How ‘mass customisation’ could be part of smart manufacturing in the future

16 Sep 2020

Michael O'Sullivan, PhD candidate at UL. Image: Michael O'Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan has developed a methodology for finding how to make mass-produced, customised 3D-printed products a feasible reality.

Michael O’Sullivan is a PhD candidate based at the School of Engineering at University of Limerick (UL). He received his BSc in product design and technology in 2016 and began his PhD after graduating.

He spent the first three years working on the EU Horizon 2020 project iBUS and is now a researcher at Science Foundation Ireland’s Confirm smart manufacturing centre. As a Fulbright-Enterprise Ireland student with the Georgia Institute of Technology, O’Sullivan will explore how his research could be used to inform new design and manufacturing methods in industry 4.0.

‘While my work relates to smart manufacturing and automation, my findings highlight the importance of human interaction when applying these technologies’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Studying product design gave me a real appreciation for great products and customer experiences, so I knew that I eventually wanted to try building my own. However, when I graduated, I didn’t have any particular product idea I wanted to pursue.

So I thought that the PhD position would give me a chance to research some interesting topics and test some ideas, while also providing continued access to great people and equipment in UL. Of course, acquiring a second degree and some experience would also provide me with a decent backup plan, given the high failure rate of start-ups.

Sure enough, it worked out. I enjoyed my research and got to present my findings at project meetings and conferences all over Europe. Outside of my research, I tested several product and business ideas, made some great connections and gained a lot of valuable experience.

Now I’m working on a start-up idea that I hope to pursue full-time once I graduate next year. Even though I plan to pursue this entrepreneurial dream, I would love to come back to academia later in life and share what I learn with future students.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Industry 4.0 technologies like 3D printing and smart factories have led to a resurgence in hype for a concept called ‘mass customisation’. This is the ability to offer custom products at a price and efficiency near that of mass production.

If a company could adopt this strategy successfully, they would be able to satisfy each individual customer’s needs better, reach new market segments and only produce products once ordered, and thus cut down on waste and costs. These potential benefits have caused a lot of companies to just assume that they should adopt the strategy and so they offer customisation of their products just for the sake of it.

However, this means that customers must put effort into customising the product, pay more for it and wait longer to receive it. Because of this, most start-ups and even big companies such as Amazon and eBay have failed in their mass customisation efforts.

By studying examples of success and failure in this space and talking with experts, I realised that customisation only makes sense where its added value, as perceived by the customer, outweighs the added cost, effort and production time. As such, I developed a methodology that helps development teams to measure these variables and make the trade-off. Before taking it to companies, I tested and refined the methodology with several hundred final-year innovation students here in UL.

This meant that I could approach companies with confidence that my work would help them to figure out the type and level of customisation they should offer for their products, if any.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

While my work relates to smart manufacturing and automation, my findings highlight the importance of human interaction and interpretation when applying these technologies.

It’s reassuring to know that while there is likely to be significant lay-offs brought about by industry 4.0, there will definitely be necessity for humans in new, unforeseen roles.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, we were beginning to see signs of a shift from cheap mass production in China, with many countries hoping to bring manufacturing ‘home’. Limerick has seen great investment in this area in recent years and so I hope that my research will be of help.

However, there also appears to be potential for directly commercialising the research itself, with several companies expressing interest in a software derived from it. Indeed, this is why Enterprise Ireland have sponsored my Fulbright Award – to develop it further with one of the leading researchers in the field and to understand more about its commercial potential internationally.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Much of the work in my field has traditionally been done by those with either business or engineering backgrounds, which means I often come across mathematical models that I wouldn’t be too comfortable with.

While coming from a design background does allow me to bring a fresh approach and more human consideration to the field, it does sometimes make it difficult to compare my research to previous work and to put a label on it.

Having said that, I like being at the intersection of design, technology and business and it’s really only an issue when trying to explain to others what I do or when trying to figure out which journals I should be publishing in.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

It’s obviously great to see the work being done in critical areas like healthcare and climate change, but I’d love to see more research being done into space travel and living. In particular, I believe that human factors and interaction design appear to be underrepresented in this field.

As commercial space flights and interplanetary living continue to move closer to reality, I think it’s important that more consideration is given to how humans will interact with these products and systems. It’s something I’d love to get involved in later in life if I return to academia after industry.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.