Mass Customization – A Viable Option for Small Manufacturers

Mass customization is a mixed mode of manufacturing consisting of characteristics from both mass production and make-to-order production modes. Software solutions such as product configurators make mass customization available even to small manufacturers.

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What is mass customization?

Mass customization is essentially a mix of mass production and make-to-order manufacturing modes. It consists of mass-producing the goods and modifying them according to customers’ specific wishes. Mass customization can also be used to describe assemble-to-order/configure-to-order manufacturing processes where readily available components are used to build iterations of a product according to the customer’s specifications.

Employing mass customization in a manufacturing business can ensure a lower cost per unit than building traditionally tailor-made products, all while still providing a certain degree of customization. The options offered by mass customization companies can range from small tweaks to color/size/material options to configuring entire products from available components.

Joseph Pine, author of the groundbreaking “Mass Customization: The New Frontier in Business Competition”, used the concept to address the issue of companies becoming overly customer-centric, i.e. trying to fulfill every customer’s wishes. With the ever-increasing diversity of customers and their needs, this highly customer-oriented approach would prove to be a pitfall of increased costs and complexity.

Today, mass customization has become a viable approach for small manufacturers thanks to information technology and 3D printing.

Read more about Make-to-Order and Assemble-to-Order Process Flow and Best Practices.

The four types of mass customization

Pine (1992) distinguishes four primary types of mass customization: collaborative, adaptive, transparent, and cosmetic.

Collaborative customization is based on interactions with the customers who detail their needs and specifications. These are then used to create the customized products. For example, a company could have a product configurator on their website which the customers could use to configure a product to their own taste.

Adaptive customization means producing a standard product that the customers themselves can modify. These include programmable electronic devices, blank canvas clothing items, customizable bicycles, and adaptive cosmetics.

Transparent customization is an approach that is only now, with the advent of internet cookies and data collection, coming into its own. It means creating a custom product for a client without them knowing it. As for now, this technology is still fairly limited, but you might have already seen advertisements on the internet that promote a t-shirt or a mug with an image you recently searched for on Google. In the future, these solutions could become so advanced that you can use them to offer any kind of custom products to people that have never even heard of your business.

Cosmetic customization creates products that are identical on the inside but different on the outside. The exterior part is varied for different market segments (or even different individuals). A good example would be the Coca-Cola marketing campaign “Share a Coke”. During the campaign, Coke included people’s names on the labels to create a personal relationship with shoppers.

Mass customization with a Product Configurator

Using a product configurator is one of the best ways to bring customers into the process of value creation while still retaining short lead times characteristic of mass production. Product configurators allow for individual offerings and a shopping experience that may lead to greater customer loyalty. They can also reduce overproduction and errors in the ordering process.

Product configurators can be operated by:

a) sales employees that get input from the customers and configure the BOM of the product based on that input;

b) the customer via software solutions or a company web page.

Product configurators can work on various principles. The easiest-to-use product configurator is the Matrix BOM that allows parts of a product’s bill of materials to be modified by choosing different parameter values. The final BOM is then put together according to the configuration. This is how the product configurator of MRPeasy operates.

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For example, garment manufacturers could have variations in color and size, computer manufacturers could offer a machine with variations in RAM or storage space, food and drink producers could manufacture goods in bulk and then use different standard packages.

Thanks to integrating with various e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, WooCommerce, and BigCommerce, MRPeasy’s product configurator makes it easy to include the customer into the value-creation process by offering customization options already on your company’s web page.

Another type of simple product configurator is the custom product designer that is often used by print shops. Within these configurators, customers can add text or images to a blank product such as a t-shirt or a coffee mug. The designs are then forwarded to the production personnel who will create the final product.

There are also other, more complex solutions available for more intricate products, allowing for production drawings, 3D designing, etc.

Benefits of using a Product Configurator

Using a product configurator can have many benefits for a business. It can aid in:

  • Reducing lead times
    By offering clear-cut features and parameters for the customer to choose from, the product configurator is able to quickly produce a BOM where all the parts fit. This eliminates the need for a salesperson or product designer to process the customer input to determine the most viable specification. As a result, you will see a reduction in lead times and a greater speed and accuracy in quotations.
  • Reducing errors
    With the customer deciding on the parameters of the product and the BOM software converting the sales order to a manufacturing order, there will be less chance for communication errors that could affect the outcomes.
  • Keeping BOMs organized
    Having BOMs with parameters will drastically tidy up documentation related to different builds. Instead of hundreds of separate BOMs, you will have BOM families with different variants.
  • Creating new standard products
    Collecting data about the specifications of the custom products customers have ordered from you allows you to identify combinations that are ordered more often. You can then turn these into standard offerings.
  • Retaining customers
    Offering unique products with value added by the customers themselves is a surefire way to create a memorable purchasing experience. Add to that short lead times and good prices and you will have a recipe for great customer retention.

Key takeaways

  • Mass customization is a mixed mode of manufacturing consisting of characteristics from both mass production and make-to-order production modes.
  • Employing mass customization can ensure a lower cost per unit than building traditionally tailor-made products while still providing a fair amount of customization options.
  • Today, mass customization has become a viable approach for small manufacturers thanks to different software solutions and 3D printing.
  • There are four different types of mass customization: collaborative, adaptive, transparent, and cosmetic.
  • Using a product configurator is a great way to have the customer collaborate in the product design process.
  • Product configurators rely on set options or rules to create the BOM of a customized product.
  • Implementing a product configurator can help a mass customization company reduce lead times, improve quote accuracy, reduce communication errors, organize BOMs, create new standard products, and create customer loyalty.

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