Software development and new production methods are lending themselves to mass customisation in manufacturing, enabling 'engineering to order' and shorter production runs, writes Mark Proctor

In 1993, the American clothing company Levi Strauss & Co pioneered the idea of mass customisation by offering custom jeans, but the idea did not 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. Industrialist and founder of the founder of the Ford Motor CompanyHenry Ford, was one of the pioneers of mass production. He famously described it in the following quote: “The customer can have it painted any colour he wants, as long as it is 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. The question that manufacturers face is how to balance producing customisable products and maintaining good operating efficiency.

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.

Future of mass customisation

The smart customisation group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) predicts that by 2020, some 15 per cent of clothing purchased in America will be customised for fit, colour or style.

Historically, there were a range of different approaches to customisation to solve the ‘production versus personalisation’ challenge. One model is known as engineer to order (ETO), which involves developing products directly for clients and is commonly used in the aerospace and defence industries. These products are unique to each order, which means there is a lack of consistency and predictability and a large amount of engineering per order. This leads to tighter margins, which might not be suitable for all companies.

A contrasting approach to mass customisation is to have a set of product variants, where each variant is mass produced. This works to a significantly lower level of customisation than the ETO model and so will not be suitable for a company whose customers’ needs are unpredictable.

Companies are increasingly using a mass-customisation approach, where products are developed in a way in which a number of variations are possible. They can be dynamically configured by the customer during purchasing without a great deal of engineering input for each variation.

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.

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.

Technologies driving 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.

Smart supply-chains are also important for mass customisation. Most supply chains today are organised and designed for a specific, constant production rate, instead of being able to adapt to unforeseen demand. The smart supply-chain is essential for manufacturers that want to ensure their customised products reach the correct end-users.

In order for companies to succeed using this model, they must engineer their supply chain to improve visibility and flexibility. Visibility can be improved by introducing a number of digital sensors and smart tags to track products better. Increasing manufacturing flexibility reduces waste by taking an on-demand approach to production.

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.

A leader in mass customisation in the automotive industry is BMW, which uses flexible automated production lines to produce precisely configured vehicles. Multi-purpose, reprogrammable, collaborative robots mean that custom products can be manufactured almost as efficiently as traditional automation methods, with robots switching between different variants or models. Other automotive companies such as Hyundai and Tesla have also adopted similar techniques.

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 the managing director of obsolete industrial equipment supplier EU Automation
Twitter: O'RiordanMech3D Printing,industry,manufacturing,software
In 1993, the American clothing company Levi Strauss & Co pioneered the idea of mass customisation by offering custom jeans, but the idea did not take off. Changing customer attitudes towards mass-marketed products and advances in technology has led to the wider introduction of mass customisation – a way...