The best ecommerce websites all have one simple aim; to get what the customer wants to them as quickly and as easily as possible. As consumers, we have come to expect the ultimate convenience. And that’s fine, for millions of discrete products hot off the production line.
But what about made-to-order products, like bespoke furniture? Can we close the gap and make those convenient too? Plenty of big brands have put product configurators on their websites – from Nike shoes to Tesla cars – giving users the chance to interact with and personalise their products. It provides the customer a great experience, who may value their purchase more highly for having contributed to the design. However, such unique products cannot be ‘mass produced’ in the traditional sense; they must be made to order. Does that mean they will cost double and take weeks to arrive?
While ‘made to order’ or ‘bespoke’ may be associated with high cost, low efficiency and long lead times, it doesn’t have to be. There is an opportunity for innovative manufacturers to automate bespoke elements of their production lines, granting a fast turnaround of unique product variations. Businesses invested in such technology can gain a competitive advantage, selling bespoke goods at mass production (i.e. affordable) costs, as well as prompt delivery.
In fact, as customer expectations continue to rise, we might see a shift in online shopping behaviour towards convenient ‘made to order’ across many business sectors. And why not, if the choice is between a ‘cookie-cutter’ compromise, or a personalised solution that better suits our needs?
For now, made to order is perhaps best known in the world of furniture. A growing number of homeowners prefer bespoke furnishings over shop-bought furniture, as they are looking for a made to measure or fitted solution, and are unwilling to compromise. Other factors tend to include a higher build quality, as well as the satisfaction of owning something unique that creates a statement.
Furniture manufacturers have the opportunity to adapt to a growing demand for bespoke, by adapting their production systems and engaging in new technologies. On the design side, many furniture websites are beginning to offer sophisticated design tools that allow customers to specify their desired product online. This ideally saves time and confusion between the customer and designer, as well as making the experience more fun and interactive. On the production side, there is potential to develop a workflow capable of handling completely unique orders, parts and processes. By using parametric furniture designs, supported by modern machinery, companies can realistically offer bespoke furniture at a rate nearly equivalent to standardised items.
What about Jali?
Jali is an award winning bespoke furniture company, striving to offer manufacture on demand. Since around 1995 the Jali website has been integrated directly with the factory, which along with most Jali machinery, was purpose built in house to provide automated bespoke production. Having the website and all the machinery driven by the same database, and control system, creates a seamless environment for bespoke orders flowing through the factory.
All Jali products are parametric, which means that the part designs can be automatically configured, according to a number of preset factors. For example, a wardrobe can be created at a specific height, width and depth. If any of those parameters are adjusted, some (or all) of the parts must adjust appropriately – including the array of fixings – so they still fit with the overall design. This is possible since they are defined by parameters rather than fixed numbers. In this way, the day to day need for a designer is almost entirely removed.
By using the online Jali designer, customers can adjust the parameters in 3D (with real time price updates) to create their ideal furniture.
When a Jali order is placed online, the constituent part descriptions immediately join a digital pool, which are automatically nested to all future boards for cutting. The nesting is optimised each second, as new parts become available, which maximises the board yield. Priority parts, like remakes, are always included on the next appropriate board. If boards must be cut before they are completely full, the system saves the offcut board in memory, which is re-nested and re-used at a later date.
Tools and extra items (like fixings) are all subject to an automated stock control process, with stock deducted and consequently re-ordered and replenished as each item quantity falls below preset thresholds – most often triggered by machine processes, and all with minimal human involvement. The system knows the location of every CNC tool, its precise height setting and life. So if a tool does break mid production, the custom CNC machines can easily recover their position and immediately continue with a back up tool from the magazine.
These are just some examples of Jali factory innovation that allow bespoke orders to be processed at a similar rate to many standard production lines. By utilising the technology, Jali believes it can produce versatile bespoke products without compromising the convenience factor. The easier it can be for the customer, the more widespread this approach will become – not just in furniture, but across many sectors.