Parameterized Design on Demand

Here’s the scene. You’re at a friend’s house doing a little innocent bookshelf-snooping, when you spot something special. Oh my! It’s Wittgentstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus! At that moment, you realize that you too must have this book. Assuming you don’t want to steal or borrow your friend’s copy, you just need to note the title and author, and you can order it when you get home. But we live in a modern and impatient age. There’s a faster option: Open up your Amazon app, scan the barcode, and order the book instantly. It’ll probably be at your house before you’ve finished tomorrow’s lunch.

So the sequence goes like this: see, scan, order.

This routine is old hat for books. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that everything is going in this direction. Amazon is already using image recognition to help you identify things you might want to order. You can take a picture of your friend’s stapler, his egg timer, or his melon baller, and the Amazon app will do a credible job of helping you buy an exact copy.

What comes next? It seems pretty clear that before too long, everything will come with a unique digital identifier in the same way that every book comes with a unique bar-coded ISBN number. People don’t necessarily want visible bar codes hanging off their staplers and melon ballers, but near field communication and embedded IDs should make that unsightly problem go away.

So now you’re at your friend’s house, and you spot a side table that that would look great in your house. Your phone’s NFC chip reader tells you it’s a Tor side table from Model No. furniture. You can even order one right away, though you won’t get it instantly, since it’s generated on demand. So far, so good. But this is just the book story again, only about a table. But wait! Since it’s parameterized and generated on demand, you get some flexibility. It turns out your friend’s living room is larger than yours. If you want that table, it needs to be smaller. And you would prefer it in mauve. Conveniently, the Tor design, being parameterized, has a configurator that lets you make the necessary changes to its dimensions. You make it a little smaller in width and depth and place the order. The parameterization is built right into the unique model number.

What size table do you want?

The sequence now goes like this: see, scan, tweak design, order.

And in fact, modifying the Tor side table design is a real thing that Model No. furniture does, according to this article: Parametric Design and 3D Printing Deliver Custom, Sustainably Manufactured Furniture. Although, newsflash, this article is a year and a half old, and it appears that Model No. doesn’t do design customization anymore. But still, this is an idea whose time has come.

Drawing on ideas from the software world, it’s not hard to imagine an ecosystem of open-source furniture. Scanning a coffee table might take me to a GitHub-style page where I can find a list of suppliers who can print it, along with a configurator that lets me modify the design. Maybe I want to change the parameterization. Let’s say I want to make it so I can modify the height in addition to the depth and width. I can fork and refactor the configurator, verify the suppliers can still print it, and bam! I’ve added value for all subsequent purchasers of the table. Maybe I’ll even throw in an augmented reality model for simulation in my virtual living room model. This lets me anticipate how the final product will look in my house at every hour of the day.

Once design and manufacturing become amenable to consumer-driven digital inputs, a lot of fun things can happen. Refactorable parameterizers, procedural parameterizers, collaborative decorators, open repositories, renderers, simulators, AR walkthroughs, digital twins. All these things are on the way.

It’s going to get a lot easier to benefit from the good taste of your friends. But you’re never going to read that Wittgenstein book. Trust me.

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