Mass customization combines the efficiencies of mass production with the ability to customize individual products according to customer specifications. Previously limited to software and services, digital manufacturing techniques have made mass customization viable for physical products as well. This post dives into the definition of mass customization and explores the opportunities, challenges, and techniques surrounding this type of manufacturing system.
Prior to digital manufacturing solutions, mass manufacturing and customization were considered incompatible. Bespoke products were usually produced on a small scale, at a far higher cost. Digital manufacturing systems have enabled manufacturers to mimic the approaches seen in custom-made business manufacturing to target mass consumer groups’ wants and needs, rather than individual clients. Changes in products of service can be a small as variation in color, or complex as an entirely new product.
Collaborate: The producer collaborates with the customer to design a customized product. For example, the producer uses a software to design eyeglasses, including customer input on shape and size.
Adaptive: The product is designed to be adaptable: a base product that can be modified by a series of pre-defined choices, before going into production.
Cosmetic: This entails the same product presented differently. While the base product is the same, the customer has various offerings to adapt the product, such as color variations.
Transparent: The customer is unaware of the customization. Instead, the product has been tailored to their needs based on behavioral, usage, or demographic data.
The chief advantage of mass customization is the ability to produce bespoke products for the same cost-per-unit as mass production lines. More value is delivered to the customer, at negligible cost to the producer. Mass customization offers significant opportunities for differentiation, innovation, and disruption.
Used creatively, it can be used to great competitive advantage, offering ever greater levels of personalization, increasingly distinct from similar products on the market. The infrastructure required for mass customization also makes manufacturers markedly more agile in their operations, better able to respond to externalities, as well as trends in consumption, design, and technology.
By nature, mass customization is more complex than mass manufacturing, intermittent batch production or bespoke production. Ensuring you have the machinery, software, and skills for mass customization requires extensive, detailed pre-planning.
Mass customization capabilities do not come cheap either and the capital requirements present a significant barrier to entry, leading many producers to retain a less efficient approach founded on intensive use of skilled labor. However, over the long-term, the cost efficiencies and opportunities of mass customization enabled by digital manufacturing far outweigh the initial investment.
Products are increasingly customized using a self-service model that empowers customers to modify designs using browser-based online tools. The resulting product design can be fed through the production process automatically using product lifecycle management (PLM) software. The design files can then be translated into digital work instructions or machine paths as appropriate.
Advances in supply chain optimization ensure the necessary resources—materials, labor, and machinery—are available, by automatically adjusting according to requirements. Predictive analytics also help to attain the necessary uptime, changeover times, and overall efficiency to make mass customization economic—even on otherwise static production lines. The transition to mass customization can be challenging, but as product personalization becomes increasingly expected, adapting to the model becomes progressively more essential.