Mark Proctor discusses the potential of mass customisation for the manufacturing industry
In 1993, Levi Strauss pioneered the idea of mass customisation by offering custom jeans, but the idea didn’t take off.
Changing customer attitudes towards mass marketed products and advances in technology has led to the wider introduction of mass customisation – a way to produce customised products without compromising on efficiency.
The term mass production describes a manufacturing line that produces a large quantity of identical products as efficiently as possible.
Traditionally, this involved many employees working on individual stages in the manufacturing process, as opposed to building an entire product from start to finish.
In recent decades, manufacturers have increasingly replaced humans on the production line with automated systems. This method allows companies to manufacture high volumes of standard products.
Henry Ford, one of the pioneers of mass production, famously described it in the following quote: “the customer can have it painted any colour he wants, as long as it’s black.”
Ford enabled the efficient manufacturing of standardised, affordable cars, which reduced the entry barrier to car ownership. Suddenly, cars were affordable to the general public, not just to the privileged few.
The mass production of identical objects still resonates throughout industry to this day.
However, as customisation technologies emerge and demand for bespoke products increases, manufacturers are looking towards bespoke manufacturing to differentiate themselves. In today’s fast-paced environment, manufacturing companies need flexibility to adapt to market conditions and stay competitive.
Mass customisation combines features of mass production and bespoke designs, which means that products can be adapted to suit each individual without affecting efficiency.
Mass customisation can involve a company designing entirely bespoke items from scratch, or having a core set of product components with customisation options.
For example, brands such as Nike and Puma offer an option to design custom shoes, so the wearer gets the exact design they wanted from a basic range of combinations.
In the manufacturing industry, mass customisation can increase a manufacturer’s appeal to a wider range of businesses. To open itself up to a new customer base, a manufacturer could take advantage of technologies simplifying the introduction of mass customisation.
Technologies driving mass customisation
Software development is crucial to the mass customisation process. Product lifecycle management (PLM) systems that can integrate with enterprise resource planning (ERP) enable companies to establish how product customisation can change business performance.
As well as software, new production methods are also lending themselves to mass customisation, enabling unit level customisation and shorter production runs.
For example, additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies are increasing in sophistication and this is aiding the adoption of mass customisation.
To additively manufacture a custom part, a designer can use computer-aided design (CAD) to produce a virtual twin of the physical product. Increasingly automated software is now available to make this process easier.
The engineer can send the optimised CAD design directly to an additive manufacturing system and - voila! – the bespoke part is made in record time.
Already this technique is used to produce a range of custom items from bespoke medical implants to aeronautic equipment.
Streamlining the process
Smarter analytics can streamline production processes and provide new information to plant managers for optimising production. Manufacturers can introduce predictive analytics to ensure parts approaching the end of their life are ordered from a reputable supplier, such as EU Automation.
Increasing software and production capabilities are making mass customisation a reality.
However, for mass customisation to be profitable, a company must consider how to implement the technology in the most efficient and sustainable manner.
To succeed, a company should consider customer requirements, competition and available technology, including software and hardware; a lot has changed since 1993.
Mark Proctor is managing director of obsolete industrial equipment supplier EU Automation.