The demand for product personalisation is a trend that is continuing to expand within the global consumer economy as customers enthusiastically seek out products that align with their individual preferences, personalities and lifestyles.
Whether it's securing a unique pair of trainers, a perfectly matched pot of paint, a custom-built car or a made-to-order computer, product customisation is becoming increasingly key to customer satisfaction.
And for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) who are looking to offer distinctive value for their customers, having the ability to build highly configurable and personalised electronic products can offer some distinct advantages.
The personalisation of electronic products
One strategy that is helping to satisfy the growing demand for product personalisation has been the introduction of postponement manufacturing - a "late-stage" configuration technique that enables electronics manufacturers to modify and differentiate a generic product in order to create a bespoke, made-to-order item.
Having the ability to configure electronic products to order offers manufacturers the flexibility to rapidly create different variations of the same product, to adapt the range of accessories and to customise packaging or instruction manuals depending on where, and to whom, the product is being shipped.
One of the core strengths of a postponement manufacturing approach is that a product that might once have required a lead-time of several months to build from scratch can be configured, tested, packaged and on its way to the end user in a matter of days.
What makes postponement manufacturing different from the standard build process is that it is split into two separate stages.
In the initial build stage, a generic version of the product (or what is sometimes termed an "embryo") can be partially created and then placed into stock until it is needed.
Upon receipt of a firm order, that "embryo" product can then be customised, tested, packaged and shipped to the end user - in many cases enabling manufacturers to fulfil new orders within a matter of days.
For the customer there is the benefit of quick turnaround and vastly reduced lead times, while for the manufacturer this staggered approach to manufacturing can offer distinct economies in terms of inventory control and waste reduction.
Finished items are only ever configured once a firm order has been received - which means there is no longer the need to build up costly and space-filling inventory to allow for that "just in case" scenario.
And the challenge of trying to second-guess the often unpredictable nature of customer demand is also massively eased.
How digital tools can aid postponement manufacturing
Increasingly too, the electronics manufacturing industry is starting to recognise the value of digital manufacturing technologies in further enhancing their manufacturing processes.
Agile automation software can be integrated with connected manufacturing equipment to cut down the development time, identify manufacturability issues and speed up low-volume production runs so electronics manufacturers can create even faster iterations of their designs.
Rapid injection moulding techniques can now also be combined with conventional CNC machining to reduce prototype production from months down to a matter of days.
And cutting-edge 3D printing technology, whether used on its own or in tandem with conventional manufacturing processes, has been shown to reduce manufacturing lead times by as much as 80%.
By delaying final product assembly until your customer's requirements have been clearly defined electronics manufacturers can retain better control, they can offer a greater level of agility and they are better placed to respond quickly to new opportunities.
In theory postponement manufacturing may appear to be a fairly simple concept. In practice however it will rely on a high degree of collaboration between an OEM and their electronics manufacturing services (EMS) partner - with access to a robust and highly transparent supply chain.
If you're only outsourcing small parts of your product, if variation isn't core to your business, or if you're after the cheapest supply option then postponement manufacturing most likely won't be for you.
But if you design and sell highly configurable or personalised electronics products, then you could well find that adopting a postponement manufacturing strategy solves your forecasting challenges, that it saves you money and that it helps you deliver even better products.
What's more, in an industry where personalisation is so highly valued, any electronics manufacturer who can add agility and flexibility to their build process through the addition of digital tools is undoubtedly going to have the edge over their competitors.