What’s Stopping Mass Customization?


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Mass customization is the once and future king. For decades, it has been touted as a future source of unique, personalized, and better fitting products for consumers and profits for companies. The idea is indeed seductive. Imagine a world where you can design your own shoes that fit you perfectly. Take a short quiz and you’ll get the perfect shampoo, made just for you. Mass customized gloves will be more comfortable than those meant to fit all.

Why Are There Few Custom Belts?

Mass customizing a design of a belt may be very complex, but a leather hole punch could give you the perfect size in a jiffy. The fact that belt fitting services are not commonplace, even though it would take a minute to fit you for a belt and the tool costs $20 should give us some pause. Everyone could get the perfect belt size and come back for diet-induced adjustments, yet this is not a reality. Belts come in different sizes with the holes made to suit none. You should remember this belt example when mass customization is discussed.

Consumer Behavior

In short, the simple answer to this blog post´s central question comes in two parts. Part 1: consumers behave in a certain way and we continue to thrive on this inertia. It is very difficult to change consumer behavior even if it is advantageous to them. If I buy a canned drink, it is easy to get me to switch to a new drink, a bigger can, or a new type of drink in a can, but getting me to make my own drink or buy soda in a bag may be higher. Even when seeing new things, many seek them well within the confines of the expected. Habits are often hard to break, hence the power that comes with using toothpaste every day or indeed one brand of toothpaste every day.

Misaligned Incentives

Part 2: one of the main reasons that mass customization has been slow to grow is a lack of aligned incentives. If I sell Gatorade why would I create a mass-customized product? It may make me win awards or hasten my promotion. But, it could also blow up in my face if it doesn’t work. It would be less risky for me to focus my efforts on a catchy new slogan. It would also be easier for Gatorade to come up with a better marketing campaign or new flavor to boost sales. Companies to do not often change their behavior and experiment in well worn paths. It will also be difficult to convince production managers to adopt the technology. They are rewarded when nothing goes wrong and the Gatorade keeps flowing without interruption and safety issues. Any change makes their work more risky. Also they are not rewarded for this risky change. Throughout companies and value chains we see this lack of incentives in concert. A company has needs as does their supplier and there are imbalances and information asymmetry. Supermarkets may also be wary of mass customized Gatorade lest it be a way for the firm to bypass retailers in the future by forging direct retail to customers. Within the system of the supermarket itself, supermarket profitability often depends on shelving fees. Here retailers pay to have products displayed more prominently. A mass customization Gatorade machine may be difficult to implement in such a system for example. So mass customized goods can not simply be new things, cool things of alternatives. They have to fundamentally change the value proposition for the consumer in order to overcome inertia in consumer, corporate and market behavior.

A Mass Customized Future?

Decathlon offers in store customization with Twikit.

Mass customization software company Twikit has pioneered customization through 3D printing in bike handlebars, cars, golf clubs and orthoses. We asked their CEO Gijs Hoppenbrouwers what he thought about mass customization and its future.

“Personalization provides higher value to products. It enables companies to generate higher margins. To install local, on-demand digital manufacturing, added value for the consumer is key. If not, there will be no justification for a higher price ticket. In times of ‘de-globalization’ of supply chains, added value needs to be created with on-demand, personalized, local digital manufacturing. Mass customization in its true sense is sometimes an answer to digitize labour-intense craftsmanship with the benefit of scalability. With the Mass customization solutions Twikit provides, the value chain flips. A product is only being produced when it is sold first (as a digital model).

“To enable all this, end-to-end- digital chains from the customer experience up to digital manufacturing need to be in place. System integration for seamless scalable workflows is key. This remains a challenge still today. Progress is being made but there is still work to do on e.g. industry standards on data exchange.”

Active Armor casts made by Twikit.

The business logic Gijs sets out here seems very sound indeed. Production on demand and scalable craftsmanship are important elements that could be drivers of future profitability and growth. We turned to Trinckle´s Head of Business Development and Sales Ole von Seelen for more insight. That firm has created apps such as Fixturemate for mass customized fixtures and software for mass customized grippers and copper inductors.

Customized copper induction coils for Protic by Trinckle.

Ole tells us that,

“In today’s fast-paced and competitive markets, catering to individual customer needs is a key driver for 3D printing adoption. This applies to personalized lifestyle products or patient-specific medical devises as much as tailored industrial components or low-volume jigs, fixtures and tools.The chance to maintaining cost and time efficiency for low-volume production is the central asset of AM technology. While most attention is focused on the manufacturing side, at the same time, however, organizations often neglect the need to establish a cost-efficient and scalable design process behind the scenes. Customization applications can only become killer-business cases for AM if we create seamless integrated and optimized processes covering both, design and production alike.”

Ford’s unique shaped wheel locking nuts are safer and based on the owner’s voice.

I love Trinckle´s focus on business to business customization and really think this is an overlooked segment. The focus on cost savings could also, especially in today’s economic climate be an important factor. In the end both of these experts are focused on the work of seamless integration and end to end digital chains.

Connecting the Chain

If we are to make mass customization a reality and overcome behavioral and corporate resistance it is clear we need robust and scalable solutions. We need to have standards, low cost processes, save money, produce profits and work together with manufacturing processes. If we have this in place on the software side of things then we could see real movement in mass customization now. Business leaders need to have the confidence in mass customization processes and tooling in order to reduce risk to them. This will make mass customization processes more palatable to them and increase the number of companies exploring this topic, in depth and for real. Confidence in companies executing on mass customization and well established tool chains could therefore be key to unlocking a mass customized future.

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