in a traditional book publication system and industry.

Mass market offerings might get published and certainly when a significant level of consumer and book buying interest can be expected and within a tight timeframe. But in many and even most cases they would disappear from the shelves and from currently published status very quickly, and niche market publications with limited target audiences would face daunting challenges to ever getting published at all.

Publication through traditional vanity and self-publication publishing house channels comprise an alternative to this standard publishing business model and have been an available option for quite a while for at least select types of market niche. But any and all up-front publication costs are generally paid for by the author when they publish through these routes and even there, set-up and minimal print-run requirements for this have traditionally posed barrier channels for many. So even when a writer who seeks to be a published author pursues a vanity or self-publication approach to get into print, barriers and disincentives to doing so can be significant. And much that could in principle be published and publically offered cannot be.

And with that background, I arrive at on-demand printing:

• When print set-up costs and effort are minimal to essentially nonexistent, and when publishers do not see need to pre-edit or editorially manage, and when any marketing and advertising and related expenses can be discounted, and when a publisher can switch on the fly from publishing any one book or publication to any other without having to make equipment or resource commitments that would be timely and expensive to switch out of, on-the-fly printing on-demand becomes a possible and even an attractive alternative.
• Publishing directly from preformatted electronic files onto stock paper and with similarly formatted and set up covers goes a lot way toward making that possible, and particularly where most if not all set-up and publication processes can be standardized and automated.

Major corporations with multiple business lines have gotten involved in providing these faster and more responsive publishing services. Amazon.com and their BookSurge on-demand publishing arm comes immediately to mind here as a working example. A wide range of specialty on-demand publishers have also emerged for addressing the on-demand printing and publishing market with businesses such as Cafe Press coming to mind as current examples, as of this writing. But perhaps the most interesting case study example I could cite here for this posting is the development and emergence of a fully automated print on-demand consumer operated printing machine:

• That can be positioned in public libraries or other locations, and
• That a consumer can print books and other documents from and with professional looking binding and paperback covers,
• As if they were operating a vending machine: the Espresso Book Machine.

And with that, on-demand printing matures into a fundamentally new printing and publication option where publisher gatekeepers are effectively removable from this process and writers can in effect publish their work with a professional appearance themselves.

But the e-document capabilities that make on-demand printing and publication cost-effectively possible as a new and emerging financially valid option, coupled with development and public acceptance of e-readers have made much of on-demand printing a moot point and have even come to challenge print publication as a whole. And this is why I began my discussion of third alternative approaches to production and manufacturing with on-demand printing.

• The alternative of e-books and readers supplanting the need for printed versions even as much of the underlying tech responsible for the e-book revolution has also made on-demand printing possible too.
• The examples that really work, and long term have to show stability in the face of concurrent change.

I expect more conventional print publishers to be around for quite a while, and certainly through any foreseeable future. But e-book and paperless publishing, access sales and copy distribution will continue to expand in reach and significance. And on-demand print publishing will probably continue and thrive as a specific niche market arena too.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will look into 3-dimensional printing. And as a foretaste of that, if this manufacturing approach is to take off as a vital approach to personalized automated production, its technology advancement will proceed along a lot more lines than simply building to finer granularity of detail and design, and with wider ranges of materials. 3-dimensional printing will also come to include smart capabilities such as inclusion of programmable circuits on and in the finished products. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 continuation page.

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