Mass customisation and Wellington culture - a marriage made in heaven?

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The term mass customisation is one that will increasingly become common. (Feel free to say you heard it here first!)

An example is a pair of jeans, made, perhaps on the premise, exactly to fit the purchaser.

Wellington-originated, globally located (well San Francisco anyway) company Ponoko is an early example. Through its website, individuals can get one-off designs such as jewellery, laser-cut and delivered overnight. It describes itself as a 'personal factory'.

Founder and chief executive of start-up software company 77 Pieces, Sebastian Marino, says it "is interesting to be at the leading edge of the future of mass customisation." (See more about its unique software here.)

For the fashion industry, 77 Pieces has virtual prototyping software that enables a moving 3D image to be rendered from a two-dimensional pattern as it's created. Adjustments to either the pattern or image can flow backwards and forwards - something no one else in the world has done.

The company has selected clothing as the first market for its CAD-software, though the heavy mathematics and algorithm-based programme is suitable for any flexible material where users want to see the final shape and movement of their product designs.

"We provide the ability to make a pattern and to analyse the structure and understand what it's going to do," Marino says.

From an engineering point of view, a prediction of what a shape will be is very important. An example is pneumatic flexible sheeting (such as in a balloon), where it is necessary to understand how the structure will move as conditions change.

As part of this coming mass customisation "we're keen to be a next generation company rather than just a new company with a new trick up its sleeve," he says.

This includes new creation technologies such as 3D printing and CNC milling, items which may one day be cheap enough to be seen in a home situation.

Wellington is also a great place for 77 Pieces to develop its software products Marino says, "and is well-placed to be the next Silicon Valley."

The city can attract and keep talented people in the IT space for a number of intrinsic reasons such as a reasonable cost of living, a beautiful environment and nice people, says Marino, an American. As a film production expert, he and his team have and authored more than 30 mathematics based research papers, he could base himself virtually anywhere in the world.

"The country turns out great computer scientists from Victoria, Canterbury and Otago universities, as well as AUT, and Wellington can offer a compelling work experience," he says.

Many people don't realise it, but with Weta Digital headquartered in Wellington there's a constantly changing who's-who population of the computer graphics and computer science elite.

"When you're here you can walk down the street and bump into people who may be artists, researchers or professors from the most prestigious institutions in the world," he says.

"Overwhelmingly, everyone loves his or her time spent in Wellington. We certainly look to take full advantage of this opportunity, and give people an interesting and meaningful workplace should they want to take a break from visual effects, or a shop where where professors can send their top students to work or intern with us.

"All the intrinsic qualities are already here; good schools, reasonable cost of living, beautiful environment. To advance Wellington as a technology hub we need to create momentum, and for that we need to create more internationally competitive jobs."

Peter Kerr is a journalist, writer and consultant in the innovation space. View his work and that of 35 other scientists and science writers at Sciblogs, New Zealand's largest science blogging network.

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