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Paul T Kidd's Mass Customisation Pages
Customisation - en Mass or Otherwise?
Customisation - en Mass or Otherwise?
The following article by Paul T. Kidd, appeared in the IEE News, December, 1996.
Mass customization - what is it and is it important? These were some of the questions explored at a colloquium, organized by the IEE's Next Generation Manufacturing Enterprise Working Party, held at Savoy Place on September 10th. Presentations included two case studies describing implementation of customised manufacturing at Raleigh Bicycles and Charles Letts Diaries.
By accident, the timing of the colloquium coincided with the launch in Britain of Levi Strauss' "Personal Pair Service" - manufacture and delivery of made-to-measure denims. Levi Strauss is regarded as a pioneer in mass customisation, combining economies of scale of mass production with the personal service of bespoke tailors.
Mass customisation is one of those terms which invites individual interpretation. First coined in the United States in the mid 1980s, the term can mean different things to different people. Sometimes it seems to be used simply to mean a lot of customisation. Other times it is specifically applied to the mass production of individually customised products - volume production with lot sizes of one.
Behind the buzzword, the growing hype and the numerous interpretations, there is however a serious issue. How can one actually achieve cost effective customisation? The lessons emerging from the case studies presented at the colloquium clearly point towards the possibility of using new technologies and flexible organisations and people to control the costs traditionally associated with proliferating variety.
But customising jeans, diaries and bicycles is one thing, customising more complex products such as automobiles is quite another story. State-of-the-art in the auto industry would be better described as mass personalisation through accessories and factory fitted options. Rover, for example, operate a computerized system in their showrooms called DiSCUS which allows customers to build up the precise product they require from the Rover range. However, Rover still manufacture bottom end vehicles in each model range to market forecast.
The main value of DiSCUS lies not in configuration, but in showing customers what is available and what the car of their choice looks like. A benefit from this is that Rover dealers do not need to hold large stocks of vehicles and then have to cajole customers into buying a particular vehicle that does not really match what they want. So DiSCUS is really about providing a better quality and more friendly customer service based on trust.
Moving beyond personalisation, one could envisage automobile firms undertaking styling and dimensional changes to vehicles to satisfy individual customer requirements. But an affordable capability to do this is still a long way off, although major vehicle manufacturers are working on this problem. What remains to be seen however, is the level of consumer demand for such a degree of customisation.
Customisation, en mass or otherwise, is increasingly what manufacturing companies need to deliver if they want to stay in business. Contrary to popular belief however, the main driver for customisation seem to be mainly supply side rather than demand side driven. What we are seeing is the emergence of what could be called a niche production economy. A characteristics of the associated business environment is a condition called market turbulence, which points to the need for agility - and that's another widely (ab)used term subject to different interpretations (The issue of agility is dealt with elsewhere on this website - agility home page)
Mass customisation and agility are both issues that will be increasing addressed as people wake up the fact that business conditions have changed so drastically that tried and tested methods no longer seem adequate. This naturally leads to the question of what the next generation of manufacturing enterprises will look like. This is the remit of the working party that organized the mass customisation colloquium - to look beyond current best practice in manufacturing and to explore the emerging frontier of solutions to tomorrow's needs and problems.
Some of Paul T Kidd's Books
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