Not too long ago, in all but the most niche industries, consumer choice was largely limited to a handful of options created for mass production. If someone wanted, say, a hot pink sports car with lime green seats, they would probably have to settle for a customized base model. The low demand for such a unique style choice would translate to a preemptive cost for availability direct from the factory.
But times are changing, and in many areas mass production has become hybridized with customization to allow for the production of unique goods at scale. Strategies for mass customization give customers the freedom to choose desired options while still maintaining the cost-effective benefits of the conventional assembly line.
Modularity is a strategy used by car manufacturers to introduce customization at the tail end of the mass production process. Different car models sharing identical components can be produced by identical processes right up until the final assembly, during which custom modules are added to give each model its unique look. The Czech Republic-based automotive manufacturing company TPCA is a joint venture that since 2005 has manufactured small Toyota, Peugeot and Citroën models that share a common chassis, engine, transmission and electrics. Differences between the three models mostly consist of small cosmetic touches added during the final stages of production.
The same modular component approach has also been successful in other industries to allow personalized touches. Companies like Apple, for instance, allow customers to add or subtract a limited number of components to their base model computers, iPads, iPhones and smart watches when they place an order. Companies like IKEA offer ready-to-assemble furniture that can be customized with various options for fabric covering, leg type and wood stain color.
The greater the personalization abilities, the closer the end result comes to being bespoke — a term traditionally associated with custom tailoring that indicates objects fully made-to-order. Products falling into this category can even be reasonably priced — especially for motivated consumers, who may be willing to pay a premium upcharge and allow extra time for delivery of their custom creation.
Take, for example, the NIKEiD service offered by apparel company Nike. It gives customers the option to personalize various shoe parts, from bases to laces, with different colors, fabrics and design elements. Pricing varies by the options offered, and delivery takes three to five weeks — certainly longer than a trip to the corner shoe store, but with emailed progress updates designed to keep customers invested in their shoe creation process. The service was launched online in 2012 with 82 customization options for a single model of tennis shoe; it now includes multiple types of shoes, other types of sportswear, a mobile app and even physical stores with professionally trained designers available for customer consultation.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to maintaining cost-effectiveness in mass customization lies in the supply chain, where producing and delivering prearranged amounts of both raw materials and end products has long been the norm. Companies like Apple and Nike, of course, can capitalize upon the breadth of multiple factories and delivery systems working toward a common goal; smaller companies may not have that same luxury.
Yet innovations such as additive and laser-based manufacturing can reduce supply chain limitations. Rather than needing to wait for materials to be delivered, additive manufacturing (commonly referred to as 3D printing) can produce them as needed from a lean, on-hand supply. Likewise, customers equipped with 3D printing equipment can produce an end product from a supplied design file without the need to wait for physical shipment.
A Michigan-based industrial caster manufacturer, Caster Concepts, has embraced the mass customization concept to address the lack of standardization in the caster industry. A key part of the company’s approach is the use of laser cutting to replace the traditional process of stamping and welding. The resulting, competitively priced part is stronger; can be made to order in various materials and wheel sizes; and also can be delivered within seven to 10 days, as opposed to the three to five weeks’ turnaround time that is common in the custom caster market.
Another cost-efficient, mass customization strategy that makes use of laser cutting, 3D printing and other industrial manufacturing technologies is used by New Jersey-based eMachineShop. Rather than focusing on end products, the company provides a parts-making service that serves a wide range of industries and customers — from garage-based hobbyists to aviation giants and governmental bodies such as NASA and the U.S. Navy. The first and longest-established machine shop of its kind, it offers quick-turn machining of a single prototype to full-production runs.
Manufacturing has come a long way from mass production pioneer Henry Ford’s famous saying about a customer’s ability to have a car painted “any color he wants so long as it is black.” Today’s customer has grown to expect customizable options in a wide range of products, and companies that have leaned toward bespoke personalization have found success. This trend is likely to continue as technologies such as 3D printing and laser-based manufacturing become more common in the industrial space, and as the market continues to shift in a customer-centric direction.