Mass Customization And Technology
Startups that allow you to design your own products are often categorized as tech startups, because, as The Economist aptly pointed out, customization is a results of digitized manufacturing. Where and how does technology come into play in a mass customization business?
Technology has two major purposes in a customization business:
1) Make it easy to gather customer preferences with configurators
2) Make it cheap and efficient to produce the custom goods (with production technologies)
Configurators: Configurators are user interfaces that lets users share their preferences with the provider. For example, users choose between the different options of the “solution space”, e.g. toppings for your customized chocolate bars or leather versus cloth seats for a new Ford Focus. They also often provide an opportunity to upload images or enter information, such as sizes or a witty saying to print on top of a mug.
Some companies, often in the B2B space, try to configure products without configurators. The results are often long, arduous sales processes with engineers creating custom products from scratch every time. By providing an online (or even offline) configurator that allows to combine modules in an efficient manner, these companies can really move into the realm of mass customization.
Production technologies: Automotive manufactures, especially in Europe, have shown the way with CNC technologies. Essentially robots that can assemble a wider variety of configurations. Supporting these robots is sophisticated software that both ensures that the right part is provided to the robots at the right time (just in time), and also that the robot knows what needs to be done, without mixing up cars or other products.
As of late, a new technology has made the headlines: 3D printing. With 3D printers, it is possible to make highly customized things in a short time without the high set up cost. They have been used for a while in prototyping and for medical devices for example, but are becoming increasingly mainstream with companies like Makerbot or Shapeways showing how applicable 3D printers are to the consumer business. As the price of 3D printers is steadily coming down, it becomes cheaper to offer customized goods as well.