Mass customization was in the picture since the 80s. Now more and more brands offer customization options for consumers: from MiAdidas , Custom Converse , Dousaflavor , Mykea custom furniture prints, to personalized jewellery with Love-and-Robots and Shapeways.

The scope of mass customization includes a lot of interconnected concepts and technology tools. In this post I will outline these connections and give an overview of different approaches to mass customization as a retail practice. I will focus on customization of tangible consumer goods, rather than digital services; and give several examples of consumer brands which adopted product customization in most of its aspects via interactive web platforms.

To begin let’s define mass customization. The term was introduced by Stan Devis in “Future Perfect” and the first outline of the concept originated from “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler. Today there are various definitions of customization depending on the angle: some are focused on marketing tool, some on cost efficiency and other on design solutions.

A general definition of Mass Customization is the process of delivering wide-market goods and services that are modified to satisfy a specific customer need. Mass customization is a marketing and manufacturing technique that combines the flexibility and personalization of custom-made products with the low unit costs associated with mass production. [1] It is also defined as the method of “effectively postponing the task of differentiating a product for a specific customer until the latest possible point in the supply network” [2]

Classification of products based on customization was outlined in “Made-to-order: the rise of mass personification”

  1. Mass personification — products are mass produced but they can be modified by the business to meet consumer preferences identified through existing data about an individual.
  2. Mass customization — products are mass produced but consumer if offered some limited options of customization.
  3. Bespoke — the consumer is involved from the beginning to the end in the process of creating a unique product.[3]

If the first one mainly concerns services and experiences (Facebook feed personification, e-shopping recommendations and alike) the second two are the ones which influence the core of the manufacturing industry.

Consumer Demand

Various researches have evaluated changing expectations of consumers and rapidly escalating on-demand economy. “Consumer Product Trends” report indicates that custom products is the main direction consumer goods are taking in the next 5 years. Now customers are more aware of customization possibilities and “42% of consumers are interested in technology to customize products, and 19 % indicate a willingness to pay a 10% price premium to customize or personalize products they purchase.” [4]

Up until 10–15 years from now, an “idea to market” journey of tangible products would take very solid investment in prototyping and fabrication, and a great risk of producing in large quantities without guarantee of sales. Today manufacturing is changing its paradigm. We have moved to so-called Industry 4.0 and computerization of manufacturing. Industry 4.0 was firstly introduced by German government in a framework of high-tech strategy project and now is widely used to refer to a period from 2010 onwards. This infographic from “Industry 4.0 and manufacturing ecosystems: exploring the world of connected enterprises” illustrates 4 stages of industrial evolution.

One of the sides of Industry 4.0 is that more and more fabricators are moving from mass production to on-demand or cloud manufacturing models. To define MOD I will refer to following definition:

In the MOD model scalable and adjustable assembly and manufacturing processes work to complete customized packages based on real-time or current data from a client. Read mode [5]

In other words MOD is a manufacturing process where goods are produced as they are required. MOD model has a lot to do with advances in digital and especially additive manufacturing techniques: such as 3D printing, laser cut and CNC milling.

As Avi Reichental says in TED talk: “ With 3D printing, complexity is free. The printer doesn’t care if it makes the most rudimentary shape or the most complex shape, and that is completely turning design and manufacturing on its head as we know it.”

MOD is often combined with distributed manufacturing, a decentralized model where parts or entire products are fabricated locally in different facilities.

Product design and fabrication

Speaking about MOD we should mention several concept and tools which influence production:

Computer-aided design (CAD) — is a computer technology that designs a product and documents the design’s process. CAD may facilitate the manufacturing process by transferring detailed diagrams of a product’s materials, processes, tolerances and dimensions with specific conventions for the product in question.

Parametric Design — is a process based on algorithmic thinking that enables the expression of parameters and rules that, together, define, encode and clarify the relationship between design intent and design response, as Wassim Jabi defines it. It means that the change of one parameter of the product will lead to the change of another parameter according to the setting.

Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) — is an application technology that uses computer software and machinery to facilitate and automate manufacturing processes. CAM is the successor of computer-aided engineering (CAE) and is often used in tandem with computer-aided design (CAD).

Thanks to these tools prototyping and fabrication are now computerized on one hand and adapted to custom production on the other.

Optimization of manufacturing and new services

Not only big manufacturers adopt new models, but new services erupt to satisfy the needs of mass customization and assist MOD. These are two main types of companies and organizations which provide manufacturing-as-a-service:

  1. Fabrication services and marketplaces such as Ponoko, 3DHubs and alike.
  2. And of course the pioneers of digital manufacturing — Fabrication Labs associated with FabLab ecosystem

Fabrication prices of such services are very low, for example Ponoko offers Laser cut and engrave 12 coasters on a P2 sheet of bamboo for 50$, [6] it is likely to become even more cost efficient in the future.

Real time customer participation and interactive platforms

One of the tools which moved customization to the mass market are interactive product platforms. Usually based on WebGL or other web 3D frameworks, they offer user a real time interaction with a product and an instant revision of changes. These technologies revolutionized the consumer goods industry since they are able to truly engage remote customers into co-creation, without intermediaries and time-consuming interactions with designers and fabricators.

To give some examples I will refer to 2 companies which offer customization of their product: one uses 3D printing and the other CNC milling technology.

Love and Robots is an Irish startup which lets users customize jewellery and accessories in quite an unusual and even romantic way. They have several products and each one has specific customizations. If we take a case of Wind Pendant you can set up the location and a date which will pull out the meteo data and make the 3D model of a pendant move accordingly to the strength of the wind. You can pause the render and the pendant is ready to be printed in the shape of that particular moment. It comes in different materials and fabricated via 3D printing.

Tylco is a Polish company which produces customized furniture. Customers can interact with 3D models, change dimensions of the product and choose materials. Their furniture is fabricated via CNC milling, and for the moment it’s one of the most advanced platforms for furniture customization.

 

Ecosystems

As much as traditional manufacturing model was based on a certain infrastructure of actors, MOD requires more agents to take part and a different nature of their collaboration. First of all since MOD deals with unique product agents have to be responsive to changes and prepared for adaptation. Secondly, since products require modular parts and components manufacturers are opening their ecosystems for 3rd party suppliers and include them into different stages of production: from product design to delivery. The integration of suppliers as well as the coordination of cross-organizational production processes are critical success factors for mass customization. [7] “The future of manufacturing: making things in a changing world” gives an example of such a shift: “the drive for personalization <…> is pushing some manufacturers to rethink products as physical platforms, with each platform the center of an ecosystem in which third-party partners build modular addons.” [8]
Giving this complex infrastructure which support MOD, to function seamlessly it also requires an absolute connectivity of all the actors. Cloud data exchange applications assist these multiple-agents systems. New types of CRMs, operations, logistics and product inventory management were created and will be created in the next years. Check example of Dimension4: a young Belgium start-up. It operates an application which provides logistics, order processing and a nesting application to assist distributed manufacturing.

The Scope of mass customization

All mentioned tools and models shape the future of manufacturing and consumer products. More importantly they are interdependent: mass customization requires manufacturers to shift to MOD model, MOD advances because demand for custom goods is escalating, products need to be parametric to be customized and so on. Therefore advances in one of these areas provokes advances in others. To finalize, I want to suggest the following diagram of a scope of the mass customization domain.