So you want a sofa, a three-seater, in green velvet, with no back but two tall armrests. Oh, and you want the armrests to be in the shape of Mimsy, your wheaten terrier. Such customization generally requires small-scale production—but maybe not for long.
“We believe the time for widespread, profitable mass customization may finally have come, the result of emerging or improved technologies that can help address economic barriers to responding to consumers’ exact needs in a more precise way,” write Anshuk Gandhi, Carmen Magar and Roger Roberts, all of McKinsey, in an article on the company’s website.
The authors identify a number of factors that make customization today easier, including “online interactive product configurators” (i.e., pick your options online), “3-D scanning and modeling” (with your body scanned, we can tailor your clothes) and “flexible production systems.”
“The technology platforms that come together to enable mass customization,” they conclude, “could rejuvenate stagnant markets and help companies pioneer new opportunities that deliver attractive growth and margins.”
Reconfiguring manufacturing for greater flexibility and customization was something Peter Drucker promoted strongly. In a 1990 essay that appears in Managing for the Future, he explained, “Manufacturing people tend to think like Henry Ford: You can have either standardization at low cost or flexibility at high cost, but not both. The factory of 1999, however, will be based on the premise that you not only can have both but also must have both—and at low cost.”
To achieve this would require nothing less than restructuring manufacturing. “Today’s factory is a battleship,” Drucker wrote. “The plant of 1999 will be a ‘flotilla,’ consisting of modules centered either around a stage in the production process or around a number of closely related operations.” The result: Each module would enjoy “the benefits of standardization” while allowing “the whole process greater flexibility.”
As for progress on that front, it was not swift: “No such plant exists today. No one can yet build it,” Drucker noted. Predicting it would be common by the year 1999 also proved to be a little optimistic.
But perhaps the world of manufacturing is finally ready to make major moves toward customization, as Drucker envisioned a decade and a half ago and McKinsey envisions now. Something to ponder over your triple-shot, no-foam, decaf, skim latte with one and a half sugars.