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Mass customization requires new product-development strategies

Raghuram Mocherla
28 Nov 2022

The benefits of mass customization are significant but, to succeed, most manufacturers require better collaboration and digital continuity across order management, design, engineering, and production teams.

Manufacturing plants have been designed for more than a century to maximize mass-production capabilities. The ability to quickly produce large volumes of identical products – called manufacture-to-shelf – created efficiencies, improved quality, and lowered costs, giving factories many advantages over labor-intensive custom methods.

However, mass production left little room to tailor products for specific customers. Modern manufacturing technology – for example 3D prototyping, over the air updates – has changed that and mass customization is now a viable approach, one that creates a competitive edge that few manufacturers can afford to ignore.

More choice makes customers happier

Increasingly, consumers and business clients today demand personalized products – and manufacturers are responding. For example, most automakers now design software-defined components that allow them to tailor instrumentation, controls, cabin lighting, and other features to each buyer’s preferences. Mass customization also enhances products that do not contain software; it’s what allows shoemakers to offer each style in greater variety – including half-sizes and a choice of widths, the configure-to-order method. The capital goods industry, like turbines, boilers, and other industrial machinery, always operated using the engineer-to-order method.

Regardless of the product, these choices must be built in at the design stage. Manufacturers must also determine which customizations will be available only at time of purchase and which the end user may undertake later.

It also means manufacturers must become more agile, to quickly assess the success of various customizations and adjust designs accordingly. This often requires reimagining the design parametrically and operation of production lines to make them more flexible. It also requires the company to establish methods to collect product data and deliver it directly to the design team.

Better data enables higher quality

This data allows designers to identify and act on issues – regardless of when in the product lifecycle they arise. Companies need to know whether a product is being manufactured according to design and whether it functions as intended. Once a customer buys the product, it’s valuable to learn how it’s being used and to gauge customer satisfaction. With this information, companies can trace an issue back to its source – whether it’s design, engineering, or manufacturing – and take steps to improve the product. Longer term, these insights can significantly improve both production methods and product quality, and enable manufacturers to quickly pivot to take advantage of changing customer preferences.

Strategies for success

Many companies understand the value of mass customization but are not sure how to enable it on the factory floor. Based on my work with Capgemini clients, here are some strategies that can help any manufacturer successfully make the transition.

  • Assume your products will benefit: Conversations about mass customization tend to focus on high-value, complex, technology-intensive items such as automobiles and electronics. Companies that do not make these might dismiss mass customization, believing it does not apply to their business. But almost all manufacturers make products that can benefit if they apply modular product strategy and product attributes and a parameters-based approach.
  • Appoint a champion: This is arguably more important on factory floors, which have traditionally been resistant to change and operated in the same, proven way for decades. Prepare the factory floor for rapid tool changes and adapt modern digital tools to enable change management.
  • Secure buy-in across the organization: Embracing mass customization requires more than changes to the shop floor. Design, engineering, and manufacturing operations must create new linkages to share and act on data. Sales, marketing, and after-sales service must become familiar with a broader range of products and options. IT must establish the new feedback loops required, while Human Resources must plan new training programs. All stakeholders must be on board with the transformation for mass customization to succeed.
  • Plan for privacy: Mass customization requires collecting customer data. It’s important to get in front of regulatory issues so customers are confident their privacy is being respected. In addition, business customers may have concerns around intellectual property that must be satisfied.
  • Don’t go it alone: Mass customization offers many potential rewards but introducing it can raise significant issues. Transforming a factory while continuing to manufacture products can make the process even more challenging. Manufacturers have a long tradition of attempting to solve issues by themselves -but that can be time consuming, potentially expensive, and prone to failure. Successful programs happen when companies collaborate with partners who have demonstrated through their track record that they have mastered the technologies and business processes involved.

Mass customization technology is readily available and partners such as Capgemini are ready to help manufacturers implement it – at speed, at scale, and in a global fashion. I would be pleased to discuss how it can be applied to your manufacturing operations, to enable your company to provide more desirable products to your customers.

Meet the author:

Raghu Mocherla

Vice President, Engineering R&D