Personalised solutions 02 July 2024

robots (Image credit: ABB Robotics)

A wave of personalisation has swept across the consumer marketplace in recent years. Julian Ware, UK and Ireland sales manager for ABB robotics, explains how robotic automation can support manufacturers to meet this accelerating trend

From cars to cosmetics and everything in between, customers are increasingly on the lookout for highly personalised products and services. According to Twilio’s ‘The State of Personalization 2023’ report, nearly 69% of business leaders are already increasing their investment in personalisation and more than nine in 10 businesses are using AI-driven personalisation to drive growth.

In most sectors, two underlying factors must be in place for businesses to target individual customers more effectively: data and flexibility.


First, companies need reliable data so they know who their customers are and can better anticipate what they want. Data is key for companies offering personalised physical products, as well as those looking to target customers with more granular marketing campaigns or with tailored service offerings.

For many manufacturers in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), retailers are the bridge between them and the end consumer and it is the retailers who are the gatekeepers of valuable data about customers and their previous purchasing behaviour.

Increasingly, however, companies are opting to sell products using the more direct business-to-consumer (B2C) model – often via social media. This route offers companies a choice of several far-reaching, consumer-facing platforms, with low barriers to entry and unfiltered access to a wealth of consumer data. Market entrants may choose to sell exclusively through B2C channels while, for more established companies, B2C can complement the conventional business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C) model.

As well as personal customer data, useful input might include data from any number of external sources, such as weather reports that can predict when barbecue season is about to hit or sports feeds that can alert companies when fans will be shopping for extra beers and snacks, for example.

Trust and transparency are clearly essential if consumers are being asked to pass their personal data on to companies. Only 51% of us actually trust brands to use data responsibly, according to the Twilio research, although it’s unclear whether this niggling anxiety actually prevents many people from handing their data over in return for a better shopping experience.


For those companies offering physical products, the second key requirement is a production system that can adapt easily to meet ever changing demands. From lower-cost FMCG and clothing to major items such as cars or houses, more and more items are typically being offered in a host of custom configurations.

For production operations, true flexibility might mean the ability to generate short runs or one-off custom designs, or to ramp production up or down according to the weather or other key drivers.

With its inherent flexibility, robotic automation is well placed to meet the transformation towards personalisation. The latest generation of robots can work with enabling technologies such as 3D printing and AI-driven software to support the manufacture of an expanding range of individual products.


One of the biggest challenges of applying traditional automation to short runs and one-off products is the requirement to program or ‘teach’ the robot to make each product. New programming techniques and the arrival of AI and machine learning are rapidly eroding this obstacle.

For example, Dutch staircase manufacturer EeStairs wanted an automated solution to increase production capacity for its 1m2 range

of precision-welded spiral staircases. It also wanted to offer a variety of customisable options without its operators having to reprogram the robots each time to tweak the design.

System integrator RobWelding delivered a solution using two IRB 4600 robots from ABB – one for handling parts and the other for welding them together. The solution also includes a system that has the ability to translate customer specifications directly into corresponding robotic actions.

Although the construction of the staircases is standardised, no two individual items are exactly the same. The height of the staircase can vary from 2m to 3.2m, for example, and each robot arm must be able to work through a full 360° range of motion.

Customers configure their ideal staircase via the company’s website, so RobWelding designed converter software to turn customer preferences from the online configurator into a virtual 3D model. This process automatically generates all the coordinates for welding and step placement, instructing the robots via an IRC5 controller. The handling robot takes each step from a crate and holds it in position against the central column while the welding robot gets to work.

The automated system has quadrupled production capacity on the 1m2 range and freed up EeStairs’ highly skilled welders to work on the company’s other products.


The widespread deployment of robotic 3D printing technology promises to be especially game-changing for custom builds in the construction industry. It’s relatively early days, but robots have already been used to 3D print buildings in concrete on site, including a two-story admin building in Dubai and Europe’s first legally habitable 3D-printed house in the Netherlands.

3D concrete printing enables complex shapes to be produced in-situ and offers more freedom in terms of shape and form. It also makes it easier to incorporate functional elements into the overall structure from the start. This added freedom means that buildings can often be made stronger without the need to increase structural density. This in turn reduces the total amount of material and the weight in the final structure, which is great for sustainability.

Looking beyond standard concrete, 3D printing can also increase circularity and sustainability by reusing potentially harmful or environmentally unfriendly by-products from other industries as building materials. Fly ash and slag from the coal and steel industries, glass and plastic are all possible candidates. Where recycled glass is available, for instance, it can be used as a substitute for construction sand in cement mixes.

Taken together, the sustainability advantages of 3D printing and the wider improvements in health and safety that robotic automation typically delivers will enhance the reputation of construction companies as responsible actors and good employers.

The impact of personalised products on the environment was also high on the agenda at a very public demonstration of the potential for 3D printing in 2022, when an ABB robot took up residence in the window of the world-famous Selfridges store in London. Shoppers saw an ABB robot 3D printing a variety of personalised designer objects made from Parley Ocean Plastic – intercepted marine plastic debris collected from Parley’s Global Cleanup network.

The 3D printing demonstration was part of Selfridges’ SUPERMARKET concept, which challenges consumers to think about how the goods they purchase are produced and the impact of this production on the environment.

Developed in partnership with Parley for the Oceans and innovative design brand, Nagami, the demonstration used ABB’s simulation software, RobotStudio and an IRB 6700 robot to create a variety of printed furniture, homeware, and other objects made from Parley Ocean Plastic. The robot worked with Nagami’s unique plastic extruder to print the objects, which could be selected by customers on a screen and made to order on the premises.

As well as underlining the importance of eco-innovation, the demonstration also highlighted the wider potential of robotic automation in helping retailers engage customers both through personalisation and so-called ‘retailtainment’.


In the automotive industry, ABB’s PixelPaint non-overspray technology eliminates the need for time-consuming masking and de-masking methods for two-tone painting, reducing time and costs, improving productivity and expanding the possibilities for customised paint schemes.

Today’s consumers are increasingly demanding individualised paint schemes for their vehicles, featuring either a contrast colour or a personalised paint finish or design. Satisfying this demand is now made easier with ABB’s PixelPaint solution, which incorporates an inkjet head, dosing control package, an IRB 5500 paint robot and easy-to-use RobotStudio programming software for two-tone and decorative painting applications.

Previously, applying a contrast colour on to bodywork required masking between paint processes. This needed up to 20 operators per shift, with two people to remove the masking when the second coat was complete. ABB’s PixelPaint non-overspray two-tone painting application removes the need for manual masking/de-masking – drastically cutting the time and material required for two-tone paint jobs.

Another operational improvements has seen wastage from overspray eliminated. With 100 percent of the paint being applied to the bodywork surface, there is zero overspray, greatly reducing operational costs and improving environmental performance by ensuring that no paint is lost to the drain.

Previously, adding a second colour to a vehicle body would mean having to make two runs through the paint shop, doubling cycle times and requiring additional operators to carry out masking and de-masking. By enabling the two-tone paint job to be applied on a single run, PixelPaint makes it possible to improve productivity from 20 to 100%. In addition, savings running into millions of dollars can be achieved by eliminating the need to build an extra paint shop to do the two-tone application as well as the consequent utilities savings resulting from reduced power, water and compressed air consumption.


The growth in popularity of personalisation shows no sign of slowing. Twilio’s 2023 research showed that over half (56%) of consumers said they will become repeat buyers after a personalised experience, which is a 7% increase year-on-year. Fast, flexible robotic automation has an important role to play in enabling manufacturers to meet this surging demand.

Operations Engineer

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ABB Robotics

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