Shop Customizable 3D Products Online? Of Course!

On a snowy Sunday afternoon in a cold Boston winter, my wife, my 3-year old and I put on thick winter gear and drove an hour to a furniture store in hopes that we could find a book shelf arrangement to put against two connected walls in our family room. Despite extensive internet research and looking at brochures of certain brands, we couldn’t find much information on options to fit our room or their corresponding prices. So, we hit the road in the cold snow, reluctantly.

We found ourselves in a showroom describing our ideas to an attentive sales lady. She would shuttle between the showroom and warehouse to bring out one pile of catalogs after another while we were waiting. We would pick several pictures from the piles of catalogs, and she would locate the part numbers and look up the prices of various arrangements on her computer according to the part numbers. After several hours, we came away with a piece of hand written paper listing prices of several components as shown in Figure 1. Of course, after getting home, we wanted to explore more ideas but couldn’t find updated product information or pricing. The shopping experience didn’t motivate us much to go back, so we had to “shelve” this purchase. We haven’t bought a bookshelf yet.

Figure 1. A handwritten piece of paper with bookshelf quotes.

We were certainly not alone in this case. In the fast adoption of e-commerce these days, online shopping has become part of our daily lives. Roughly 70 percent of my household purchases are done online, and it’s growing. Yet, it is amazing to see the lack of online consumer goods customization options. Yes, you may be able to switch between several window curtain pictures and sizes on a webpage, which may show you the updated prices, but a limited number of product webpages or online stores are equipped with this capability. And, remember, these pages present static images only. Yet, we live in a 3D world, and most products are designed in 3D models. Wouldn’t it be nice if a consumer could simply interrogate 3D-product models on a webpage, customize desirable options to their likings in an online catalog, and make informed decisions right away on a computer anywhere and anytime?

Well, that is indeed nice, and you can now do it. Check out the SOLIDWORKS Sell demonstration site showcasing nine online 3D-product configuration examples, as shown in Figure 2, on a wide spectrum of consumer goods including jewelry, furniture, eyeglasses and refrigerators.

Figure 2. Nine online 3D-product configuration examples powered by SOLIDWORKS Sell.

For example, Figure 3 shows an online catalog of URB-E lightweight, foldable electric vehicles. You can select colored materials of various components such as frames, baskets, fenders and inserts from the list on the right side. The 3D bicycle updates automatically per your selection in the viewport on the left side. Right in your browser, you are presented with an enormous digital catalog including hundreds or even millions of choices. Your tweaks are instantly reflected in the 3D-product model, which can be rotated and zoomed in and out for interactive and immersive interrogations.

Figure 3. URB-E 3D online catalog allows you to customize your own lightweight, foldable electric vehicles.

You can also add or remove components such as tail light, fenders and baskets. Figure 4 shows a detailed view on the tail light. Just click on “Tail Light: No” pointed by the green arrow to remove it.

Figure 4. A detailed view of the tail light.

Configurable components are selectable from both the list on the right side and the 3D viewport on the left side. For example, after I clicked on the top frame in the viewport, it was selected and highlighted with a light blue outline, as shown in Figure 5. The active component on the right side list automatically switched to the top frame to present the most relevant options. Components without configurable options by a manufacturer’s design will not be selectable, either in the viewport or the group list, such as the seat in the URB-E case.

Figure 5. Selecting a component in the viewport automatically activates the corresponding component in the group list on the right side.

This leads to a frequent question I hear from manufacturers. What if a consumer picked a configuration that a factory couldn’t build? Don’t worry. All the options, even millions of them, are completely controlled by a manufacturer, which decides what is allowed for online customization and what is not. In other words, the degree of customization enabled is only a reflection of the manufacturing profitability, capability and capacity. It won’t go boundless—although it may seem close for consumers thanks to the rich selections. Furthermore, it can be adjusted as circumstances change. For example, if URB-E finds the business case justifiable for more seat options beyond the current fixed one, it can easily add more.

On the other hand, manufacturers can remove options based on online catalog analytics to optimize business performance. For instance, if the fender customization resulted in expensive additional manufacturing costs, then it would be natural to ask the question: “Is it worth the cost?” An online A/B test can help gain insights. Two catalogs, with and without the fender customization, can be loaded on a webpage to two randomly selected visitor groups of the same quantity during the same period of time. If there was not much difference in the online traffic data or revenue, then it may mean the fender customization did not drive as much value as expected, despite the costly production introduced by multiple varieties. URB-E may decide to make fenders as a fixed single option. Of course, a similar test can be done easily to see whether the fenders should be removed completely for the best business return.

Coming back to my bookshelf purchasing experience, I didn’t know SOLIDWORKS Sell back then but literally suggested a similar idea to the diligent sales lady. The selection, customization, part number lookup, quoting and purchasing could have been much more streamlined if their furniture information was digitally available online in 3D-configurable products. The consumer shopping experience would have been much more empowering, convenient, interactive and immersive. In the fast development of e-commerce in the internet age, what percentage of your shopping is done online now? How do you see online 3D configurations applied to your products?  You are welcome to leave your thoughts in the comments area below. To learn more about how SOLIDWORKS Sell can help promote your ideas and products, please visit its product page.

About the Author

Oboe Wu is a SOLIDWORKS product manager with 20 years of experience in engineering and software. He is an advocate of model-based enterprise and smart manufacturing.


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