The batch of one

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Branded fashion survives on exclusivity; limiting the supply and making something desirable and aspirational. Original paintings fetch more than the prints, and limiting the prints pushes up the value of both. But now more and more commoditised consumer products offer customisation, and customers have got used to demanding it: for example cars come with a multitude of options from added equipment through to colour and upholstery.

Manufacturers achieve this range of choice by completing the production process after selling the concept. Just in time manufacturing becomes just-after-the-sale manufacturing. This has the advantage of reducing stock and wastage, but creates a headache for supply chain logistics which needs to ensure all the specific parts are available at that time.

The logical conclusion for this type of manufacturing is the batch of one, where each version of the product is unique and bespoke. Common components, but potentially no two creations the same. 3D Printing is an enabler for this type of production, because the process can be produced on demand and with the necessary variations.

The idea of batches of one is not new. Anything handmade, hand painted, or hand crafted is arguably a batch of one, but often these are created from a plan or template, so things are not so different overall. The trend, however, is for complex physical production processes to become more and more individual so as to specify the colour, shape, weight, functionality, and so on.

But is manufacturing the only place we are seeing the batch of one concept applied? Actually not. Medicine is heading that way too. In the future, as genome mapping and genetic engineering becomes prevalent, so too will treatments that are tailored to the individual. Already medicine is becoming personalised, with various cocktails of pharmaceuticals being prescribed on a case-by-case basis. However, the natural endpoint for this is for the actual drug molecules to be dispensed into a carrier pill, the carrier serum or directly into the body just when needed. Each concoction uniquely tailored to the genetic make-up and current metabolic state of the specific human body.

Then comes education. Whilst attending the NEF Innovisions 2014 conference in London last week, much emphasis was placed on the changes ahead in teaching and training. How education is delivered is changing with the advent of digital content. But soon, the course, the exercises, the references and even the final examination and qualification could be delivered as a batch of one. A specific set of materials presented in a way that the particular student will most efficiently adsorb, retain and learn from, so as to provide an optimised set of skills for a very specific job or task.

This could go full circle of course – the uniquely trained human being becoming capable to develop unique products many times over, helped by medical treatments that keep him or her not just healthy, but specifically adapted to the task; be it with provision of training, nutrition, or medicine.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder