How Mass Customization Is Delivering on Its Long-Promised Rewards Technology, social media, the Internet and logistics are converging to produce the first successes of an idea envisioned a generation ago.
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From handcrafted leather shoes to delicate hand-woven linens, the pre-industrialized world allowed the skill of the worker to reflect in every manufactured product and resulted in unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that we'd call "designer" today.
However, the rampaging wheels of scientific progress meant that mass production was waiting around the corner. Gutenberg's printing press, James Watts' steam engine, Henry Ford's assembly lines in Detroit and the introduction of electricity, all came together to change the face of production forever. Customization was soon left to watch from the sidelines as mass production built economies and empires. Goodbye home-baked pies, hello Dominos!
Neither was without its pros and cons. While custom production was perfectly suited to the customer tastes, it resulted in expensive products, limited in quantity and hard to standardize. On the other hand, one-size-fits-all mass produced goods lacked the character of custom products, but were much cheaper to produce in large numbers.
The dream of 'mass customization' is born
By the end of the last century there arose between these two extremes a new vision for manufacturing -- mass customization. The dream was to bring the best of both worlds together, the personalized products and experiences of customization and the efficient manufacturing practices of mass production, to create a win-win scenario for both buyer and seller.
While Dell achieved its early glory through mass customization of PCs in the early 1980s, not too many brands could replicate its success. By 2008, the realities of a tough economy and wafer-thin margins made Dell, the forerunner of mass customization until then, give up on the idea and move on to mass production like everyone else in the computing space.
Researchers from the early nineties through the 2000s proclaimed mass customization the future of manufacturing. The biggest factor holding back these theories from becoming reality was the absence and proliferation of the right technology.
Mass customization is now a reality. I see this happening in three broad forms.
1. Personalized mass-market products
Mass customization calls for a key role in the product design process by the end user. To create unique products for each customer also requires robust inventory management and logistics.
Ecommerce sites offer personalized user experiences and product recommendations based on browsing habits, purchase history and profile data. Users can now design products from scratch, pick their favorite colors and embellishments, and customize even shipping and delivery to make the entire process seamless. Retailers like CafePress and Zazzle that only sell personalized products, and ecommerce site search-and-recommendation engines such as Unbxd, exist on the premise of mass customization.
Retail customization does not end online. Solutions (LINKETT is one) involving touch screens and interactive kiosks based on NFC technology upsell personalized products inside stores. Walmart has emerged as the big daddy of in-store customization, boasting everything from function-specific machines like an automated key duplicator to apps that allow shoppers to search in-store inventory.
Maintenance and repair services aren't far behind. Broke a component of your DVD player? Walk into your friendly neighborhood 3D-printing store and get a brand new part custom-printed, right in front you, in a matter of minutes!
2. Designer luxury for the masses
There was a time when the only way to lay your hands on a Fendi clutch or Hermes scarf was to visit the flagship outlet or a luxury store, like Nordstrom or Harrods. However, designer brands are now going digital. Heritage luxury brand Burberry tripled sales in five years, when the entire industry was growing at measly rates.
Burberry's stellar performance has been attributed to its digital strategies like Burberry Bespoke, which allows users to design their own coats in the distinctive Burberry style.
It's not just established luxury brands that are letting users play designer. Emerging players and made-to-order suit makers such as OwnOnly are bringing Saville Row to the web by letting customers choose their style and cloth material, feed in precise measurements and create custom designed suits from scratch.
3. Personalized media
The millennials are the first generation that prefer digital media over traditional media, like magazines and television. Newspapers printed one or two editions a day and their whole subscriber base got the same news irrespective of individual interests. Millennials today get their news from heavily personalized, mobile portals like Flipboard and Google News.
Cookies and user behavior tracking algorithms mean that Google, Facebook and Twitter "adapt" the content they display to each user's unique browsing habits and show them results that are relevant to their tastes and personality.
Mass customization isn't an aberration anymore. Soon it will be as de rigeur as product returns and exchanges. The explosion of social media and the growth of user generated content will only accelerate this process, ushering in new normals in manufacturing.
Related: Turn Design-on-Demand Into Profits