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Democratization of Customization PUBLIC ACCESS

Mass Customization is Part-Way Here; When the Rest Will Arrive is Anyone's Guess.

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Mechanical Engineering 131(04), 30-33 (Apr 01, 2009) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2009-APR-3

This review discusses growth of mass customization since the mid-1990s of the commercial and engineered products. Almost all types of durable consumer products, including clothing, footwear, household furnishings, toys, vehicles, and electrical and electronic devices can now be customized by the buyer at the time of purchase. Mass customization is when something is efficiently customized on demand—not in advance—and it does not cost a heck of a lot more to make than it would if one were making it for everyone at once. Designers who use Shapeways create their models using the free Google Sketchup or the Rhino modeling programs, though Shapeways also offers its own Shapeways Creator program. These simple design tools—along with 3D printing techniques—have played a big role in bringing mass customization methods to the fore. Future prospects shows that the Internet will facilitate a new wave of mass customization, where customers will create and trade designs for physical products in the same way they trade music files.

Though mass customization has grown since the middle 1990s, thanks in large part to the Internet, an era of mass customized commercial and engineered products has yet to fully arrive.

When-and if-mass customization becomes commonplace is a matter of guesswork at this stage, according to the experts interviewed for this article. For one thing, much of what can be said of mass customization depends upon how you define it. And of course significant impediments to widespread adoption still remain.

If you look at the technique from the consumer's viewpointthe capability to buy exactly what you want at a price only slightly higher than an o.£f-the-shelf alternative-then mass customization has fulfilled its early promise, said Donal Reddington, who runs the Web site MadeForOne. corn, which is devoted to mass customization.

"Almost all types of durable consumer products, including clothing, footwear, household furnishings, toys, vehicles, and electrical and electronic devices can now be customized by the buyer at the time of purchase," Reddington said.

He's at work on a book about the new business models developing around three-dimensional printing, in which machines driven by computer files build objects layer by layer.

Still, today there's little in the way of true mass customization going on ,in its extreme definition-thatof producing a physical object for anyone in a lot size of one, said Frank Piller, co- director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Smart Customization Group. Many consumer companies today will personalize a T-shirt or a pair of shoes with the slogan or color scheme that a consumer specifies. But the company is still mass producing the basic T-shirt while varying its color or slogan to suit the individual buyer, Piller said.

But today companies of all sorts employ basic mass customization techniques as a part their business model, according to Piller, who is also a "professor of nlanagenlent and head of the Technology and Innovation Management Group at RWTH Aachen University in Aachen, Germany. And a number of engineering companies now take advantage of the Internet to offer what may-or may not-be termed mass customized products.

Quickparts of Atlanta provides instant quotes for the production of parts, based on uploaded CAD designs. Protomold of Maple Plain, Minn., can turn around low volumes of plastic injection-molded parts-again based on the customer's CAD designs-within one day.

Do these companies offer the capability to mass customize parts or products? Not really, said executives at both companies. But they both said they're getting closer.

"We have customers who want to go to market with ten versions of a product, and we can make the tooling cheaper and faster than ever before for them," said Brad Cleveland, Protomold's chief executive officer.

"We're enabling product-oriented companies to customize what they do, so we're an enabler of customization. I'm just not sure about mass customization," he added.

Cleveland and Quickparts' CEO, Ronald Hollis, predict that ten years down the line mass customization will be fully realized at companies like theirs.

Some companies now allow consumers to upload their 3-D models, which are then printed and shipped. This lamp was created by one such company, Shapeways.

Grahic Jump LocationSome companies now allow consumers to upload their 3-D models, which are then printed and shipped. This lamp was created by one such company, Shapeways.

Before we go further, a definition is in order. Joseph Pine laid out the concept in his book Mass Customization: The New Frontier in Business Competition (Harvard Business School Press, 1993).

In that book, Pine defined the technique as a company's capability to develop, produce, market, and deliver goods that feature enough variety and customization that nearly everyone can get exactly what he or she wants.

"Mass customization is when something is efficiently customized on demand-not in advance-and it doesn't cost a heck of a lot more to make than it would if you were making it for everyone at once," Pine said in interview.

He's now a consultant at Strategic Horizons LLC of Aurora, Ohio.

But Pine's definition can get a bit muddled, what with the growth of rapid pro to typing and related technologies such as 3-D printing. Is a rapid prototype an instance of mass customization? Does an object printed on a 3-D printer qualify?

If the printed piece is meant to be used as an end product-not a prototype-it's an example of a mass customized product, Pine said.

"I always believe words have meaning," he said. "It's called rapid prototyping because you're making a prototype."

But say you design an object using an online service like Shapeways ofEindhoven, the Netherlands? That company allows you to upload your own 3-D models. Shapeways prints your object on a 3-D printer and sends it to you. You've created your own custom product, Pine said.

To a man, the interviewed all cited Shapeways, which is actually a business incubator sponsored by Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, as an example of an innolvative company that uses 3-D printing to drive mass customization.

One expert likened eMachlneShop, top, to a Kinko's for machinery. Customers upload their CAD deSigns, center, and the company machines the customized parts, bottom, on ItS tools, including drills and laser lathes.

Grahic Jump LocationOne expert likened eMachlneShop, top, to a Kinko's for machinery. Customers upload their CAD deSigns, center, and the company machines the customized parts, bottom, on ItS tools, including drills and laser lathes.

