Commentary by Heidi Biggs
In his thesis, industrial designer Zerong Yang uses custom computer mice as an object to think through dual problem spaces. First, his custom mice are designed to alleviate carpal tunnel pain, and second, his mouse design explores an emerging business model for creating hyper-custom objects using on-demand manufacturing. As an avid gamer, Zerong and his gaming community are no strangers to mouse-induced carpal tunnel pain. In fact, he mentioned his own wrist pain partly inspired this project. But beyond his own repetitive stress injuries, he wanted to develop his business acumen through his thesis so he decided to use custom mouse design as a space for developing bespoke, rapid, on-demand manufacturing models. His business model integrates a user’s specific hand size, grip style, and mouse shape and specs, and uses 3D scanning, generative AI, and 3D printing to create bespoke mouse products that uniquely fit each user’s hand and wrist in ways that relieve pain.
To understand the design space, Zerong conducted research using surveys to understand user pain points (literally), price ceilings, secondary medical research about carpal tunnel, and did materials and manufacturing trials, to develop a service design and product manufacturing model for bespoke mice. His service works like this: a person orders a custom mouse by taking a quiz that helps them choose all of the base-level customizations like numbers of side buttons, grip type, etc. The buyer is then sent a kit that includes a thermoplastic mold they use to transfer their unique hand positions. The mold is sent back, 3D scanned, and run through a generative AI which creates a file ready for printing on a 3D printer, complete with all customizations. Finally, a bespoke mouse is 3D printed, assembled, and sent off to the consumer.
Zerong calls this business model ‘system customization’, which is different than current manufacturing models of mass production and mass customization. Mass production is what we think of when we think of things coming ‘as is’ while mass customization can be experienced when someone creates a custom shoe using an online shoe designer tool or customizes the features of their car. System customization, on the other hand, uses base parts that are mass-produced, which can be modularly combined with highly personalized components using on-demand manufacturing. While this product is helpful for people with wrist pain, it also demonstrates the different ways that design can intervene in business. There are so many ways that design can be oriented, and Zerong’s approach, which explores emerging manufacturing models and customizable ergonomic aids is a valuable addition to ways to think through how emerging tech co-shapes the design of products, the pace, and possibilities of manufacturing and futures of healthcare.