Historically, manufacturers and online retail companies have been forced to limit customization options based on quantity and scale. To produce an original design or custom option, manufacturers would need to produce a new mold, or set up large-scale equipment; if they only produced one item, they wouldn't generate enough revenue to make up for those high initial costs.

Accordingly, they demanded minimum quantities in their run. Customers who wanted something truly unique would have two options: pay out the nose for a single, customized item, or commit to buying at least 100 (or 1,000). And businesses didn't have much flexibility--they could only offer customization to individual customers, at a small scale, if they could offer it at all.

Two technologies are changing this landscape, allowing online retailers and manufacturers to offer customization options to customers at scale: CAD Software and 3D printing.

How CAD Software and 3D Printing Work

Computer-aided design (CAD) software refers to any type of software that allows a user to easily create, model, modify, or analyze a design. CAD software has been used as early as the 1940s, but since the 2010s, there has been an explosion in both accessibility and ease-of-use in the CAD software world.

Advanced CAD systems are incredibly robust, allowing professional engineers and designers to focus meticulously on the details of their products without exhaustive time demands. And simpler options are open source--they're completely free, meaning any individual or business can use them to design custom work. Accordingly, designing new, customized products is easier and more accessible than ever.

Combine that with the prevalence of 3D printing. 3D printing is a technology that allows a person to easily manufacture just about any 3D design, without the need to manually create a new mold or set up expensive machinery. If you have a blueprint you've designed in your CAD software, you can send it to the printer, and it will create it. Modern 3D printers can print objects in a wide range of different materials, and even if there's something they can't create directly, they can likely create a mold for the product; this allows 3D printing to revolutionize even industries like jewelry.

With access to both of these technologies, it becomes feasible to offer highly customized options to individual customers, even when serving millions of people around the world. CAD is so accessible and 3D printing is so inexpensive that even single-product runs can be profitable. According to Anish Godha of Diamondere, "with the advent of 3D printing and CAD software, making molds for each design has become very quick and cost effective, which now makes it possible to manufacture one piece per design. This economy of scale is what Diamondere is built upon, as we can essentially customize products for each customer at scale. This allows customers to work directly with manufacturers to create custom pieces cost effectively, giving these retailers a degree of leverage over Amazon and other e-commerce behemoths."

Additionally, the ease of low-run manufacturing has reduced the burden of inventory. Historically, large-scale runs were the obvious choice for economic optimization; they were cheaper per-item. Accordingly, businesses would run tens of thousands of products at a time, and simply store them until customers bought them, ultimately wasting space, time, and money. Now, companies have more flexibility to produce products as needed, on demand.

Limiting Factors

CAD software and 3D printing has two major points of impact:

  • Cost-efficient norms. First, these technologies are changing what's "normal" for all manufacturers and online retailers. New options are available, both in terms of customer-facing offerings and back-of-house operational best practices.
  • Small business accessibility. Small businesses and entrepreneurs can suddenly compete with their larger competitors. They don't need access to million-dollar equipment, nor do they need high-volume orders to produce something original.

However, there are a few limiting factors. For starters, having access to CAD software doesn't mean you're capable of producing a unique, compelling design. For that, you'll need to hire a professional designer, engineer, or a team of experts like these. Additionally, because more companies are adopting strategies that incorporate 3D printing and CAD designs, you may need to work harder to make yourself stand out.

The Future of CAD Software and 3D Printing

3D printing is constantly advancing, providing manufacturers with even more capabilities, like different material access, more complex designs, and faster production. Similarly, both open source and paid CAD platforms are becoming more advanced--and more widely known. Over the next several years, we'll likely see the rise of more unique businesses built or grown on the foundation of these technological capabilities. When at-scale customizability is a real option even for small online businesses, the possibilities are limitless.

Published on: Feb 1, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.