Designers who use Shapeways can create models using various mode ling programs, including Shapeways' own Creator program.

Grahic Jump LocationDesigners who use Shapeways can create models using various mode ling programs, including Shapeways' own Creator program.

Designers who use Shapeways create their models using the free Google Sketchup or the Rhino modeling pro.grams, though Shapeways also offers its own Shapeways Creator program.

These simple design tools-along with 3-D printing techniques-have played a big role in bringing mass customization methods to the fore, Pine said.

"One of the keys to a mass customized product is a way to help customers figure out what they want even if they can't articulate it-like a design tool," he said.

But one still fairly young technology trumps them all in terms of making mass customization available to the masses.

"The Internet has really made a revolution in what's capable with mass customization," Pine said. "Companies can now reach millions of people at a small cost."

The Internet also provides access to those basic design tools that Pine spoke of.

The development of online configurators has also helped make customization available to consumers on the scale it has achieved today, Piller said. Software-based product configurators-built into a Web site itself-allow consumers to add or change features about a core product, such as a T-shirt or a pair of shoe.

Piller and Pine help maintain a research project called Configurator Database at www.configurator-database. corn. So far, they've identified more than 500 organizations across 28 different business sectors that use online product configurators as part of their business.

Of the 500, about 350 allow customers to purchase the product they've designed, said Reddington, who follows the research on his own Web site.

"So it's safe to say that the choice is there for a customer to purchase a mass customized example of almost any product," he said.

SO far mass customization-of varying degrees-has supplemented mass production, Reddington said. So why, in this age of the Internet, hasn't it come closer to replacing mass production in both the retail and engineering sectors?

"The consumer society is very much based on the idea of gratification. I walk into a shop, see something I like, and walk out with a sense of satisfaction at having bought it," Reddington said.

"But the predominant mass customization business model that's gained root since the mid-1990s is the online model, which provided customers with the facility to go online and configure the product, order it, and get exactly what they wanted delivered after one week. Or maybe two or three weeks," he added.

You can see the problem here.

"With Shapeways, I came this close to getting something for my wife near Christmas, but I ran out of time," Pine said. "There's a time element to this."

Also, retail shopping has become a social outlet for many consumers, Reddington added.

"The alternative of going online at home to configure and order a product may not have the same appeal. There's no social element to the purchase," he said.

"So, looking back at the development of mass customization over the last ten years or so, we could argue that the prevailing use of online selling models by mass customizing enterprises has had the unintentional effect of slowing the overall adoption of mass customization," Reddington said. "There just hasn't been as much focus given to the development of technologies for in-store product configuration."

Don't forget about the many shoppers who just don't seek a product tailored to suit their exact needs and wants. They're happy to choose from the wide range of consumer products available today, he added.

But companies looking to implement a mass customized business model can find ways around these barriers, Pine said. For instance, consumers are already used to waiting for the products they've ordered online to arrive.

"So don't make that wait time a dead space," Pineurged. "Have a Webcam set up so your consumer can see the product being made. You can create an experience out of that."

Established companies-whether consumer, engineering, automotive, or in another sector-interested in implementing mass customization will need to reconfigure their value chain, a headache that can prevent them from moving to the new business model, Piller said.

The value .chain, a business term, is the chain of bus iness activities that adds value to the product.

"Reconfiguring a value chain that was originally conceived for volume production in order to accommodate a variable product mix can present a number of problems," Piller said.

The company may need to move to new suppliers and retool its supply chain technology to reflect new supply and distribution methods, never an easy undertaking, Piller added.

Despite the impediments to adoption, all the experts interviewed expect mass customization to grow.

"Going into the future, the Internet will facilitate a new wave of mass customization, where customers will create and trade designs for physical products in the same way they trade music files," Reddington said.

And not only will consumers find ever-more Internetbased design tools at their disposal, they'll continue to see advances in the capability to build their own products to their specifications, Piller said.

"A very interesting trend is something I called user manufacturing," he said.

Consider eMachineShop.com, which Piller likened to a Kinko's for machinery. The company machines customized parts based on CAD files provided by customers. Customers upload their designs to eMachineShop and the company machines them on its tools, including drills, laser lathes, and computer numerically controlled mills, Piller said.

"You select materials, you push a button, and you start a remote production process. Two days later, your design arrives at your home," he said. "So you have an entire machine park at your disposal."

Beyond user manufacturing, Hollis of Quickparts and Cleveland of Protomold both predict that over the next decade the cost of manufacturing will continue to drop such that custom manufacturing will become a given at businesses like theirs.

"The costs will go down so that today, where we can make a run of 10,000 parts, in ten years we'll .make one part for the same cost," Hollis said. Cost per piece, that is.

Rapid prototyping is viable business concept today for many engineering companies, Cleveland said, and that activity can be extended into the mass customization market.

"We've already shown a business model like ours, making parts quickly, has a tremendous amount of value," he said. "So ten years down the road, mass customization will no longer be a buzz phrase in industries like ours. It will be here."

One expert termed the trend of giving users the capability to design and machine their own parts-such as via eMachineShop-user manufacturing.

Grahic Jump LocationOne expert termed the trend of giving users the capability to design and machine their own parts-such as via eMachineShop-user manufacturing.

Copyright © 2009 by ASME
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